Manet painted this picture in Paris in 1882, only a decade after the working class had been battered in the repression which followed the Paris Commune. It was a time when the expansion of capitalism in western Europe meant rapid industrialisation and mechanisation.
More and more people were drawn to cities to work and live together in larger numbers than ever before. In the process, not only economic production, but also social and cultural forms were transformed, as capitalism commercialised leisure.
Paris in the 1880s was the showpiece city of modern European life, where the new middle class — clerks, bank workers, civil servants and so on — sought entertainment in large “cafe concerts” and beer halls with singers and circus acts, as did the bourgeois class they aspired to and the better paid workers.
In this new modern world popular entertainment seemed to conceal class differences beneath make-up, costume and white electric light, and Manet and other artists were fascinated by it.
A Bar is a portrait of a woman, Suzon, serving behind a bar at one of these, the Folies Bergère.
At first glance, we see Suzon’s back in the mirror as she serves a man in evening dress, but the perspective deceives.
She is more animated in the mirror, leaning towards the man. For it to make any sense, the viewer must be the man, but the space is too great. She is detached from us. But maybe the mirror is “real” life and the “portrait” is portraying her detachment.
Manet’s deliberate distortion of perspective creates a sense of unease appropriate to the shifting social reality it depicts. It gives us sense of individual alienation in midst of the cacophony of modern life — its speed, its dynamism, and the emptiness beneath its shiny surface.
It is, I think, about the individual feelings submerged beneath the class relationships that persisted, despite the apparent levelling that the cafe concerts seemed to deliver.
It suggests an impermanence that results from a society in which production is being transformed, and along with it the relationships between classes and among members of those classes. A Bar at the Folies Bergère is a tremendous painting.
It epitomises the 19th century heyday of capitalism both in its glitter and in its individual alienation, in the desires it unleashes and the class barriers that prevent their fulfilment.
The painting is permanently on display at London’s Courtauld gallery.
Whichever painting is finally voted “the nation’s favourite”, go and see this one. It is a painting that repays the effort in its complexity, its sense of unease and its empathy.