on 20 July 2009
Like it or not, TJ Clark's The Painting of Modern Life nowadays stands as a classic when it comes to look at late 19th-century French painting and think about art in terms of modernity, in relation with the avant-garde, bourgeois culture and values, and the urban environment.
TJ Clark's analysis is heavily connotated with Marxist theory and ways of thinking, which directs demonstrations and arguments in stimulating ways - if nonetheless slightly predictable ones.
In any case, if you are interested in Manet, and the representation of modernity, this is one book which cannot be ignored and will have to be read, if only for the sake of the literature review.
Tim Clark, a Marxist, has hewed closely to a temperate, cultured version of the theory - no 'vulgar Marxist he - that makes for stimulating, if sometimes exasperating reading; definitely not for him the sonorous 'poetic' style of Walter Pater, critic-as-creator, nor the reader's pleasure as in Hughes . Like the more dogmatic Terry Eagleton in literature, he has the ability to write clear, unadorned prose yet chooses not to: he is either perverse or has good reasons for doing so. In fact his writing enacts the struggle in his chosen painters, including here the great Manet, one of the earliest to 'foreground' technique less to elide the distinction between form and content than to explore the enigmas of representation, perhaps as the picture plane is toyed with ('flattening') as well as the way Manet implicates the viewer in the painting, whether as the recipient of Olympia's direct look or in the paradox of the mirrored figure at the bar in 'Folies Bergeres'. Clark is thus the opposite of the late Bob Hughes, who is always clear, stylish and engaging. For Clark, painting, Manet's here of course, is a way into the nature of the society in which it develops, thus the agency of work lessens as the material conditions are placed to the fore. No doubt Clark, taking his cue from Baudelaire, (who coined the phrase from which this title's name derives is), is not easy but he is one of those writers who demands to be read and modern life is in a way its painting, or as much as it is anything. N.B. Have a look at Clark's interviews with Clement Greenberg filmed for the Open University in the 1970's, they show what a terrific, clear questioner the man can be and he brings the best out of the American eminence.
on 16 September 2008
The author has done considerable reseasch into Parisian life and culture of the 1870s and this is extremely interesting.
He elides this with a Marxist critique of various Impressionist painters. He looks extremely closely at several paintings and this can be interesting.
However Clark does not air his conclusions with much clarity. His ramblings can make very tiring reading.
Having waded through it, moreover, I feel his conculsions are often highly specious (especially on Manet's Bar at the Folies Bergeres).