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Travelogue G7

December 3, 2015

On the second day, we attempted a sortie to the National Gallery only to find much of it closed to strike. Unaware at first of the strike, we peered through doors and bemoaned the closure of entire strings of rooms to renovations of which we found no discernible sign, much less progress. If I was unable to complete my visiting collection of Vermeers, my companion could not enjoy much in the way of 19th century painting from the continent.

When at last I braved interaction and struck up conversation with one of the agents, the news left me less puzzled, though no less disappointed. For, in holding out for a living wage, the employees had holed up so much culture in closed off rooms that I felt myself trapped in a Claude Simon novel, wherein the narrator often found himself separated from that which he looks on by a narrow film, often transparent, a glass door or a layer of dust, a plastic curtain or a heavy adjective finish. In the corrupt order, I the visitor felt complicit.

The handful of rooms still open afforded us a look at impressionist and post-impressionist works whose authors were known the world over: Monet, Manet, Van Gogh. Yet the form in which we encountered them fit ill with my previous experience of them, my previous apprehension of their methods. For, in those rooms, everything turned on the notion of strips.

Monet’s Irises from 1914 through 1917 portrayed the titular feature from his garden but as reflected in the water of the pond, such that the entire image had been turned on its head. More striking still than the change in orientation proved the thick, crude swathes of color in which the artist had applied the paints. Between the inverted perspective and the stripped brushwork, the painting seemed more a gesture at irises than a representation thereof. The accompanying description thought to attribute the phenomenon to the double cataracts altering Monet’s sight in his last years.

Manet’s 1868 The Execution of Maximilian puzzled me no less, though not at the level of subject matter. I could easily make sense of the title’s Archduke having been set up as puppet emperor of Mexico and subsequently killed by Republicans in 1867. Grisly though his death by firing squad must have been, the viewer, myself included, was left to guess at the event for Maximilian had almost entirely disappeared from the canvas. There remained only his left hand, clasped by that of a sympathetic general, which set the focus on the firing squad and hence lent the proceedings a most unreal air.

As I learned upon approaching the notice, the painting had been cut up into strips after Manet’s death, by whom and for what reason unspecified, and was only later reassembled by Degas. His reconstruction proved, however, a partial one in that only four scraps had been recovered and set against the backing canvas: the largest and central showing the figures of the firing squad, backs turned to the viewer; on the left, two smaller vertical strips showing above the aforementioned general’s head and below his left flank and Maximilian’s left hand; on the right, a lone soldier shouldering his rifle seemingly out of ambivalence, neither looking on nor retreating.

This confounding impression was furthered by the sight of Manet’s Corner of a Café-Concert. The extent canvas had originally formed the right half of a work destined for the Brasserie de Reichshoffen, begun in 1878 and cut in two before completion. Although the text left unclear what had become of the other half, the half before me had undergone further modifications. Indeed, I could make out the join visible where a second stretch of canvas had been added and then hidden in a foreground figure’s blue smock. In an effort to balance the image, Manet had then added figures and things above and behind: dancer, beer steins, waitress, drape.

Before the pair, I could do little to imagine what mania had so gripped Manet that he felt an unrelenting need to dismember his work. Surely money considerations could not have pushed him to sell off in as many parcels as possible, or so I thought. Only a more thoroughgoing explanation could be given, perhaps a pathology, and one which I was in poor position to supply.

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