Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère

When I heard that Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère had been selected as one of the nation’s ten greatest paintings, in the “National Greatest Painting in Britain Poll” run by the BBC Radio 4 Today programme and the National Gallery, I was delighted. What a boost this should give to our plans to increase the visibility of the Courtauld Gallery and its collections. Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire and Constable’s Haywain, not surprisingly, carried off the largest number of votes, and the Bar came an honourable third. Both Turner’s and Constable’s works are great icons of the British landscape tradition, Manet’s masterpiece clearly represents something else. It is popular with both young and old; it both fascinates and appeals to the wider public and it stands up to intensely debated art historical scrutiny. An essay on Manet is a key part of T J Clark’s The Painting of Modern Life (1984) – a volume that has had a central place in the scholarly debate on painting; in 1996 the Bar was the vehicle of an extended experiment in current art historical methodology in 12 Views of Manet’s Bar, edited by Bradford R Collins; in 2004; it was again the focus of debate in the Courtauld’s own collaborative exhibition with the Neue Pinakothek, Munich which brought Le Dejeuner and A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, face to face in both institutions.

To some, media competitions such as this may appear to trivialise an art which should be taken more seriously. But popular engagement is a critical part of our brief. Manet’s appeal, to all of us, undoubtedly rests not just in his technical skill as a painter, great though that is, but also in his double role as consumer and creative critic of a modern urban experience. Exploring the visual, conceptual and emotional ambiguities which this painting so brilliantly constructs is a wonderful entrée into the more abstruse world of art historical debate for those who may not yet know that this is their interest.

Dr. Deborah Swallow