Sunday, April 5, 2020

The Birth of Modernism

I am happy to welcome Drēma Drudge to my blog today in celebration of her newly released novel, Victorine. Lose yourself in 19th century Paris, and you may be surprised by what you find.

Welcome, Drēma!

~ Samantha


The Birth of Modernism

A guest post by Drema Dredge

Victorine Meurent was, Edouard Manet said, his favorite model. I had lots of fun imagining in Victorine what their artistic interaction must have been like, considering what we know about how Manet is regarded after the fact by art history, and by what we now know of her art. That’s right; she was an artist, too, though we don’t hear about that.

Edouard Manet
Edouard Manet is considered by some to be the father of modernism, the style of painting that became popularized from the 1860’s to around 1970 that espoused loose interpretation of subject and style after a long period of stifling control of the arts by the French Academy. Instead of dealing with the expected, traditional subject matter and painting methods, Manet, that rebellious painter, couldn’t seem to help himself. He had a quite different view of what art was, and he didn’t hide it. His work was said by critics to be “slap dash” and worse.

He and those who followed in his artistic footsteps chose whatever subjects they pleased, instead of those sanctioned by The French Academy of Fine Arts (Academie des Beaux-Arts), the group in charge of French painting and arts. If they didn’t approve of your style, it was difficult to find work as an artist.

To them, there were only a limited number of acceptable subjects to paint: history painting, portraits, genre painting (scenes from everyday life), landscape art, and still life painting. The Academy also dictated style: acceptable colors, to what degree brushwork was allowed to be shown, how to finish a painting, and more. Art “should” be representational (resembling real life), they said, preferably in the style of neoclassicism. Painters could do what they wanted, but The Academy alone decided if an artist would be permitted a space in the Salon, the prestigious yearly art show. If a painter’s pictures were not displayed there, the painter wasn’t considered a real artist. A work of art being left out of the Salon meant it wasn’t going to be worth much, either.

The Railway by Edouard_Manet
And yet despite his obvious disdain for the rules, Manet curried the favor of The Academy. He wanted their (and the critics’) approval, to the degree that he even fought a duel with someone who, while not outright criticizing his work, said instead something neutral. Art critic Louis Edmond Duranty merely stated what the painter exhibited: "M. Manet showed a philosopher trampling oyster shells and a watercolor of his Christ with Angels." Manet saw it as an insult and demanded satisfaction. (When Manet slightly wounded the man, the duo instantly quit fighting and Manet apologized profusely. It appears they became friendly again later.)

It's clear Manet was not a man to bow to conventions. He married his piano teacher who had a “brother” who, most believed, was her son, possibly of Manet lineage. Whether a child of Edouard Manet or Manet’s father is not known but rumors in both directions abounded at the time. So it was perfectly natural that a man who sought to be respectable (marriage) and yet chose to marry a woman who had sired a secret child would carry contrary emotions, both wanting the Academy’s approval and tweaking their noses at the same time. He had done likewise when his father wanted him to go into the military. He had attempted to but hadn’t managed to pass the exam. One wonders how hard he tried.

Victorine Meurent
Individual paintings of his balanced on either side of the continuum, either traditionally “pretty” with a slight streak of something not so but nonetheless appealing, at least to the modern viewer, or the complete opposite with elements doubtlessly meant to upset the public prominent. His model-in-crime was Victorine Meurent, the woman who sat for the two paintings that are marked as the early if not the beginning of the revolutionary art movement he spearheaded. Olympia and Dejeuner sur l'Herbe are two of Manet’s paintings that were highly criticized at the time of their showing and are often noted as early examples of modernist works. Both depict Victorine and others, but she is the only nude in them both, and is thus spotlighted.

She and those pictured with her could be called the first modernist models. Even when Manet attempted to paint her realistically, either the elements of the composition or the rendering of the canvases defied his aim. Or perhaps he knew exactly what he was doing. Without an interview with the artist, it’s hard to say.

In my novel, I suggest Meurent does not fully understand or enjoy Manet’s work. There is evidence for this: history claims that she and Manet went their separate ways because when she herself began painting, she didn’t agree with his tendency to rebel against The Academy while simultaneously complaining that they didn’t appreciate his talent. It seemed she urged him to painted more what was expected in order to receive the accolades he so desired, but as he didn’t fully need money from his paintings to survive (he had his mother to rely upon), he could afford his rebellion.

Manet’s prominent colors are often muted, featuring thick, black lines. The bodies in them aren’t realistically depicted. The characters are flat. Painting a prostitute was not within the acceptable categories to paint, of course, but he then did it twice in succession, using Victorine as the model. And unrepentant ones at that, in the case of both paintings! This is Manet showing his version of “genre paintings,” that is, everyday scenes, of contemporary life, scenes that were the reality of Paris but that were unacknowledged by even those partaking of the vices. Everyone pretended such things didn’t happen.

Manet brought to light what others preferred he would keep in the dark, and was a proponent of painting of his time, not musty topics of years of yore. No wonder Salon goers were either confused or infuriated (or both) by his paintings. (Olympia ended up in the Salon des Refusés, an exhibit arranged in 1863 to make up for the enormous amount of paintings rejected by The Salon.) When Manet showed Dejeuner sur l'Herbe in the 1865 Salon, its reception was no warmer.

His Impressionist friends (another newly birthed movement at the same time, also maligned by The Academy) offered him artistic shelter in their exhibits, but he refused to participate, even though his work became influenced at times by them, as they had been by him initially. Still, he couldn’t let go of wanting to be a part of The Academy. In 1867, however, he was disgusted by being refused again that year by the Salon and spent more money than he could afford building and housing an exhibition for his works. He did not earn his money back.

In 1881 Manet, already ailing, was finally decorated with the Légion d’Honneur, the highest order of France. A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, his last major work, was displayed in the 1882 Salon, just a year before he died, despite its controversial nature as well, but by then due to championing by those who were beginning to appreciate him, his work was not only tolerated but some of it was celebrated.

In the meantime, after their ten or so paintings together, Victorine had since gone to art school and was becoming a painter who was good enough to not only earn enough to live on (combined with the music lessons she gave), but also had her own work accepted during years when Manet’s work both was and wasn’t accepted into the Salon.

Her work shares little resemblance to Manet’s, lending strength to the story that they parted because they did not agree with one another’s styles. The respect and admiration they had gained for one another over the years they worked together seems to have dissipated as Meurent tried out her own methods. Or perhaps life circumstances spun her out of his orbit. In any case, he did not paint her again after The Croquet Party in 1873, about a decade before he died. But looking back at the most inventive stages of his painting, the ten or so paintings he did of Victorine remain unique. Victorine, a model among the first of the modernist models.



By Drēma Drudge

In 1863, Civil War is raging in the United States. Victorine Meurent is posing nude, in Paris, for paintings that will be heralded as the beginning of modern art: Manet's Olympia and Picnic on the Grass.

However, Victorine's persistent desire is not to be a model but to be a painter herself. In order to live authentically, she finds the strength to flout the expectations of her parents, bourgeois society, and the dominant male artists (whom she knows personally) while never losing her capacity for affection, kindness, and loyalty. Possessing both the incisive mind of a critic and the intuitive and unconventional impulses of an artist, Victorine and her survival instincts are tested in 1870, when the Prussian army lays siege to Paris and rat becomes a culinary delicacy.

Drema Drudge's powerful first novel Victorine not only gives this determined and gifted artist back to us but also recreates an era of important transition into the modern world.

Connect with the author

Drēma Drudge suffers from Stendhal’s Syndrome, the condition in which one becomes overwhelmed in the presence of great art. She attended Spalding University’s MFA in Creative Writing Program where she learned to transform that intensity into fiction.

Drēma has been writing in one capacity or another since she was nine, starting with terrible poems and graduating to melodramatic stories in junior high that her classmates passed around literature class.

She and her husband, musician and writer Barry Drudge, live in Indiana where they record their biweekly podcast, Writing All the Things, when not traveling. Her first novel, Victorine, was literally written in five countries while she and her husband wandered the globe. The pair has two grown children.

In addition to writing fiction, Drema has served as a writing coach, freelance writer, and educator. She’s represented by literary agent Lisa Gallagher of Defiore and Company.

Connect with Drema: WebsiteTwitterInstagramThe Painted Word Salon