Languid Contrasts

Visiting the exhibition Manet and Modern Paris, I witnessed a truly refined arrangement of Impressionist paintings. Before attending, I admit, I was slightly worried by the bold popularity of these artists, and therefore the easy commercial power they hold on the wide public. In other words, I feared to drown among tons of average-quality canvases. Definitely, I did not. The exhibition features masterpieces such as Manet’s The Balcony, Lola de Valence, Portrait of Emile Zola, and some lesser-known delicacies as Branch of White Peonies.

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I was struck by the well-organised array of other artists who crossed, stylistically or biographically, Manet’s path. The thematic disposition of the exhibition allows the viewer to gain a great insight into the life of Paris in the second half of the Nineteenth Century. The foolish parties at the Moulin Rouge by Giovanni Boldini and The Bath by Alfred Stevens are excellent examples, showing two different sides of the same city. On the one hand, fun and transgression in public, on the other the languid intimacy of loneliness. In his writings, Baudelaire advocated for a new form of Modern poetry, to express fully the epic heroism of his own time.

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One might actually argue whether the Impressionists intended to portray epics, tragedy, heroism, or just dull scenes of every-day life. On the other hand though, their works presents a questionable form of beauty, expressed through upper-class ladies or prostitutes in the same way. In fact, they present a melancholic and disenchanted society, which sought spiritual fulfillment in the most various pleasures. This generates a strange aesthetic experience, which Baudelaire wonderfully descirbed:

“Against a background of hellish light or if you prefer, an aurora borealis […] there arises the Protean image of wanton Beauty”

The exhibition promises a glimpse of these atmospheres. Indeed, it is a great way to approach Impressionist art in relation to the social context wherein it developed, rather through the group’s revolutionary technique, as it too often happens.


The Bath

The Balcony

Lola de Valence

Portrait of Emile Zola

Branch of White Peonies

Party Scene

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Alessandro M. Rubin Written by:

Cambridge History of Art alumnus. Passionate early-modernist, curious about contemporary art and aesthetic theory.

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