Manet’s Un Bar Aux Folie Bergere (or the difference between seeing and looking)

We see thousands of images every day. Really, thousands. Flick through a magazine and you'll see hundreds at least. Of this plethora of pictures, there are some images that crop up over and over again (the Mona Lisa, Warhol's Marilyn, etc). When they become 'part of the furniture', it's easy to ignore them; it's easy to think you know them. But awareness isn't knowledge.

Edouard Manet, Un Bar Aux Folie Bergere

One of my favourite ever artworks is Manet's last truly celebrated work, Un Bar Aux Folie Bergere. It's all over the place. You'll know it, even if you don't know you know it. I certainly did, and because of this, never bothered to look into it. It was just another nice image I felt like I knew. When I was forced to look into it (those damn lecturers at uni were always getting in the way of my precious drinking time), I discovered that it's so much more than a 'nice image'. I bloody love it because I looked at it over and over and noticed something new every time. Kinda like Xtina Aguilera's video for Dirrty.

On a wider level, one of the things I love about Un Bar is because it proves that a non-sensical (that's a word.. yeah) painting isn't necessarily crap. Our barmaid is standing in front of a mirror that, despite the seemingly face-on angle, is turned to show us her Folie Bergere derriere. The reflection doesn't make sense, but let's move past that. Is it even the same woman? She seems plumper from behind. Now, this may be something to do with my long suspicion that mirrors are THE DEVIL and make you look far fatter than the skinny goddess you are... Or it may have something to do with what else we see in the mirror reflection: Manet has made the viewer turn into a top-hatted fella. The reflection is reality; and she is an average woman. But we are a drunk Parisian dandy and we are seeing the barmaid for something she isn't: a ten-inch-waist virtuous beauty.

Nope, the barmaid is only curvy, beautiful and virtuous in the mind of the punter. In truth, as we see reflected in the mirror, she begins a transaction of desire by leaning in flirtatiously. This causes the flattered customer to imagine her as his perfect woman: a brilliant body, decorated with flowers, a slight sadness at her situation and a milkiness to her complexion that is only interrupted by a touch of rouge.

I could go on for hours (I love a bit of symbolism, and this painting is HEAVING with it) but I'll leave my mini-analysis as a springboard and let you continue to look at it in your own way.

Just remember this: the artworks we see all the time, the ones that become icons of art in their own right, aren't just famous for being famous. They're celebrated for a reason - give them more than a glance and you'll see them in a way you've never seen them before.


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