"In the Garden" by Édouard Manet, 1870.
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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

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit: monbiot.com/music/

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood