"In the Garden" by Édouard Manet, 1870.
Show Hide image

The subtle sexuality of Édouard Manet

It would be impossible to paint “modern life” without touching on the touchy subject of sex.

To the left of the central figure in Édouard Manet’s The Luncheon (1868) there is a black cat, bent over its genitals – assiduously wheedling and scouring with its sandpaper tongue. Easily overlooked, it is a quiet variation on Rembrandt’s niggling, splayed dog in the foreground of his etching Joseph Telling His Dreams. Like Rembrandt, Manet was a realist painter. He was the friend of the realist writers Jules Champfleury and Edmond Duranty – his duel with Duranty notwithstanding. (Manet could be touchy: he publicly slapped Duranty, who had written a review Manet regarded as niggardly.) Zola, the begetter of naturalism, itself an alias of realism, was an indefatigable and trenchant supporter.

This absorbing show at the Royal Academy – composed mainly around Manet’s portraits – has the title “Portraying Life”, which neatly fuses the idea of the portrait with Baudelaire’s crucial coinage, “the painter of modern life”. In general, this entailed the embrace of the contemporary – stovepipe hats, pipeclayed spats – and a rejection of the antique plaster cast, which can stand for the set subjects, the safe syllabus of the academic painter. But in the case of Manet, “modern life” meant something more subtle, more understated than is generally allowed. This exhibition lacks many of Manet’s more notorious paintings, such as, for instance, Olympia, and is therefore a valuable provocation in a different way.

To return to Rembrandt’s etchings, there are several self-portraits in which Rembrandt strives to capture emotion – astonishment, anger, contempt – a little crudely; Sainsbury’s Basics, as it were. Manet’s best portraits are conspicuous refinements, subtly understated, less dramatic, more realistic.

In The Luncheon, Manet gives us a little, implicit, essayistic credo. Evidently set in his studio, to the left is costume bric-a-brac, props – a helmet, two swords, the old way. There is a coil of lemon peel, that standard flourish of expertise. There is an oyster shell – another test of skill – but here without the demanding mother-of-pearl. There is also a benchmark bottle of beer with a cork in it. A background figure is exhaling cigar smoke. At the centre is a young man, the 16-year-old Léon Leenhoff, son of Suzanne, Manet’s wife (née Leenhoff) – and possibly the son of either Manet or of Auguste, Manet’s father. (Suzanne was originally hired as a piano teacher for Manet’s two younger siblings.)

Léon’s enigmatic status is mirrored in his expression, which is often read as haughty but is neutral, occluded, giving nothing away. Its expression is without expression – and utterly convincing, a cul-de-sac of almost intimidating blankness that has us looking elsewhere for clues. At the hand bulging in the pocket of the corduroy trousers, at the straw hat with the black hatband, at the black velvet jacket – all perfectly painted. (Manet is said to have said that all colours existed except for black but he paints it better than anyone. “Black does not exist, that’s the first precept,” reports Gaston La Touche.) As a picture, it is the opposite of Rembrandt and an early marker of modernism’s central inquiry into the actuality of emotions – what we really feel, what we actually express, how much we withhold. It’s modernism as a riposte to romantic overstatement, as an insistence on accuracy. Less is more.

Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets (1872) is another case in point. She is boldly lit from the left, so half her face is brightly lit, while the other is in pronounced shadow. Again, there are Manet’s incomparable blacks – her piled hat, her scarf, her dress – and her brown hair, her ribbons, so casual, so beautifully natural. It is a portrait of unwavering conviction, from her earrings to the expression in her eyes. What makes this picture so alive? A small thing. A thing you hardly notice. Manet has painted her so that we can tell which is her leading eye. She is looking out of her left eye. It is nothing and it is everything.

Berthe Morisot (1868-69, 1870-71) repeats the casual hair. Her mouth is an inspired daub that brilliantly captures another neglected feeling – preoccupation. Her thoughts are elsewhere. It is a picture that illustrates two characteristics of Manet – the way he draws with paint (like his revered Franz Hals) and the way he trusts to suggestion and avoids the pedantry of finish. Here he uses a starved brush to paint her fur coat and her muff on its strings – differentiating perfectly between the pelts and the muff, the one a species of parquet, the other a big, beautiful burr.

Stéphane Mallarmé (1876) is a tiny masterpiece, showing the poet lolling against a cushion, a cigar in his right hand, the thumb of his left hand outside his jacket pocket. In reproduction, Mallarmé looks, I have always thought, a little bit pissed. The painting puts you right. This is a portrait of someone thinking – and it is all in the eyes once again, which have a look of distance, of inwardness, as they look down to the right. (When we are asked to do mental arithmetic, we look up to the right.) Again, the touch is virtually invisible – especially in reproduction and more so if you are accustomed to Rodin’s Penseur, demonstratively crouched at stool, fist to his forehead, a marble QED.

Another great painting is Portrait of M Brun (1879) – which superficially looks very disappointing. It shows a man with a grey top hat, blue frock coat and white linen trousers. His main features are his watch-chain moustache and button eyes. Hardly anything is happening, it seems. The whole picture is like the last pull of a worn-out plate. And yet Degas bought this from the dealer Ambroise Vollard when Renoir had identified its subject as M Brun. Why? Because it is a painterly feat by a virtuoso. Manet has brought off the impossible. He has painted a recognisable nonentity, a perfect nondescript, a rich nobody, who needed identification.

Interestingly, when Manet embraces finish and larger emotions, it is generally because he is painting thespians, whose I’s are underlined for emphasis. His Portrait of Émilie Ambre as Carmen (1880) is all kiss-curls and costume. Lit from the right, her eyelashes cast a pronounced shadow. The Tragic Actor (Rouvière as Hamlet) (1865) is a painting of acting by an actor. Manet knows they are bigging it up and paints the posturing.

One of the most unfinished portraits here is one of the most successful: Georges Clemenceau (1879-80). It shows Manet’s complete mastery of line and outline. On a background of grey, like a Banksy stencil, Manet lays down the unerring line of the lapel of his frock coat. The head is drawn rather than painted. The outline of the jacket torso is crucially confident. His arms are folded, his hair thinning, his speech on the balcony in front of him. Paul Levy said to me that the work of American artist R B Kitaj derives from this one picture. He is brilliantly right. Much of Toulouse-Lautrec is also implicit in the drawing-painting brushwork of Manet’s The Animal Painter La Rochenoire (1882). Painters owe a lot to Manet, who himself owes much to Velázquez, to Goya, to Ingres, to Hals. And, paradoxically, to the Old Masters, whom he remade.

In this show, we have not Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (1863) but a copy, an artist’s aidememoire, which has the status of a reproduction, useful to Manet perhaps but misleading for us. Manet’s picture, it is well known, is a reworking of a composition detail of Marcantonio Raimondi’s engraving of Raphael’s lost The Judgment of Paris. But what does this enigmatic, scandalous picture mean? How does it relate to modern life? We might begin with the syphilis that caused Manet’s amputated leg and brought about his early death at 51. Or we might begin with the juxtaposition of female nudity and clothed male figures.

In fact, we would be starting in the same place – the brothel. Think about Degas’s monotypes of brothels, where the only clothed woman is the Madame. Manet has cleverly rusticated this topos, blunted the obvious to mute the scandal, but the situation is clear. And the depiction relates directly to the portraits with their understated inflections. The two men take the nudity for granted. They are absorbed in what might be a discussion of philosophy. There is an atmosphere of relaxed gravitas. The woman transfixing the spectator can wait. In the brothel, nudity is ordinary, commonplace, the rule rather than the exception. And if you look at the naked body here, it isn’t sensational. There is no pubic hair, no nipples, no enticement. All the arousal is in her divested clothing spread on the grass. The excited appetite is implied in the overturned basket and its spilled contents, a wicker cornucopia. Which is perfect for the businesslike body of the sex worker before us, patiently waiting.

It would be impossible to paint “modern life” without touching on the touchy subject of sex. Manet’s Olympia (1863) tried the direct address – the barely defiant “so what?” of the courtesan, the sack artist, the cool professional – and ran into even more trouble. Yet these were paintings that referenced a commonplace of masculine life – the prostitute. What about murkier areas?

In his useful study of Manet, Alan Krell writes, “Nothing could be further removed from fancy dress, sexual commerce, and political intrigue than The Railway, the second of Manet’s two works in the Salon of 1874.” I disagree. We are in the realm of sexual commerce. The professional nude model for Olympia, Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, and The Railway was Victorine Meurent. After Manet’s death, fallen on hard times, she wrote to his widow seeking financial assistance. She was also the model for Street Singer (1862), an ambiguous figure on the margin of the demi-monde. With her guitar, the singer has just left a bar and is eating cherries from paper. Her petticoat is visible. Street singer or streetwalker?

Contemporary critics were puzzled by The Railway. Unsurprisingly, because the railway consists largely of background smoke. In the foreground, we have a young girl and Meurent looking straight at the viewer, her face an expressionless mask. In her lap she has a puppy and an unopened fan – both emblems, both clues, both related. Neither, I would suggest, innocent. The fan is waiting to be spread. She also has an open book in her lap. An index finger is keeping her place, inserted into the bare pages.

In MoMA in New York there is a Balthus painting of André Derain. In the background there is a nymphet provocatively raising her leg like Gerty MacDowell arousing Leopold Bloom on the beach in Ulysses. Derain is facing out to the viewer but shows, by a gesture, his awareness of what is behind him. He is wearing a white fly-fronted shirt and is poking his finger into its fabric, which is a synecdoche for a hairless fanny. Might not Meurent’s book be performing the same displaced symbolic function? In Renaissance painting, the same gesture was a demonstration of piety and learning. Typically evoked and mordantly subverted here.

The young girl faces away. She is looking through the railings. She has a big bow, giftwrapping her like a parcel. Her dress is inappropriate for outdoors. Her shoulders are naked. She is wearing earrings. Her hair is coiffed in an adult way. She looks like a grown-up. But her arm has visible puppy fat. To the girl’s right there is a bunch of green grapes resting on a vine leaf . . . I think we are in Jimmy Savile territory, in one of the intractable, unpaintable margins of modern life. Except that Manet has managed to paint it. The girl is for sale. Not so you would notice, unless you were looking. The painting keeps its counsel. It doesn’t denounce or declaim like a Zola. Its careful, realistically concealed innuendo is the merest whisper – audible only if you are listening very, very carefully.

“Manet: Portraying Life” is at the Royal Academy of Arts, London W1, until 14 April

This article first appeared in the 04 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Intervention Trap

Show Hide image

When it comes to responding to Islamic State, there is no middle ground

If Britain has a declared interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria, it is neither honourable nor viable to let others intervene on our behalf.

Even before the brutal terrorist attacks in Paris, British foreign policy was approaching a crossroads. Now it is time, in the words of Barack Obama, addressing his fellow leaders at the G20 Summit in Turkey on 16 November, “to step up with the resources that this fight demands”, or stand down.

The jihadist threat metastasises, and international order continues to unravel at an alarming rate. A Russian civilian charter plane is blown out of the sky over the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, killing 224 people, most of them returning from holiday, and the various offshoots of Islamic State bare their teeth in a succession of brutal attacks in France, Lebanon, Tunisia, Turkey and further afield. Our enemies are emboldened and our friends want to know to what extent we stand with them. The UK can no longer afford to postpone decisions that it has evaded since the Commons vote of August 2013, in which the government was defeated over the question of joining US-led air strikes against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime following a chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians. MPs’ continued introspection is on the verge of becoming both irresponsible and morally questionable. There is no fence left to sit on.

On Sunday night, two days after the Paris attacks, the French – with US support – launched a series of bombing raids against Islamic State targets in Raqqa. With much more to come, the choice facing this country may not be easier but it is certainly clearer. Britain must determine whether it wants to be a viable and genuine partner in the fight against Islamic State, and in the long-term efforts to bring an end to the assorted evils of the Syrian civil war; or whether we are content to sit on the sidelines and cheer on former team-mates without getting our knees dirty. We can join our two most important allies – France and the United States, at the head of a coalition involving a number of Arab and other European states – in confronting a threat that potentially is as grave to us as it is to France, and certainly more dangerous than it is to the US. Alternatively, we can gamble that others will do the work for us, keep our borders tighter than ever, double down on surveillance (because that will certainly be one of the prices to pay) and hope that the Channel and the security services keep us comparatively safe. There is no fantasy middle ground, where we can shirk our share of the burden on the security front while leading the rest of the world in some sort of diplomatic breakthrough in Syria; or win a reprieve from the jihadists for staying out of Syria (yet hit them in Iraq), through our benevolence in opening the door to tens of thousands of refugees, or by distancing ourselves from the ills of Western foreign policy.

That the international community – or what is left of it – has not got its act together on Syria over the past three years has afforded Britain some space to indulge its scruples. Nonetheless, even before the Paris attacks, the matter was coming to the boil again. A vote on the expansion of air operations against Islamic State has been mooted since the start of this year, but was put on the back burner because of the May general election. The government has treated parliament with caution since its much-discussed defeat in the House in summer 2013. The existing policy – of supporting coalition air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq but not Syria – is itself an outgrowth of an awkward compromise between David Cameron and Ed Miliband, an attempt to reverse some of the damage done by the 2013 vote in parliament.

The Conservatives have waited to see where the ground lies in a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party before attempting to take the issue back before the Commons. Labour pleaded for more time when Corbyn was elected, but there is no sign that the Labour leader is willing to shift in his hostility to any form of intervention. More significantly, he has now ruled out Labour holding a free vote on the matter.

If anything, the coalition of Little Englanders, anti-interventionists and anti-Americans in the House of Commons seems to have dug its trenches deeper. This leaves the Prime Minister with few options. One is to use the Royal Prerogative to announce that an ally has been attacked, and that we will stand with her in joining attacks against Islamic State in Syria. The moment for this has probably already passed, though the prerogative might still be invoked if Isis scores a direct hit against the UK. Yet even then, there would be problems with this line. A striking aspect of the killing of 30 Britons in the June attacks in Sousse, Tunisia, is just how little domestic political impact it seems to have made.

Another option for Cameron is to try to make one final effort to win a parliamentary majority, but this is something that Tory whips are not confident of achieving. The most likely scenario is that he will be forced to accept a further loss of the UK’s leverage and its standing among allies. Co-operation will certainly come on the intelligence front but this is nothing new. Meanwhile, the government will be forced to dress up its position in as much grand diplomatic verbiage as possible, to obfuscate the reality of the UK’s diminishing influence.

Already, speaking at the G20 Summit, the Prime Minister emphasised the need to show MPs a “whole plan for the future of Syria, the future of the region, because it is perfectly right to say that a few extra bombs and missiles won’t transform the situation”. In principle, it is hard to argue with this. But no such plan will emerge in the short term. The insistence that Assad must go may be right but it is the equivalent of ordering the bill at a restaurant before you have taken your seat. In practice, it means subcontracting out British national security to allies (such as the US, France and Australia) who are growing tired of our inability to pull our weight, and false friends or enemies (such as Russia and Iran), who have their own interests in Syria which do not necessarily converge with our own.

One feature of the 2013 Syria vote was the government’s failure to do the required groundwork in building a parliamentary consensus. Whips have spent the summer scouting the ground but to no avail. “The Labour Party is a different organisation to that which we faced before the summer,” Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, has said. It is ironic, then, that the Prime Minister has faced strongest criticism from the Labour benches. “Everyone wants to see nations planning for increased stability in the region beyond the military defeat of the extremists,” says John Woodcock, the chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party defence committee, “but after two years of pussy-footing around, this just smacks of David Cameron playing for time when he should be showing leadership.”

The real story is not the distance between the two front benches but the divisions within both parties. There are as many as 30 Conservative MPs said to be willing to rebel if parliament is asked to vote for joining the coalition against Islamic State in Syria. It seems that the scale of the Paris attacks has not changed their position. A larger split in the Labour ranks also seems likely. Even before Paris, there were rumoured to be roughly 50 MPs ready to defy their leader on this question.


At first, in the wake of last week’s attacks, it seemed as if the Prime Minister might force the issue. To this end, he began the G20 in Turkey with a bilateral meeting with President Putin. His carefully chosen words before and after that discussion, in which he was much more emollient about Moscow’s role, showed the extent to which he was prepared to adapt to the changing situation. Cameron hoped that if he could show progress in building an international coalition on the diplomatic front, that might just give him enough to get over the line in a parliamentary vote.

This new approach has not had the desired effect. At the time of writing, the government believes it is too risky to call another vote in the short term. It calculates another defeat would hugely diminish Britain’s standing in the world. In truth, the government was already swimming upstream. On 29 October, the Conservative-
dominated Commons foreign affairs select committee, chaired by Crispin Blunt, released a report on the extension of British military operations into Syria, in anticipation of government bringing forward a parliamentary vote on the question. The report recommended that Britain should avoid further involvement unless a series of questions could be answered about exit strategy and long-term goals. The bar was set deliberately high, to guard against any further involvement (even the limited option of joining the existing coalition undertaking air strikes against IS in Syria).

The most flimsy of the five objections to further intervention in the report was that it will somehow diminish the UK’s leverage as an impartial arbiter and potential peacemaker. This is based on an absurd overestimation of the UK as some sort of soft-power saviour, valued by all parties for its impartiality in Middle Eastern affairs. Britain cannot hope to have any influence on policy if it is always last to sign up while others put their lives on the line. As so often in the past, what masquerades as tough-minded “realpolitik” is nothing of the sort. It is just another post-facto rationale for inaction.

Although it is sometimes said that Britain has yet to recover from the consequences of the invasion of Iraq, the committee report had a retro, 1990s feel. Many of the objections raised to burden-sharing in Syria were the same as those raised against humanitarian intervention in the Balkans two decades ago, when Blunt was working as special adviser to Michael Rifkind as defence and foreign secretary, and the UK was at the forefront of non-intervention. Likewise, two of the committee’s Labour members, Ann Clwyd and Mike Gapes, were veterans of the other side of that debate, and strong supporters of the Nato intervention in Kosovo in 1999. They expressed their dissent from the report’s conclusions but were voted down by their Conservative and SNP fellow committee members. “Non-intervention also has consequences,” said Gapes when he broke rank. “We should not be washing our hands and saying, ‘It’s too difficult.’”

Polling figures have shown majority public support for air strikes against IS since the spate of gruesome public executions that began last year, but nothing seems to change the calculus of the rump of anti-interventionist MPs.

All this promises an uncertain future for British foreign policy. On 6 November, the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, suggested that the UK’s existing position, of joining the coalition in Iraq but stopping at the borders of Syria, is “morally indefensible”. The killing of Mohammed Emwazi, aka “Jihadi John”, by a US predator drone on 12 November demonstrates what he meant. Emwazi was a Briton who was responsible for the beheading of British and American citizens, as well as countless Syrians. While the UK government was closely involved in that operation – and has previously used the justification of “self-defence” to “take out” targets in Syria – such are the restrictions placed upon it that we are forced to ask our allies to conduct potentially lethal operations (which are in our core national interests) on our behalf. The very act of “self-defence” is subcontracted out once again.

How long can this last when Islamic State poses a much greater threat to the UK than it does to the US? There is an issue of responsibility, too, with hundreds of British citizens fighting for and with Islamic State who clearly pose a grave danger to other states.


The very notion that Britain should play an expansive international role is under attack from a pincer movement from both the left and the right. There are two forms of “Little Englanderism” that have made a resurgence in recent years. On the left, this is apparent in the outgrowth of a world-view that sees no role for the military, and holds that the UK is more often than not on the wrong side in matters of international security, whether its opponent is Russia, Iran, the IRA or Islamic State. The second, and arguably just as influential, is the Little Englanderism of the right, which encompasses a rump of Tory backbenchers and Ukip. This is a form of neo-mercantilism, a foreign policy based on trade deals and the free movement of goods that regards multilateralism, international institutions and any foreign military intervention with great suspicion, as a costly distraction from the business of filling our pockets.

The time is ripe for long-term, hard-headed and unsentimental thinking about Britain’s global role. The country is not served well by the impression of British “decline” and “retreat” that has gained ground in recent times; and it is no safer for it, either. Given how quickly the security and foreign policy environment is changing, the publication of the Strategic Defence and Security Review in the coming week, alongside an update of the National Security Strategy, is likely to raise more questions than it answers. The officials responsible for its drafting do not have an easy brief, and news forecasting is a thankless task. Strategic vision and leadership must come from our elected politicians.

For all the talk of British decline, we are still one of the five wealthiest nations in the world. What we do matters, particularly at moments when our friends are under attack. However, until a new broad consensus emerges between the mainstream Labour and Conservative positions on foreign policy, the Little England coalition will continue to have the casting vote.

Syria continues to bleed profusely and the blood seeps deeper into different countries. There will be no political solution to the civil war there for the foreseeable future; to pretend that there is a hidden diplomatic solution is to wish to turn the clock back to 2011, when that might have been possible. Nor is the security situation any easier to deal with. A few hours before the attacks in Paris began, President Obama gave an interview in which he argued that he had successfully “contained” Islamic State. For the wider Middle East and Europe, that is simply not the case. Now, France will escalate its campaign, and the US will do more. Russia already has troops on the ground and will most likely send reinforcements.

The war in Syria is becoming more complicated and even more dangerous. The best that can be hoped for is that the Syrian ulcer can be cauterised. This will be achieved through the blunting of Islamic State, simultaneous pressure on Assad, and the creation of more safe places for Syrians. All roads are littered with difficulties and dangers. Yet, in the face of this ugly reality, is Britain to signal its intention to do less as every other major actor – friend and foe alike – does more? If we have a declared national interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria – both because of the growing terrorist threat and because of the huge flow of refugees – then it is neither honourable nor viable to let others take care of it on our behalf.

John Bew is an NS contributing writer. His new book, “Realpolitik: a History”, is newly published by Oxford University Press

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror