[Marxism] Manet and Mexico
lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Nov 3 13:30:05 MST 2006
NY Times, November 3, 2006
Manet Finds Fodder in the French Debacle in Mexico
By HOLLAND COTTER
What happens when a powerful country with imperial ambitions forces its way
at gunpoint into the affairs of another, distant country, of which it has
no cultural knowledge, on the pretext of bringing enlightened governance?
And that country meets the encroachment with violent resistance? You get
And what happens when art responds quickly and critically to that disaster?
You get the paintings in Manet and the Execution of Maximilian, a small,
taut historical show that puts the Museum of Modern Art back on the
experimental, heterodox track that it began to explore six years ago in its
MoMA2000 project, and then all but abandoned.
In a New York fall art season given over to mild Modernist pleasures, this
show, which opens on Sunday, is a reminder of Modernisms mutinous,
myth-scouring origins. It achieves this by bringing one of arts great
guerrilla path-cutters, Édouard Manet, onto the scene, wry, infuriated,
ambitious, and painting like Lucifer.
Not that theres a lot of him here: eight paintings, three (and an oil
sketch) on a single theme: the death by firing squad of the Austrian
archduke Ferdinand Maximilian in Mexico in 1867. But its enough. Manets
images are electrifying. For him, painting was thinking, and his thoughts
shoot out in bold, impetuous strokes, ricocheting off multiple targets.
One of his targets was the conservative French emperor Napoleon III. In the
mid-19th-century this ruler, ravenous for new territory, had his eye on
Mexico. When a reformist government under Benito Juárez came to power in
the country, a privileged minority of landowners and clergy appealed to
France for help, and Napoleon (counting on the United States being
distracted by the Civil War) sent his army their way in 1862.
The initial invasion, under the pretext of collecting debts owed by Mexico,
resulted in a mortifying French defeat, now celebrated by Mexicans as Cinco
de Mayo. To provide a cover for a second one, Napoleon persuaded
Maximilian, the idealistic younger brother of the Austrian emperor Franz
Joseph, to become emperor of Mexico, backed by the French military.
Maximilian, who knew nothing in particular about Mexico, accepted the offer
with a missionary zeal, giving Napoleon both a colony and a Hapsburg alliance.
But problems instantly arose. The new emperor arrived in 1864 and was led
to believe by Mexican monarchists that he would be embraced. He wasnt.
Popular support was for Juárez, pushed north by the French but poised to
return. Maximilian, despite his liberal sentiments, made repressive moves,
Napoleon soon realized he had a fiasco on his hands and wanted out.
Maximilian was urged to abdicate, but stayed on, as his wife dashed in a
panic to Europe to rally support. None came. The French Army departed.
Juárez returned. Maximilian was arrested and, along with two of his
generals, Miguel Miramón and Tomás Mejía, was tried for treason and
sentenced to die. He was 35.
On the morning of June 19, 1867, the three were brought to open ground near
a walled cemetery and shot by a squad of Mexican Army riflemen.
Maximilians end was agonizingly protracted. The initial round of fire
didnt kill him; the coup de grâce was botched and had to be repeated to
finish the job.
Only brief, often contradictory news reports reached Paris, but Manet
instantly set to work on the first of the three large paintings he would do
of the execution. All three are at MoMA. They are stunners.
Manet began the first picture (here from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
with a few hard facts and strong political convictions. He had long been
antagonistic to the French colonial enterprise, and he initially imagined
the event in Mexico as something closer to an infernal hallucination than
to reportage, a kind of moral nightmare.
A mass of riflemen in sombreros fill its center, aiming at two figures to
the left, both featureless and half obscured by gun smoke. The atmosphere
feels choked and tight, the figures hemmed in by what may or may not be a
low wall. There are other uncertainties: the presence of a third victim is
sketchily suggested; the sombreros have been half repainted to resemble
French-style military caps.
Did Manet alter the hat styles after learning that the riflemen were
Mexican soldiers, not peasants, as he originally believed? Or did he simply
decide against using exoticizing native costumes in the picture? Or did
he want to make the execution squad look more French, thus pointing a
finger at the real aggressor in the Mexican ordeal?
Finally, why did he leave evidence of his unresolved decisions for all to
see? John Elderfield, chief curator of painting and sculpture at MoMA and
organizer of the show, suggests that in preserving marks of revision, Manet
declared his interest in reinventing the outdated genre of history
painting, turning an art of pre-set ideals into one of mutable and
After a few months, though, he put that painting aside and started a new
one with the same figures but now set against open ground and sky, dressed
in natty uniforms, with facial features filled in. The resulting picture,
finished and polished but politically too loaded to be exhibited, was put
in storage in the artists studio, where it suffered damage.
After Manets death in 1883, his son cut this second picture into four
pieces, discarding ruined sections. It was only a few years ago that the
fragments were united on a single canvas by the National Gallery in London,
and that version is at MoMA, an accidental embodiment of Manets vision of
history painting as an art of permanent incompletion.
The third version (from the collection of the Städtische Kunsthalle, in
Mannheim, Germany), begun in 1868, is the last and largest of the
full-scale pictures. Manet has left his initial, hallucinated composition
intact, adding more specific details: a dark-skinned Mejía receiving the
first blast of rifle fire, a stoical, blond-bearded Maximilian; a
matinee-idol Miramón. The only major change is that they now play out their
roles against a high wall topped with a knot of spectators, who peer down
as if into a bullring at carnage erupting, or about to erupt.
By then the killing was more than a year in the past. Manet had had access
to eyewitness accounts and had seen prints and photographs of the execution
site, of the death squad posing, and of Maximilians bloodied clothes. Mr.
Elderfield includes a good amount of this material in the show it is
riveting but he also locates sources for the paintings in other art.
Goya was an obvious, primary source. His Third of May, 1808, not in the
show, and his brutal bullfight scenes were implicit comments on the French
invasion of Spain under the first Napoleon. But another one was Manets own
earlier work, which, Mr. Elderfield contends, was subtly shaped by his
awareness of French imperial predations. The Dead Toreador and the
ravishingly strange Dead Christ and the Angels, both on the theme of
victimization, are examples; they are on view here.
The argument Mr. Elderfield builds around the extraordinary pictures in the
show fully unfolds in an exhibition catalog that is at once a tour de force
of pictorial close reading and a vivid portrait of Manet as an
artist-thinker who disarranged the pieties of the past, destabilized the
verities of the present and planted depth-charges for detonation in the art
of the future.
The Maximilian paintings certainly feel contemporary. They are, among other
things, also touchstones in the recent history of crime-and-punishment
imagery, from photographs of a corpse at Abu Ghraib, to Eddie Adamss 1968
picture of a Viet Cong prisoner being shot at close range, to Gerhard
Richters photo-based paintings of dead members of the Baader-Meinhof
group, terrorists who either died by their own hand in prison or were
killed. The Museum of Modern Art owns the Richter series, October 18,
1977. It was exhibited as part of MoMA2000, to wide praise, and is on
view now. Whenever it is shown it is, in effect, an exhibition in itself,
and almost nothing the museum has offered since it reopened in new quarters
has been anywhere near as challenging.
Manet and the Execution of Maximilian, however, makes the grade, and at a
perfect time. At present, the New York art establishment is rich,
self-pleasured and largely asleep. Mr. Elderfields terse show strikes an
entirely different tone. It is as sharp, agitating and exciting as the
sound of gunfire down the street, across the globe the dominant music of
Manets day and our own.
Manet and the Execution of Maximilian opens Sunday at the Museum of
Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, and remains on view through Jan. 29; (212)
708-9400 or moma.org.
Check http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/03/arts/design/03mane.htm for Manet images
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