In Chapter II, Barrett shifts our attention from varied observations and interpretations by children, scholars and the general public of a body of Magritte’s work to multiple interpretations by art historians and scholars of one specific painting. This painting, by Édouard Manet (1832-1883), is “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère,” 1882, which was Manet’s last major painting before his death.
We can observe a number of details in this painting. A woman stands facing the viewer behind a bar in a crowded room. The marble top bar she rests her hands on also displays a selections of bottles, flowers and fruit. A mirror behind her reflects everyone else in the scene. She is the only figure not seen via the mirror and the figures and images in the mirror are not reflected correctly. The objects in the foreground are rendered realistically, but the background is depicted with loose brush strokes that seem to focus more on the placement of patches of paint than realistic depictions of objects or subjects. The picture appears flattened and two dimensional; some scholars suggest the space is so flattened that there is not enough room between the barmaid and the mirror for the barmaid to be three dimensional.
Barrett writes that the painting has relevance and interest to historically-focused scholars for what it can reveal about the times. Another group of scholars is more interested in interpreting the imagery and symbolism in the painting. These expert opinions that Barrett cites express very different points of view and all are very well argued, with clear reasoning and historical evidence to substantiate their opinions.
Most of the interpreters in the chapter identify and describe similar elements of the subject matter in the painting — the bar maid, the distortions in the mirror, the man in the top hat in the right corner. They also identify the painting’s form similarly – that it was painted more abstractly rather than faithfully representing reality, that there were distortions in the way the mirror reflected the images in front of it.
Although most of the experts in this chapter disagreed in their interpretations of these descriptions, their diverse points of view make considering the painting even more interesting. Barrett started us off in Chapter 1 with a guiding statement, that we interpret art to make sense of it. Although each of the scholars and researchers that Barrett cites in this chapter disagree about numerous things, they share an intention to better understand the painting themselves and share that understanding with their readers.
Each interpreter seems to focus on different descriptive elements in the painting. They select and combine observations and facts into an interpretation that attempts to reveal the meaning of the piece. Because they are approaching the painting with different interests, their questions about the painting and responses to it are also different.
What makes the chapter so interesting is just this diversity of perspectives and opinions. We can look at the painting with an historian’s eye and learn more about the times in which it was painted, both the historical events and the culture of Paris in the 1800’s. We can look at the painting and consider the enigmatic figure and posture of the barmaid, then read what others have decided she represents. Is she provocative or weary, a prostitute as some interpreters suggested or just a young working class girl?
Barrett doesn’t present his own opinions in this chapter about the painting or the painter. What he does do is demonstrate how valuable it is for us to be exposed to the discourse, however conflicting, of informed, carefully considered and argued opinions about a work of art. That leaves us with the task of considering the ideas of experts as we formulate our own ideas and opinons about the meaning of a work.
1. How do you interpret the posture and gaze and dress of the bar maid in this painting? Does one expert’s opinion strike you as the most accurate interpretation?
2. What do you think is the significance, if any, of the man with the top hat who appears in the upper right hand corner of the mirror?
3. Do you feel there are any other significant details in the painting that are important to understanding it? Why, for example, does the artist paint unopened bottles, two flowers in a vase and a bowl of fruit on the bar next to the barmaid?
4. Why do you think the artist chose to paint the barmaid’s gaze to avoid the viewer?
5. How do you interpret the artist’s choice to make the reflections in the mirror differ from a realistic interpretation?
6. What makes this painting so different from others of the same time period?