John Elderfield with Phong Bui

Photo by Phong Bui.

On the occasion of the exhibit Manet and the Execution of Maximilan at The Museum of Modern Art, which will be on view until January 29, 2007, John Elderfield, the Marie-Josée and Henry Kravis Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture, took time from his busy schedule on a recent afternoon to welcome Rail Publisher Phong Bui to his office to talk about Manet’s four featured paintings, related works and more.

Phong Bui (Rail): This exhibit has been an incredible feast for artists, particularly painters to see the whole revolution of the Maximilian pictures, including the related visual and photographic documentation, all in one place. Probably for the first time in New York, if not the U.S.?

John Elderfield: Yes, definitely for the first time in the U.S. The only time the paintings have been seen together before was in London at the National Gallery of Art in 1992 when they were shown along with Salon paintings of that period. But for MoMA, it seemed important to do something that was very clearly about two things. One was Manet’s practice, and its relevance to the way modern and contemporary artists think about and make their paintings. Another was what we can learn from those historical events. I know that when I was working on the exhibition, looking and reading through all the available photographs and articles in various newspapers, I would get the chilling feeling that nothing’s actually changed. Now as then, you don’t really know whether what you read about such events is true or not.

Rail: According to Alfred Barr’s diagram, which was printed on the dust jacket of the catalogue for the 1936 exhibit Cubism and Abstract Art, 1936, the Museum’s collection of modern art actually began in 1890. So in that regard, wouldn’t you consider this show somewhat of an unusual event, considering the dating of the Maximilian picture?

Elderfield: It’s certainly true that the Museum’s collection begins with Cézanne and his generation, actually in the 1880s. It’s interesting that earlier, when Barr made his famous torpedo diagrams, he did in fact include some early 19th century artists. But I think that around 1930-31, when the Museum was really starting to develop its collection, the difficulty was that they couldn’t acquire any great Manet’s of the 1860s because they were all in museums. My hunch is that if it had been possible for Barr to go back to Manet, he would have done so. Otherwise, you’re quite right, that our current notion of modern art, which was very much influenced by MoMA, has in fact created this idea that Cézanne was the first. But so much of what you see in a Manet painting is still being played out today. For example, the issue of serial representation and reportage. Also, the fact that, within a practice that is representational, in a broad sense, there’s an amazing polarity between the act of representation and what illustration means, plus how the two things come together. In that sense, certainly he was one of the most extraordinarily intelligent painters, who laid the ground-work for contemporary as well as modern paintings.

Rail: It’s stunning to think that, whatever resources he took from art history, he was able to not only create such a vast repertoire of styles that touch upon aspects of Neo-Classicism, Romanticism, Impressionism, and Symbolism, but to go beyond all of those fixed categories. But let’s go back to the Maximilian picture: We know it never received as popular a reception as the two paintings “Olympia” and “Le Dejeuner sur l’herb”—partially because the Maximilian pictures were not shown in France during Manet’s lifetime. But how many resources do we have to help us understand his political views, as far as determining whether the Maximilian picture was an anti-imperialist gesture or not? In other words, shouldn’t we go even further back, before the Kearsarge and Alabama pictures, namely to the Dreyfus Affair, in which he took no part? This was an event very similar to the U.S. Rosenberg case of 1952, which divided national opinion. There were those either for or against Jews. We know that when the affair arose, members of the artistic avant-garde took sides: Zola, Pissarro, Monet, Vallotton, Luce, Signac, and Mary Cassatt were pro-Dreyfus while Rodin, Degas, and Cezanne were anti-Dreyfus. What is your view on the matter?

Elderfield: From early on, even as a teenager, Manet was already against Napoleon III. This is evident from letters he wrote home when he was on a ship going to Rio de Janeiro in 1848-49. And later, as an art student, he was aware of the repressive measures Napoleon was enacting. But, as far as I know, there’s no documentation of him ever saying, ‘Isn’t it terrible what’s going on in Mexico,’ except for the paintings.

I do think Mike Fried is right about how Manet, after having his one-person exhibit in early 1867, must have seen the full range of his pictures, including how he had changed after he went to Spain in ’65, and moved on to single figure paintings. He would have seen them in the context of his early more complex ones, like “Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe.” Then of course, while thinking about all of that, the news of Maximilian’s execution broke. In a way, it provided the ideal combination of unquestionably artistic, as well as pictorial and political drives. However, he must have known on a certain level that he was never going to be able to show these pictures. I do think that one has to look back to earlier work such as “The Dead Toreador,” and “The Christ with Angels,” which are included in the show, as paintings explicitly addressing violent deaths—paintings done in the period of the French intervention. One just has to wonder, do these foster a veiled response to the violence in Mexico, or cite the ambiguity of these works that is so powerful as to compel us to look for such additional meanings?

Rail: We know the influence that Courbet had on Manet’s work, but in the Maximilian pictures there are visual and political reminiscences that made me think of Delacroix’s two paintings “Bark of Dante,” and “Liberty Leading the People,” which Delacroix must have been quite embarrassed to have brought out by Napoleon III for public display, in the revolution of 1848: Especially in the Boston picture, there’s a similarity in the painterly sketchiness of his own copy (particularly the one in the Metropolitan Museum’s collection) after Delacroix’s “Bark of Dante,” and the fumato effect that exists in “Liberty Leading the People.”

Elderfield: I think that in Courbet’s art, for all the painterliness, you feel that every mark actually has a referent, whereas in Delacroix, he was willing to make marks which, while representational as groups, are not so individually. There is that same quality in the Boston painting, which is very reminiscent of Delacroix, as well as Courbet. With the London painting, Manet abandoned the Courbet/Delacroix model, and went back to Neo-Classicism, particularly to David. Then, right at the end, in the final Mannheim picture, combines the Davidian with some things from the beginning again. Still, I can understand why the London painting, with its David portrait style and flatness has always been a favorite of many people.

Rail: In addition to the fact that it’s been cut into pieces, therefore creating this false aura of fragmentation that has been so much a part of our built-in heritage since cubism.

Elderfield: I agree. I’ve had people say to me, ‘Well this is a wonderful picture because it is so modern.’ But the truth is, it’s modern by accident. A related example: in the Mondrian show in ’94, remember how beautiful those Pier and Ocean works on paper were? I walked around the show with a well-known artist, who pointed out how the white marks so prominently stood out against the muted background of the paper, and I said, “Well, actually, that’s because the paper has darkened over the years; the white wouldn’t have been visible originally.” And he said, “Oh, nonsense. This is part of the beauty.” And I said, “Yes, it is part of the beauty, but it’s accidental.”

Rail: [Laughs] The same way we see Cimabue’s two frescoes of the crucifixions in the upper church of S. Francisco. I mean the way the white lead pigment has turned black because of the acidic content rising off the bones of buried bodies below. And there are countless examples of that kind. Not to mention the fact that we tend to restore works of art according to our current taste.

Elderfield: [Laughter] It’s as T.S. Eliot wrote once, that works of historical fiction tell you more about the time they were written than the time they depict. As much as I agree that works of art are ideas, they are also objects. And objects change over time. I do think that there can be a moment where a work is so compromised that it becomes unrecognizable. I have seen Mondrian like that. Recently I’ve spent a lot of time with Jim Coddington, who is our chief painting conservator, talking about what we should and shouldn’t do with the cracks in Matisse’s “Piano Lesson.” In most cases, you obviously leave them alone. And there are other cases where you just feel that, because scratching on the canvas with a palate knife was such a part of Matisse’s practice, how can you actually distinguish the things we know he did from the things that happened by accident afterwards. You do have to do something, at times, to make that original idea visible again.

Rail: Lets go back to the changes that Manet modified compositionally from what he had taken from Goya’s “Third of May.” We know that he painted the firing squad with their backs facing the viewers in order to reveal more of Maximilan and his two generals. And as opposed to the central figure who is dressed in white with his extended arm in Goya’s painting, Manet portrayed Maximilian as dressed in black with his arms down, holding his two generals’ hands. But while I understand his ambition as a painter is directed by the process of discovery and the radical spirit in terms of the preexisting rhetorical aesthetic in history painting (as Fried always stressed: understand the painting before understanding its social and political implications), I can’t help but to feel the Boston picture as a visceral response to the event which was largely painted with such urgency, and somewhat romantic in its mood. Nevertheless, given the fact that we can’t make out their faces, although the firing squad was all dressed in rebel republican uniforms of the Juarez Mexican army, in the other three pictures and the lithograph, they are all painted as Frenchmen in French army uniforms; couldn’t it be that because of his lack of confidence, not knowing how to portray indigenous Mexicans because he never saw one (except for his quick trip to Brazil when he was 16, long before he became a painter), he had quickly shifted their physiognomy from Mexican to French, or was it simply a political act?

Elderfield: I don’t know whether it’s that important to read into the Boston painting Manet’s unfamiliarity with what the soldiers looked like. The costumes in that painting are consonant, perhaps, with the Delacroix-like treatment: a kind of Romanticism, wanting to place it in another country by using unused costumes. The only evidence that we really have is when Zola says something about “only fanciful artists who give Mexicans costumes from comic opera.” And maybe Manet had that same thought: this is just too picturesque, too make-believe. The London painting showed that he wanted something more matter-of-fact, which he got with the shift to the French-looking uniforms. And it’s also very interesting that, when you look at the first Boston picture you do recognize the Goya source, but also, that Manet has made of it something very strange and different. He created three zones: one on the right hand side, with the figure facing in front of you; and then parallel to it, the firing squad; and then behind that, Maximilian and his two generals, although we really can only see the one on his left. There is something unnerving about it, and one can understand why it has tended to be minimized in the literature on Manet. Even though it’s uncharacteristic, I still think it is an amazing invention. There’s almost a dream-world quality to it. As far as the gesture of Maximilian’s arms is concerned, whether it was religious or has other psychological implications, all I can say is that Proust would prefer the London picture while Freud would pick the Boston picture.

Rail: [Laughs] I think the painter would agree with Freud’s choice. Anyway, in the talk you had with Michael Fried several weeks ago, Fried spoke of Manet’s so-called striking or facing, which does not necessarily mean the same thing as what flatness meant for the Impressionists. But as he did point out, the way the incredible streak of red paint between the legs of the 5th soldier barely suggests the existence of the officer with the sword is Manet’s way of resisting any form of closure and interpretation. You, on the other hand, gave a solid description of Manet’s painting process. By relying exclusively on speedy execution, which involves so many quick attacks and layers of painting and repainting over what had been scraped off or erased, he was able to achieve a very specific instant of crucial, split-second instantaneousness. But I’m wondering, with that in mind, how does one see the fact that while making reference to Goya and David, basically borrowing motifs and formal elements from their work, he also mixed them up with his own current eclecticism? Is that his way of creating a certain violent protest within himself as an artist?

Edouard Manet, “Execution of the Emperor Maximilian” (1867). Oil on canvas, 77 1/8”× 102 1/4”. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Frank Gair Macomber, Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Elderfield: That’s true with all good painters. I think that the documentary sources, the life sources, and the historical sources in the end become intertwined. In fact, one of the fascinations of his realism is that it questions the whole notion of what’s real, whether the source is coming from other artists’ paintings, from his own earlier paintings, or from so-called real life. They’re all equal as options for him to turn to. There’s also something about his own process. Anybody who has wielded a brush and gone through the frustrations of it knows that in the process of making a painting, which takes a certain amount of time, certain things get imprinted in the memory. Learning about the subject takes place as the painting is to allow the changes, and is simultaneous with thinking and feeling. It’s quite similar to the approach of Frank Auerbach’s paintings: there is a long process, where images and paint gets swept off and brought back in, but the actual execution time of what becomes the final completed painting can be very short. In other words, the whole period in which the artist is learning about the subject still resonates in the final, perhaps short period of execution. And I think that is comparable to what Manet was doing. And, obviously, a lifetime of imprinting certain kinds of marks means that, even with a less than unconscious mind, the arm will still deliver them. Think of late de Kooning.

Rail: How about the fact that Manet doesn’t acknowledge the solemnity of the death of Maximilian? Or could it be that, because of Manet’s contempt for the Second Empire, he painted Mejia as the only one being executed, not Maximilian, therefore mocking the spectators as if they’re looking at the event with such indifference. Or is it just himself seeing the farce of both empires, U.S. and French, fighting over what was left from the Spanish conquest in Mexico?

Edouard Manet, “The Execution of Maximilian” (1867-68). Oil on canvas, 76”× 111 13/16”. The National Gallery, London.

Elderfield: As you were speaking, I was reminded of one thing that Mike Fried and I talked about: Manet is an artist with whom you become endlessly invested. You see all of these things in him and you think: yes, that’s how it must have been. Then something else comes along, and you become invested in that as well. As for the question of whether Maximilian has clearly been shot or not: clearly, he has not yet been shot, and if Manet has shown Maximilian collapsing, the whole event would have been less present to us. I think that part of what makes this an extraordinary painting is that it shows an event in the past has happened, yet when you’re looking at it, it actually hasn’t happened. You’re waiting for something to happen, which your mind tells you already has happened. One controversial issue relates to the fact that we see Mejia throwing his arms back, responding to being killed. There’s a real question about whether, given that the muskets are in parallel with the surface, he actually could be hit. Is Manet employing absolute irony and saying: well, that kind of theatrical gesture belonged to the art of the past; that’s how people looked when they were being killed. So I’m going to give you this gesture, but actually this didn’t happen either.

Rail: So it neither had to do with the old Christian idealism, nor with the royal aristocrat hero worship bit. Maybe Manet can be seen as an anarchist, which brings to mind T.J. Clark’s view, putting a creation of a work of art in the context of its social and political environment, the opposite of Fried’s view, though both obviously have their own merits. But my question is, based on all the literature that you have digested, how much do we know that Manet was actually aware of what was going on in the U.S. and Mexico? Not to mention the fact that there are some incredible similarities between Lincoln and Juarez, as we know, apart from their differences in physical and ethnic background. Lincoln was tall, angular, born from old American stock. Juarez was short, stocky and full-blooded Indian. But in their chronology and upbringing they were nearly identical. Lincoln was born in 1809, died in 1865, two years before Maximilian’s execution. Juarez lived between 1806 to 1872. Both were born poor, had training as lawyers, and thought that law was the best way to start out in a political career. Both had a mutual appreciation and they did help each other when they could. I wonder whether Manet was aware of both men?

Edouard Manet, “The Execution of Maximilian” (1868-69). Oil on Canvas 18 7/8”× 22 13/16”. Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen.

Elderfield: This is something which I had certainly not thought about until I began work on the project. In fact, I did not think more about the Lincoln connection until I saw that old 1939 film, _ Juarez, _ with Paul Muni playing the lead role, Brian Aherne as Maximilian and Bette Davis as his wife Carlotta. This was clearly a propaganda effort to try and engage Mexico on the side of the United States, and an example of the wider effort of trying to get every Latin American country on the side of the allies during the war, which was by and large successful. But we do not know whether Manet was as interested in the American Civil War as much as he was in Maximilian’s execution. He must have been aware of the U.S. relations to the whole event from July 1st onward. It would be interesting, of course, to look at this from the other side, to what the interpretations were of the U.S. role in the French press. (We know that Napoleon the 3rd was very much supportive of the South in the U.S. Civil War, and this was really one of his undoings.) We also know that Manet was seeing a bit of Degas in the period of the late 1860s and that Degas’ maternal family was from New Orleans; presumably, the United States must have come up in their conversations. Then there’s that strange Degas painting “Scene of War in the Middle Ages,” which was alternatively called “The Misfortunes of the City of Orleans,” a medieval battle scene of people being shot with arrows; but on the other hand, its association with New Orleans is as an allegory of the cruelty of the Northern soldiers toward the women after the city was captured by Union forces in May, 1862. So the whole thing can get pretty complicated.

Rail: Well, there are the Kearsarge and Alabama pictures, which have two indications. One suggests that he has perhaps more sympathy to the North than the South. The other fulfills a sort of fantasy that he always had of becoming a naval officer, though he failed twice in the entry exams. Anyway, I’m just speculating that Manet, like Delacroix, might have been only moderately inspired by the outburst of popular fury. But as a whole I think there is a discrepancy between the Maximilian pictures, depicting a historical event which took place away from home, and the result of which is an incredible and ambitious project, and his reaction to what happened at home during the Commune Uprising in 1871, which is utterly the opposite: only a tiny gouache painting and small multiples of a lithograph based on the same image.

Edouard Manet. “The Execution of Emperor Maximilian” (1868-69). Oil on canvas, 99 3/16”× 118 7/8”. Kunsthalle, Mannheim. Photo: Kunsthalle Mannheim, Margita Wickenhäuser.

Elderfield: Again, it’s nearly impossible to read into the impulse that obviously and so subtly lay behind the decision-making, but I think that late Manet from 1870 to his death is a fascinating subject. One thing that became evident to me while I was working on the Maximilian show was that many important things about that subject really had not been dealt with. It is surprising that social art history had not addressed this, of all subjects. Similarly, there is not enough literature to help us to understand more of his work in the ‘70s. Since we know that Manet was being influenced by his younger colleagues, we tend not to give it the attention accorded to his works that form his point of entry into the discourse. But, of course, many of the later pictures, like the great conservatory picture are amazing! Not only “A Bar at the Folies-Bergere,” also the still-life paintings of fruits and flowers, are truly extraordinary.

Rail: I’m just bringing it up because it’s fascinating to see how Picasso, after having successfully painted Guernica, did try to do it again with the “Massacre of Korea” picture. It’s a depiction of an event that took place somewhere else, therefore the result is rather rigid and emotionally detached. Quite the opposite of Manet.

Elderfield: I saw the painting last summer when it was borrowed by the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia from the Picasso Museum, hanging along with Manet’s Mannheim painting and our Picasso, “The Charnel House,” which we lent them, and I must confess that “Massacre of Korea” just seemed so formulaic. Interestingly, in the catalogue of that exhibition there’s a very stout defense of the picture, saying that the reason it’s diminished is that critics in the U.S. were upset by Picasso’s having been critical of Korea, which I think is nonsense. The problem with the picture is the picture, not politics.

Rail: Just to go back to the beginning when the news came, in the first week of July, as Manet began to work on the Boston pictures. We know that in the next month, on August 31st, Baudelaire died. That implies something very serious. What does that bring into the Maximilian picture?

Elderfield: One thing which comes immediately to my mind is in the London and Mannheim pictures, the figure of Miramón is painted as kind of a Baudelaireian dandy figure. He is the person who is looking at the whole spectacle. And it’s very interesting to think that he actually appears in this series only after Baudelaire’s death. Actually, in the Boston picture, we always talk about it as if it shows the three victims, but in fact, when you look at the paint you can’t actually make a verifiable deduction from the paint that the Miramón figure was there. Maybe there wasn’t a figure, or the figure wasn’t given an identity. At any rate, obviously Baudelaire’s death might have liberated him in some ways. On the other hand, Manet couldn’t have painted his gypsies and prostitutes without Baudelaire’s poignant portrait of the poor and marginalized.

Rail: Lastly, since I’m aware of the fact that you were trained as a painter, and still maintain your practice as one, how essential do you believe technical training is to one’s ability to curate or write about art? I notice that in the writings of Matisse and Diebenkorn, for example, your insight and enthusiasm seems apparent when you describe their working process.

Elderfield: Let me put it this way. There are some people who write about art but have never painted whom I deeply respect. There are also people whose work as critics and historians I respect on an equal level who _ have _ [painted] in varying degree. When I was an art student in England, there were two people with whom I was very close and who were very influential for me. They were both painters as well as art historians. One was John Golding, the other was Lawrence Gowing. It does make a difference, though not necessarily for better or worse: Some of the greatest art historians have never actually picked up a brush, but I think, if you’ve actually done this, it inevitably affects how you write. I think it’s not simply that you can look and think, he did this, she did that. It’s also [a matter of] realizing, through one’s own inept attempts at making paintings, that a painting takes off when you don’t impose an outside idea on it, but let an image eventually appear through the process. I think that when you look at works of art, particularly paintings, you can distinguish those in which the idea is continuous with the making from those in which an idea has been installed. I’m, of course, privileged—I can go every day into the museum’s galleries and look at these paintings by Manet and, seeing them together, there are things I just hadn’t noticed or thought about when I had seen them alone. For example, the negative shapes in the London painting, as well as the lithograph and oil sketch, are more or less the same. Then, in the Mannheim painting, it’s obvious that, scaling up the oil sketch, Manet started thinking about the contours of these negative shapes again. As you think it through, and then write about it, you end up dealing with a kind of cause and effect. One thing I wrote about as a cause, was that the central negative space was changed in the Mannheim painting so that it actually goes up and then turns left, pointing toward the victims. As a result of doing this, Manet therefore had to reduce the size of the left soldier. I was in the gallery one day looking at it, and it’s such a strange painting— so elusive in terms of the kind of troubling feelings you derive from it. I was looking at that soldier at the left and found myself thinking: it’s actually a child. And we know about child soldiers, particularly from the recent history of Africa. We know that most children, more naïve than most adults, are actually capable of more violence than adults. Thinking along these lines the painting became even weirder. But, then, maybe it wasn’t the case that Manet altered the negative shape and, as a result, the child appeared; but, rather, that he had the idea of making the soldier a child, which changes the negative shapes. We’ll never know. Certainly ever since I’ve recognized that figure as being a child, the painting has seemed far more troubling. The child reminds me of Manet’s “Fifer”—some say that child figure was actually his stepson dressed up. So if one is also going to associate the boy soldier in the Mannheim painting with Manet’s stepson, and we know that Manet was exactly the same age as Maximilian, it becomes shocking. Is Manet imagining his son shooting him?

On the other hand, one has to also think about how these paintings were made. Manet worked swiftly, improvisatorially, obviously letting things appear without over-conscious control. We know that he would often take a very fine grade canvas, spread oil medium on the surface, and then wipe it off only so slightly in order to allow the brush to move quickly as well as giving some body to the paint. I remember being in Diebenkorn’s studio, in his later years, I was surprised to discover that he was working on series of works on rather inexpensive, gloss-coated paper. When I asked why he was working on such a surface, he demonstrated by taking a piece of paper and laying it flat. Then, he rubbed a rag across the sharp edge of the upper piece of paper. When that piece was lifted off, he had created a shape which he didn’t see when he was making it, and which wouldn’t have been possible if it wasn’t for the slick surface. In other words, that kind of slick surface does help to invent surprising images, and a slick paint application helps them to emerge quickly and spontaneously, as well. This is something that we also see in de Kooning’s painting.

Rail: Yeah. Some one asked de Kooning whether he actually used mayonnaise as part of his medium, and he said: “you mean Manet?”


Phong Bui