[Marxism] Manet and Mexico

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Nov 3 13:30:05 MST 2006

NY Times, November 3, 2006
Art Review
Manet Finds Fodder in the French Debacle in Mexico

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 Modernism’s mutinous, 
myth-scouring origins. It achieves this by bringing one of art’s great 
guerrilla path-cutters, Édouard Manet, onto the scene, wry, infuriated, 
ambitious, and painting like Lucifer.

Not that there’s 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 it’s enough. Manet’s 
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 wasn’t. 
Popular support was for Juárez, pushed north by the French but poised to 
return. Maximilian, despite his liberal sentiments, made repressive moves, 
alienating everyone.

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. 
Maximilian’s end was agonizingly protracted. The initial round of fire 
didn’t 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 
unpredictable realities.

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 artist’s studio, where it suffered damage.

After Manet’s 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 Manet’s 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 Maximilian’s 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 Manet’s 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 Adams’s 1968 
picture of a Viet Cong prisoner being shot at close range, to Gerhard 
Richter’s 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. Elderfield’s 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 
Manet’s 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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