Wednesday, March 31, 2010

On artists who write and writers who art: Part 5

Edouard Manet, 'Portrait of Stephane Mallarme'

Since writing on the subject of Manet and Baudelaire, I've been reading an excellent biography of Manet by Beth Archer Brombert, called 'Rebel in a Frock Coat'. I learned that Manet was also friends with two other significant French writers of the second half of the nineteenth century: Emile Zola and Stephane Mallarme (I know that there are supposed to be acute accents on two of those 'e's).

The friendship with Zola was even less of a communing of souls than that with Baudelaire. Zola, too, used the controversy surrounding Manet's methods as a stick to beat his political enemies with, but when it came to responding to Manet's work, he made condescending remarks about it being all colour patches with no thought behind it. Mallarme, on the other hand, wrote sensitively about Manet's painting, and in an essay published in 1876 he also provided direct reporting of Manet's words, gleaned from many visits to Manet's studio:

"Each time he begins a picture, says he, he plunges headlong into it and feels like a man who knows that his surest plan to swim safely is, dangerous as it may seem, to throw himself into the water . . . no one should paint a landscape and a figure by the same process, with the same knowledge, or in the same fashion; nor what is more, even two landscapes or figures. Each work should be a new creation of the mind."

The more I discover about these friendships, the more it seems to me that it was the painter who influenced the writers, by providing them with examples of how to portray modern subjects and then brave the rejection of a hypocritical bourgeois public.

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