Baltimore City Paper

On the spectators in Manet's 'The Café-Concert' and art openings as gatherings for the sake of gathering

Of the "passionate spectator," or flâneur, Charles Baudelaire wrote, ". . . We might liken him to a mirror as vast as the crowd itself; or to a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness, responding to each one of its movements and reproducing the multiplicity of life and the flickering grace of all the elements of life. He is an 'I' with an insatiable appetite for the 'non-I,' at every instant rendering and explaining it in pictures more living than life itself, which is always unstable and fugitive."

In this passage from his essay "The Painter of Modern Life," Baudelaire refers to the illustrator Constantin Guys at the flâneur. But he might as well have been writing about his close friend Édouard Manet, whose small oil painting titled 'The Café-Concert,' currently hanging in the "Rye to Raphael" exhibition at the Walters, empathetically reflects drawn-out moments of spectation.


Cut off by the edge of the canvas, a woman with pursed lips and an intense brow gazes listlessly at nothing in particular. With a smoking cigarette in hand, she sits in a crowded audience that watches a performance outside of the painting, invisible to us. The surrounding faces—the focused gentleman to her left, the woman drinking away her boredom, the peculiar triangular profile of the dancer turned away in the far background, the blurred heads facing the performers—are fragmented by Manet's characteristically abrupt brushstrokes in earthy blue and gold hues. It's impossible to tell if the people are sitting in a large audience, or if the group just barely extends beyond the frame.

The painting was created in 1879, four years before Manet's death, long after he brilliantly offended the Parisian art world (and arguably initiated modernist painting) with 'Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe' and 'Olympia' at the Salon des Refusés. By this point, Manet had seen the best and the worst of the art world he inhabited: the romanticism-bound part that disparaged his paintings for being crude in manner and in subject, and the evolving modernist movement he shared with minds like Baudelaire and Emile Zola, with whom he would meet at cafés like the one in the painting. In this particular scene, the communication takes place not within the audience, but between the audience and the performance outside of our view. But our perspective is limited to the audience, the receiving end, composed of individuals both disconnected and compressed within the frame.


At the time the painting was created, the café was the center for creative dialogue for both men and women, where they could be "passionate spectators" of modern life as well as art—which, in theory, is the ideal art event. But even in Manet's painting, I pick up on an awkwardness and lack of focus that I experience at many art events today: The point of the event is not on the art, but the audience, which is in itself disconnected.

I often feel like the curmudgeonly, introverted woman in the corner of Manet's painting—the dispassionate spectator, unable to focus on anything. I see more people taking advantage of the free boxed wine than looking at the art, and I sometimes find myself doing the same. These events are inherently strange, because they do not often function as gatherings for art, but as gatherings for gatherings. The art is merely the excuse to socialize, or, as in the case of 'The Café-Concert,' to drink and be entertained. But still, everyone is isolated even when crammed into a crowded space, even when they're talking, because the focus of the gathering is often unclear and misguided. It's a bizarre social setting unlike any other, when really know why they're there—which appears to be the question on the woman's face in Manet's painting.

I do find some art events to be fulfilling opportunities to meet interesting people and talk about art, though rarely the art on view, in fear that the artist could be listening to our comments nearby. And when I manage to get a taste of an interesting show or piece at an opening, I try to return when the work isn't masked by bodies and voices. Like food and religion, art should bring people together and ignite conversation. And most art, especially performance, is validated by an audience. But it is invalidated when it becomes a backdrop to the audience (unless, in the case of relational aesthetics, the social interaction is both the product and subject of the art experience—an idea that would likely interest Manet were he alive today).

As is the case of the event in 'The Café-Concert,' performance is typically placed in a context that overlaps or mixes art and entertainment, which more often necessitates and produces social interaction than visual art. It's much harder to experience a concert alone than a painting in a museum. So obviously, it doesn't make sense to compare the café-concert, where most audience members are focused on the performance while an inevitable few are disinterested, to the present-day art reception or opening. But when confronted by the unstable space of Manet's painting, I can't help but think of standing awkwardly in a busy gallery, unable to look at the art I intended to see, unsure of what to do with myself.

But Manet recognizes that the audience is worth as much consideration as the art. In his painting, the varied reactions to the performance, from intently focused to bored to mindlessly entertained, bleed the kaleidoscopic empathy of Baudelaire's modernist, conscious of every point art can reach.