Pictures of Women

See the similarity in these pictures?

Edouard Manet. A Bar at the Folies-Bergere. 1882.

Jeff Wall. Picture for Women. 1979.

Édouard Manet painted the one on the left in the 19th century; Jeff Wall photographed the one on the right in the 20th century.

I came across Jeff Wall while reading Vancouver: Representing the Postmodern City. He calls himself an artist-photographer because many of his photographs are staged in studio with elaborate costumes and a troupe of actors. This theatrical, staged side to his photographs puts the “artist” in “artist-photographer,” whereas the “photographer” title standing alone implies a natural, spontaneous, lifelike medium.

The Vancouver Sun recently had an article on him as the Vancouver Art Gallery just added this Wall photograph to its permanent collection:

Jeff Wall, Ivan Sayers, costume historian, lectures at the University Women’s Club, Vancouver, 7 December 2009.

Wall himself says he takes inspiration from painters like Édouard Manet. The article compares Wall’s and Manet’s pictures based on their similar architectural motifs and mirrors, but also on their depiction of the power dynamic between men and women.

While the woman in this photograph (Virginia Newton-Moss) exudes a strong presence with her solid stance and black garb, she is literally in costume and on display, showing off a British ensemble circa 1910. Ivan Sayers, a costume historian, holds the floor as he gives a lecture at the University Women’s Club. The male professor lectures; the female model is on display. The man teaches; the women listen. This reminds me of the whole idea of the active versus passive gaze dichotomy that often comes up when analyzing social relationships in paintings or photographs.

A great painter who depicted these complex gender interactions was Impressionist painter Édouard Manet. I like the intertextual relationship between Wall’s modern photograph Picture of Women from 1979 and Manet’s classic painting A Bar at the Folies-Bergère from 1882. I find Manet’s picture more striking, which is why I’ll address my comments to this one.

Here are some notes I dug up about it from an Impressionist art course I took in university:

  • these café-concerts are less about the concert and more about the social interaction between strangers – notice the casualness. It hints more at separateness than at conviviality
  • waitress has immense dignity even though she’s confined
  • viewer is disconcerted with her matter-of-fact, cool glance that lacks expression
  • she’s a victim of commercialized leisure
  • waitresses typified the new Paris
  • many of them used their jobs as waitresses as a cover for prostitution, yet Manet gives waitresses dignity in his portrayal of them

I’ve always been intrigued by this painting and remember visiting the Courtauld Gallery in London where it hangs. I stood and stared at it for a long time. It was much bigger than I expected and even more striking in person.

It’s disturbing to view because the waitress looks directly at the viewer, and we do not know how to read her. Notice the image in the mirror. It’s faulty. In the reflective glass, she leans in to the male customer, but in the real image, she is standing perfectly straight. The man’s location is where the viewer would be standing, so what does this say about us? Are we the man, the villain of this leisure society that commodifies women? Is she on display for us? Do we consume her with our gaze? Some art critics think she’s not so much selling drinks as selling herself, as symbolized by the ripe oranges that are a motif for sexuality in many of Manet’s paintings.

Every time I look at this painting, I am still moved by the waitress’ aloof, ambiguous expression, while there seem a million different thoughts going through her head. I wonder if the interaction in the reflection is one of these scenarios she’s playing out in her mind of how the impending transaction will go with the new customer who’s just approached the counter. Perhaps the reflection is five seconds ahead of the reality, for when she faces us, she looks professional as she waits for him/us to come to her, yet when she turns to the man in the mirror, she looks yielding — yielding to his desire. It’s like she knows how the scene will play out even though she doesn’t want it to. Seeing that a mirror comprises the entire background of the painting, the themes of appearance versus reality, thoughts and actions, engagement and detachment seem entirely plausible.

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