Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Édouard Manet's A Bar at the Folies Bergère, Analyzed

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Today: "The double life of Suzon"

In which we focus on Suzon, a waitress at the Folies Bergère.
Édouard Manet, A Bar at the Folies Bergère, 1881-1882, Oil on canvas, 96×130 cm, Courtauld Institute of Art
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In a bar at the Folies Bergère, a young woman leans against the counter.
With her dreamlike gaze, Suzon, the café-concert waitress, appears very much alone.
The counter isolates her in her work while the reflection in the mirror shows well-dressed women but predominantly men in top hats who are admiring the trapeze artists.
Painting detail
A wistful expression on her face, it seems as if Suzon’s mind is wandering, yet the mirror reveals a completely different reality. One of the top-hatted men emerges from the corner of the painting and approaches Suzon's reflection.

She leans forward and he appears to ask her something secret. Their closeness is oppressive. What does this man want?
Painting detail
Manet hints at the answer, placing clues on the bar. Is Suzon herself for sale, like the beautiful oranges or alcohol?
In any case, a parallel is drawn between the waitress' blond head, curvy figure and black jacket, and the bottles of champagne that surround her.

The similarities continue with the lace of her dress which evokes the light foam of the sweet beverage and her square neckline which resembles the label that adorns each bottle.
Like these bottles topped with gold foil, Suzon is a beautiful object, ready to be unwrapped...
Painting detail
Seized by a sudden uneasiness, the spectator facing this mirror seeks in vain to get their bearings.
Is it this man in the hat? What does he want from Suzon? We can't help but fall into the trap that Manet has laid. The customer and spectator merge into one, each responsible for Suzon's fate.
Painting detail
However, Manet offers us an escape by slightly shifting the young woman's reflection in the mirror. It is almost as if we see two Suzons. One succumbs to the customer, the other escapes into a higher realm, far away from the constraints of society life.
Manet gives spectators an insight into this otherworldly haven through Suzon’s eyes, inviting us to follow her...

My take: The two figures behind and to the left of the barmaid are very curious indeed. The interpretation provided here, and in the excellent video here (  (to which Artips provide a link,) assume it's a reflection but the reflection goes will below the bottom of the mirror, shows the barmaid at a different angle and in a much lighter dres, and the man isn't in the principal picture at all. Is this in fact a separate barmaid, in a similar outfit, working the other side of the bar?