by Brooks Riley
I recently googled an old friend I hadn’t seen in a long time. Within seconds his image appeared before me, as compelling and alluring as it had once been for me so long ago. It wasn’t a living friend that I googled, never had been. It was a dead one, in more ways than one, the first painting that ever impressed me: L’homme mort, by Édouard Manet, at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, there known as The Dead Toreador. [Click photo to enlarge.]
It may seem insulting to my living friends that I find myself revisiting the inanimate ones to try to understand their place in my personal pantheon. Friendship may even be the wrong word for the acquaintance one makes with a work of art. But the attraction is there, just as we are attracted to the singular mix of attributes of a person whom one knows will become a friend. The first time I saw my best friend, it was not in person, but in a thumbnail photograph of her among hundreds, of incoming freshmen at college. There was nothing unusual about that face, but there was a quality I noticed, something ineffable. When I later met that freshman, I recognized her immediately.
I was probably 14 or 15 years old when I first saw the Manet painting. Walking into the gallery where it hung, I was immediately drawn to it. From a distance, it was the dynamism within the frame, the chiaroscuro 20-degree angle slashed across the wide canvas from upper left to lower right, that made me want to move closer. It was also the proto-cinematic framing, heralding the 1.85:1 aspect ratio of modern cinema. The angle was formed by the body of a dead bullfighter, the only event in an otherwise nearly blank, dark canvas with little context. His head, upside down, is closest to us. His feet lie at the other end of the perspective.
A few years earlier, at 12, I had attended a bullfight in Mexico City, a tawdry, torturous performance of shabby technique and bungled death thrusts that sent my parents and me fleeing from the arena before the fourth bull. It wasn’t just the gored horses, but the ineptitude of the matador to end the agony of his antagonist swiftly and precisely. Up to then, I had been intrigued by the pageantry of bullfighting, the formalism, the alleged balance between living opponents, the culture of death, the whole package of macho machinations and technicolor attitude that constituted the Hemingway terms of endearment for that form of entertainment.
Moving closer to Manet’s painting and reading its title, I couldn’t suppress a sad smile of schadenfreude for the dead man lying there, loser in a battle rigged in his favor. Still wearing his finery, his right hand resting on his solar plexus (where his left hand had been during the opening paseíllo), he lay there alone, the modest pool of blood under his left shoulder faint evidence of a struggle lost to a nobler beast.
In retrospect, I recall the graphic photographs of Che Guevara after his death in the Bolivian jungle, not so many years after my first encounter with the Manet painting. The photo I remember best is also a wide shot, with a similar but slighter angle of body from upper left to lower right. But Che’s photo is the inversion of the Manet painting. In the Che photo, Che’s face is the main event, the evidence, his eyes now hooded and left open for the cameras, even though his head is just slightly further away from us than the rest of his body. Still, we see him as though we are standing near his death bed. In the Manet version, we are closer to the torero, but behind him, denied even a decent profile, lured away from his half-hidden face to examine his body’s oddly simple, elegant sartorial paraphernalia. It’s tempting to rotate the image now to try to see that face, but this doesn’t work, for obvious reasons. What you see is what you get. You’d have to have been there to see more of it.
Manet’s torero was the first corpse I had ever seen. But death was no stranger. As a child, I had buried the odd dead mouse in the garden, usually under a tree. It was the ritual that mattered–the pile of stones or the makeshift cross–and sending the wee one to a meaningful hereafter as I understood it at the time. I knew what death was, even if I had never seen one of my kind in that state. And in my distorted childhood Weltanschauung, ‘old’ meant death and death meant old. That’s why death always loitered in the shadows at our house when I regarded my old parents, old enough to be grandparents, whose imagined vulnerability always held me in check. It wasn’t disappointing them that I feared, it was that disappointing them might kill them.
Now that I’m so much older than they were then, I deride my former infantile misconceptions of age and fragility as I do a paso doble across the room to the furious rhythms of Django Reinhardt.
Manet’s torero is not old. He’s been cut down in his youth, ‘in his prime‘ they all say, as if youth held the franchise to prime. In a wooded Jewish cemetery in Wroclaw, Poland (formerly Breslau), I saw a number of slender marble tree trunks chopped off near the base, a poetic metaphor for a young life cut short—before its prime. But what is prime? If a tree serves as metaphor, then I have only just now reached my prime, my trunk fully grown, my crown of green leafy branches spread far and wide: a sapling no more but a full grown specimen—vollendet, unlike Schubert’s unfinished symphony, or Schubert himself. On the other hand, we may never reach something as elusive as what we think of as our prime–we just keep on growing, in one way or another. I still send out a few new branches every year.
One of the stranger aspects of Manet’s painting is its setting. As if on its way to an undefinable limbo, the body has begun to depart from any semblance of physical landscape. Is that a floor on which he lies? Does it matter? Invading Manet’s mind, I find a painter no longer interested in physical periphery or even spatial verisimilitude, but in the cold facts of death—the deadweight, the stillness, the alienation, the finality, the implied dignity, and the last tenuous connection of that body with what had once concerned it—a pink cape still held in the grasp of his left hand. His eyes are closed.
Around the time I first saw this painting, I had a teenage crush on Che Guevara, still alive but already an icon, whom I and a pal once celebrated with girlish apolitical enthusiasm to the strains of the Ray Charles song ‘What’d I say’: We would chant ‘Che, che,’ instead of ‘Hey, Hey’: ‘Che-Che, Gue-Gue-va-va-ra-ra!’ How could we have known that this dangerously good-looking revolutionary—poster king of adolescent bedroom walls and tee-shirt guardian of young beating hearts, a man who would have particularly reviled our own cosy world of privilege–would soon end up as inexorably still as Manet’s torero? Both died in action, the one during a garish Totentanz on a sunny afternoon, the other at the hands of his enemies in a remote jungle shack.
As powerful as the Manet painting still remains for me, there are certain things wrong with it. As the story goes, it was once part of a larger work-in-progress entitled Incident at the Bullfight (When a bull dies, it’s business as usual; when a man dies, it’s an incident), but after initial criticism, Manet cut the painting in two, and continued to work on the dead torero, treating this part as a single, separate painting. Looking at the other half, it’s difficult to imagine that the two paintings were executed by the same geist, much less that they had once shared the same frame. Whereas most of Manet’s renditions of la corrida are impressionistic, cartoonish, sketchy and awkward depictions of action in the ring, the detail work on the dead man is astonishingly realistic. Every area of that body has been achieved with loving dedication, from the luminous striae of his white silk stockings to the iridescent pale rosy folds of the cape. Not even in his portrait The saluting matador, painted a few years later, does Manet spend so much time and effort to get it right. Compare the slashes of white and gray of those stockings in the later portrait, and then go back to the dead man’s hosiery. Look at the face of the living matador in the portrait, and then the partially obscured face of the dead one: The portrait is an array of crude palette strokes, the dead man, by contrast, a fully formed face we are nevertheless privileged to view only partially, and at an extreme angle.
If Manet got it right, then what’s wrong with the painting? I’m disturbed by the pallor, or rather the absence of pallor. This man isn’t dead yet, or else Manet has never seen a dead man. This man looks asleep. Something happens at the moment of death that is so graphic, that I am reluctant to describe it. Like a cinematic sleight of hand, or a fade-through from one camera lens filter to another, the face visibly loses color. The pallor that emerges before your eyes, like milky water seeping up through a very fine sieve, is unlike any shade a make-up artist (or a painter?) could ever duplicate. It is a transformation that takes place all at once, after one or more missed heartbeats.
It’s a shade I once saw on a tomb in Salzburg, a town where death used to be celebrated in all sorts of ghoulish ways—a pair of marble hands emerging from a tombstone, a snake coiling its way through the eye sockets of a skull. The shade belonged to a life-sized stone skeleton, perfectly rendered, which lay across the fenced-off tomb of an unknown notable (death’s own oxymoronic joke). A skeleton has no skin, but the color of the stone was oddly familiar, a very pale matte gray.
Once Manet removed the dead man from the larger painting, cutting death off from life, as it were, he was free to eliminate Lorca’s 5 p.m. plaza de toros where the death had occurred, and to move the body to another ‘where’, to isolate it, and launch it on its journey into eternal darkness. He moves it from a gaudy place of action to a somber indeterminate place of inaction. The stasis that replaces the kineticism of the corrida allows him to concentrate on a still life, or still death–to paint rather than to sketch. Not a man of action, Manet retreats to the safety of his atelier. Although the illumination indicates that we are inside a room, with a single source of light directed at the floor in front of the body, there is no end to that room behind the body. It merely dissolves into a dark soupy ether. Eternity begins at the right leg, no longer related to the floor on which the upper torso is clearly lying.
Manet is in the throes of a metaphor, unusual for a French painter of that period. This is not an unfinished painting. It is one that attempts to cross the divide between life and death. This explains the undefined space on the other side of the body. (One could argue that in a still life background often doesn’t matter, but in this case, the absence of background is in significant contrast to the modest realism with which the foreground has been presented.) This could also explain the absence of pallor: The torero’s face is still too close to our side of the divide, the living side.
Where did Manet, young purveyor of bonhomie in Déjeuner sur l’herbe, come up with this image? It is almost certain that he had seen a 17th century Neapolitan painting entitled The dead soldier, which belonged to a French nobleman at the time and had been erroneously attributed to Velasquez, one of Manet’s favorite painters. Indeed, Manet was more or less accused of plagiarism by a prominent art critic when this work was first shown. It’s true that he borrowed here and there from The dead soldier, although I prefer the word ‘homage’ here, seeing the earlier painting more as a Vorbild–in this case, role model. What he borrowed were details: the right hand resting over the solar plexus, and the left hand holding the one object that defined him in life–in the older painting it’s the pommel of the sword sheathed against the left leg; in the Manet painting, it’s the pink cape. Manet has tilted his corpse to achieve a more dynamic angle germane to the entire frame. He’s moved it closer to us. And in so many other ways, he has improved on the ‘original’.
We should be grateful that Manet had not yet been to Spain or seen a bullfight when he painted L’homme mort. One of the painting’s many mysteries is the attire of the deceased. I searched in vain for something similar in the annals of bullfighting, but found nothing so modest, so elegant, so rightly funereal. Nowhere else did I find so much unmitigated black, or the white sash across his waist. A clue could lie in Manet’s earlier painting of his brother Gustave dressed as a Spanish majo, or 19th century Madrileño dandy. The same outfit also shows up in an even earlier Manet painting of a woman dressed as a matador, killer of bulls (hmm. . .). I read somewhere that Manet had a variety of Spanish costumes stored away in his atelier, bought from a Spanish merchant in the Passage Jouffroy. This outfit was surely one of them. Then there’s that pink: The cape seems satiny, and looks unlike any cape used in a bullfight—certainly not the matador’s red muleta, but also not the magenta and gold capote de brega of a matador’s assistant or member of the cuadrilla. Its color might seem more at home in the folds of a Marie Antoinette ball gown. The sword placed beside his right shoulder hints at a saber rather than a matador’s estoque de toreo.
Small wonder then, that Manet changed the painting’s title from Le torero mort to L’homme mort shortly after his return from his first trip to Spain: Having earlier been forced to rely on the Spain of his imagination, he had gotten it all wrong! Had he painted this after his trip to Spain, it would have been a very different painting–the dead torero’s traje de luces, or suit of lights, with its razzle-dazzle embroidery and silvery highlights adding perhaps an ironic, contrapuntal dimension to the work, but diminishing its somber glory. We can also be thankful that he didn’t ‘correct’ his mistake by revising the work. He simply gave it another name, which got him off the hook. (Take note, National Gallery).
I don’t know what made me remember ce vieil ami at this end of my life. We don’t choose our friends, they choose us, and when we see them again after a long absence, we notice things we didn’t see before. As with many things in life, its flaws contribute to its magnificence. Seeing them now doesn’t make me love this painting any less—au contraire. At the time I was unable to get to know this first friend better—no time, no resources, and my ‘tree’ was too busy sprouting young branches in other directions.
More friends have been made in the intervening years, few of whom conform to an accepted canon or prevailing pantheon of art. You won’t find a Picasso, a Boticelli, a Warhol or the Mona Lisa in my inner circle—a bunch as eclectic as my living friends, each with a special place in my memory and affection. I won’t belabor the point by listing them, other than to say that L’homme mort is the only French painting on any of my pedestals.
Of the rest, there is one friend that deserves short mention here, who pulled me in other directions, deeper down or higher up into a cosmos of myth and metaphor, mystery, nature, and transport. Caspar David Friedrich’s Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer or Wanderer above the sea of fog is an exception in Friedrich’s work even though it embodies the Romanticism for which he is famous: It is one of the only paintings in which his oft-used Rückenfigur (human figure seen from behind) transcends the gemütlich Biedermeier anonymity of the nature-loving folk in his other works.
I first saw it at the Hamburger Kunsthalle twenty years ago, a dazzling vertical landscape dominated by a lone figure standing on a rocky promontory at its center. The landscape is visionary, luminescent, not to be found on any map or fixed at any earthly set of coordinates—unlike his other landscapes—and seems to pour out from the heart of the man gazing at it. This wanderer, who could well be the blond Friedrich himself, now takes center stage in a work that offers so many interpretations, both positive and negative, and so many metaphors jostling for attention, that one is compelled to apply one’s own mortal coil as a foil against which to examine it. This is the painting that defines the Romantic experience, like no other.
In the age of the selfie, the face has become a devalued currency. My own aversion to portraiture might have begun with Manet’s L’homme mort when I came to realize that I don’t need to see a face to ponder mortality, immortality or any philosophical enigma for that matter. The face is thought to be the most expressive part of the human body, and in real life this is true. But as a single static image it is one-dimensional. The facial expression in a portrait might convey a mood or emotion (as can a thumbnail shot), and even a certain mystery, as we are so often inclined to believe.
But as Friedrich’s wanderer bears out, it is not seeing the face that intensifies the impact and relevance of this painting. We see what that man standing on the rock is seeing, but we have no idea what he is thinking or feeling. We can only make a wild guess. Even body language can’t really help us here. By denying us a face to ‘read’, he has opened up a Pandora’s box of multiple implications to pick and choose from, depending on the mood and mindset of the beholder.
The painting has something plakativ about it, from the German word for poster, Plakat, and sure enough, sadly, it has become a kind of ‘poster boy’, popping up everywhere, doing for Romanticism and the Romantic experience what the opening bars of Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra did for space travel and corporate grandiosity. Its Rückenfigur is the ultimate conduit of philosophical and cognitive diversity for a new age—not the all too ubiquitous close-up of a face. From the sublime to the ridiculous, it is only now that I realize how much my own cartoon pair of cats (seen on this site every Monday) owe to Friedrich and his exploitation of the Rückenfigur.
I could go on, about this and other Friedrich paintings (his trees, his ice, his monk). Some other time. When I look at this old friend now, I detect a new portent lurking in its alchemy, one that pertains to the millennial zeitgeist: As a species, we may have brought nature to its knees as we master our universe, but it will live on–long after we have climbed down from that rock. And the real trees will outlive our own.