Posted by: Rajesh Shukla | April 20, 2011

The problem of Faciality

Edouard Manet. In the Conservatory. 1879
There are many signs of this binding energy in the painting, but perhaps the most striking is the carefully painted face of the woman. As contemporary critics noted, this face seems to be an obvious indication of a shift in Manet’s practice, and in fact part of the specific character of Manet’s modernism turns around the problem of what Gilles Deleuze has called “facility.” In much of Manet’s work, the very imprecision and amorphousness of the face become a surface that, alongside its casualness, no longer discloses an inwardness or self-reflection, but rather becomes a new, unsettling terrain that one can trace into the late portraits of Cézanne. But something is quite different is at work in In the Conservatory, and it is clearly more than just a tightening up of what has been called “Manet’s broken touch,” “his vague and sloppy planes.” It is, rather, a return to a more tightly bound order of “facility,” one that resists dismantling and connection with anything outside the articulated hierarchy of a socialized body. It is as if for Manet the relative integrity of the face defined (or approximated) a certain mode of conformity to a dominant reality, a conformity that so much of his work evades or bypasses.

Supporting this relatively cohesive facility, and central to the effect of the entire painting, is the woman’s corseted, belted, braceleted, gloved and beringed figure, marked by all these points of compression and restraint. Along with the coiled, indrawn figure of the man, these indications of bodies reined in stand for many other kinds of subduing and constraint which go into the construction of an organized and inherited corporality. We can also note the way in which the flower pots and vases stand as signs of a related enclosure and “holding in,” which, as instruments of domestication, at least primarily confine the proliferating growth of vegetation surrounding the figures. Even the lathed vertical posts of the bench are little echoes of the cinched figure of the woman, as if the wood, like some malleable substance, is squeezed in the middle with a clamp. (This feature also suggests the mechanical repeatability of the seated figure.) Thus this image is a holding action, a forcing back of circulating and previously scattered components into a semblance of cohesive pictorial unity. The result, however, is a disjunct, compressed, and space-drained field. And the thematic of pressure, of squeezing, is curiously suggested by Manet’s title for the work, Dans le Serre. The word sere, of course, means “greenhouse,” although it originally meant simply “a closed place.” It is also a form of the verb serrer, which means to grip, to hold tightly, to clench, to tighten.


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