Hannah Proctor at Eurozine:
Edouard Manet's A Bar at the Folies-Bergère was first exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1882. Contemporary reviewers expressed conflicting opinions on the painting's merits but seemed to agree on one thing: this was a painting of modern life.
At the centre of a display of commodities stands a saleswoman, who, it has been historically assumed, is herself on sale. She is engaged in a transaction with a male customer from whose skewed perspective we view the scene. Her expression is detached, vacant, distracted – her stillness at odds with the bustling crowd in the background. Fashion fashions the modern female subject-object – she dresses according to an ideal, a type. The world that appears reflected in the mirror behind her is all wrong. It presents a counterfeit version of reality – dazzling, ephemeral, off-kilter. It is a painting of surfaces that also draws attention to the surface of the painting itself.
“This gaudy blue dress, surmounted by a cardboard head like those one used to see in milliners' shop windows, represents a woman… this mannequin of uncertain form whose face is slashed in with three brushstrokes represents a man”, sneered one reviewer. The painting evokes window displays; it is governed by the emergent logics of mass consumption. Women and men are replaced by artificial substitutes. Relations between people become relations between things. And this painting of commodities emphasizes the commodity form of the painting itself.