Monday, September 5, 2011

So, step by step, you reach the Place de l'Opéra. It is here that Paris makes one of its grandest impressions. You have before you the façade of the Théâtre, enormous and bold, resplendent with colossal lamps between the elegant columns, before which open rue Auber and rue Halévy; to the right, the great furnace of the Boulevard des Italiens; to the left, the flaming Boulevard des Capucines, which stretches out between the two burning walls of the Boulevard Madeleine, and turning around, you see three great diverging streets which dazzle you like so many luminous abysses: rue de la Paix, all gleaming with gold and jewels, at the end of which the black Colonne Vendôme rises against the starry sky; the Avenue de l'Opéra inundated with electric light; rue Quatre Septembre shining with its thousand gas jets, and seven continuous lines of carriages issuing from the two Boulevards and five streets, crossing each other rapidly on the square, and a crowd coming and going under a shower of rosy and whitest light diffused from the great ground-glass globes, which produce the effect of wreaths and garlands of full moons, colouring the trees, high buildings and the multitude with the weird and mysterious reflections of the final scene of a fancy ballet. Here one experiences for the moment the sensations produced by Hasheesh. That mass of gleaming streets which lead to the Théâtre Français, to the Tuileries, to the Concorde and Champs-Elysées, each one of which brings you a voice of the great Paris festival, calling and attracting you on seven sides, like the stately entrances of seven enchanted palaces, and kindling in your brain and veins the madness of pleasure.

But modern art in its first manifestations—in the painting of Manet above all—did not accept the boulevards as charming. It was more impressed with the queerness of those who used them—the prostitutes, the street singers, the men of the world leaning out of their windows, the beggars, the types with binoculars. It wanted to paint Haussmann's Paris as a place of pleasure, particularly for the eye, but in such a way as to suggest that the pleasures of seeing involved some sort of lack—a repression, or alternatively a brazenness. The prostitute was seemingly an ideal figure for things of this kind, for she concentrated them in her person; and Manet like others took her to represent the truth of the city Haussmann had built.

*This last page or so of descriptions is not meant, incidentally, to amount to a judgment of the relative merit  of the pictures passed in review (still less to insinuate such a judgment without daring to state it out loud). The Calliebotte, for example, is in my view a lesser painting than the Degas, however much I may sympathize with its thoughtfulness. The requisite clichés are brought on stage a bit less glibly, but that does not save the picture from having the look of a rehearsal as opposed to a real performance. The value of a work of art cannot ultimately turn on the more or less of its subservience to ideology; for painting can be grandly subservient to the half-truths of the moment, doggedly servile, and yet be no less intense. How that last fact affects the general business of criticism is not clear. But one thing that does not follow from it, as far as I can see, is that viewers of paintings should ignore or deny the subservience, in the hope of thereby attaining to the "aesthetic." It matters what the materials of a pictorial order are, even if the order is something different from the materials, and in the end more important than they are.

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