Even the esteemed pre-Impressionist painter, Edouard Manet (1832 – 1883), could do a dud from time to time.Every artist does, though it’s hard to imagine that the creator of “Le Dejeuner” (right) could have been guilty of something as inept as “Baudelaire’s Mistress” (below). The clunky face, the huge hand, the far, far feet at the ends of legs originating somewhere offstage left, the dismal, washy curtains, the vulgar intemperance of the black and white contrasts–he was clearly having an off day. He must have realized it in the morning.
Then why didn’t he discard it? The trash can is the best friend of any artist’s reputation. Perhaps he was thinking he could fix it up, and never got around to it. Maybe Baudelaire liked it, and wanted it. Or possibly Manet struggled with it, and regarded it as a success in some personal way.
Whatever the story, the evidence lingers on. It was in the recent show of Impressionist-era painting and couture at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. It looked even worse by comparison with the other work. Surely some billionaire art lover could buy it and burn it out of kindness to Manet’s memory. His ghost would surely breath a sigh of relief.
Effective expression requires clarity about what you are expressing. For example, this photo by the great French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. The interesting thing is how the apparent awkwardness of the shot, with one leg awkwardly cut, is key to its subject, which is a boy in the street, not just the boy.
C-B was making a choice. He could have pointed the camera down to get the foot, but if we add enough space at the bottom of the frame to catch the right foot, and take the same amount off the top to keep the proportion of the 35mm negative, we see how different the photo would have been. What we would have is merely a photo of two cute kids. It’s the context of street, of cars, of people, some noticing the boy and others not—the world around the kid—that gives his joie de vivre its punch. Keeping the viewpoint at an adult’s eye level so that we see the street beyond includes the kid but doesn’t make him the whole show. He shares our world, which is C-B’s actual subject.
Of course, as an abstract, formal matter, including the leg wouldn’t have been a bad choice. A large, calm area of pavement leading up to the boy’s middle-tone clothes merging with the building behind, and then the girl’s dark skirt rhyming the bottles—as a formal matter, pretty elegant. But C-B wasn’t doing abstraction, he was doing humanity. The busyness of it, the complexity, is what makes it so compelling.
Horses are a common subject in art, usually presented in graceful and noble poses like the Stubbs racehorse or Keisai warrior here.
Then we have the piece below by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849). Hokusai has contorted his beast into an almost abstract shape, and incorporated it and its rider and the upturned samurai into a wild melange.
After the grand design, the many rich details engage the eye. Nothing is tossed off as a standard item. The arrow feathers–no two alike. The samurai’s hands. The horse’s head: the expression, the shape and texture of the bridle–the knot where the rein is tied to the bit. And on and on–not a rote or boring passage in it.