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    Manet, The Railway
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    Manet, The Railway

    November 17, 2019


    (piano music) Man: We’re at the National
    Gallery in Washington, D.C. We’re looking at Edouard
    Manet’s The Railway, which is one of their great canvases. Woman: And one of my personal favorites. Man: It’s a very difficult
    painting to read in certain ways. Woman: Well that’s the idea I think. Man: I think you’re absolutely right. Woman: There were all these paintings
    that were easy to read at the academy. Man: It’s still pretty luscious
    to look at but it’s breaking a
    hell of a lot of conventions. Woman: It is. We can’t read it. Man: Presumably the main
    subject is facing away from us. Woman: We also don’t understand
    what their relationship is. Man: And spacial construction
    is very ambiguous. But let’s
    try to set this up a little bit. We’re in Paris and we’re just
    standing outside one of the
    main train stations in Paris and we’re at an iron gate looking
    down actually at the train yard. Woman: The train yard, right. And we’re on a very modern
    bridge in the middle of Paris
    that has recently been rebuilt. Man: We have this young
    woman and this child that have stopped to look
    and rest for a moment. The young woman looks up and out
    at us. There is a puppy in her lap. She is interrupted with
    her finger in a book and is folded up in her lap. Woman: She directly engages us. She has looked up and
    we’ve interrupted her and we’re so implicated. What are we in the
    middle of saying to her? Man: That’s right and she’s looking up, almost assessing us. Woman: We don’t know what
    our relationship is with her. Man: She has a reason to be there.
    The child has stopped to look. She has sat down to rest perhaps. It is about this interaction,
    which the city had made possible. The Grand Boulevards had opened up. The city became a place
    that you moved through as opposed to a series of
    sort of separate areas. Woman: And small neighborhoods. Man: That’s right, and so
    there are interactions between
    people between classes. Woman: Between strangers. Man: Between strangers
    that was intensely modern. Manet is capturing that beautifully here. But also with all of the ambiguity
    of the industrial culture that had made this
    possible with the railway. Look at the ambiguity that the
    railway constructs with its steam. With that cloud, that is in some ways
    really the subject of the painting. And really stark contrast between
    the luminosity of that cloud of steam and the dark
    bars of the iron fence. Woman: What I find amazing is the
    looseness with which everything is painted and how that also is a
    symbol of the modern world. Manet is rejecting all the finish. Man: But also the momentary
    because to clarify we need something that’s fixed
    and stable, that’s right. Woman: So for example the grapes on
    the ledge over to the right corner spill over but you don’t have a sense of
    that as a real ledge that exists in space that is foreshortened and
    comes out towards us and all
    that brown paint behind those black bars on the right side almost comes forward in front of the black bars, so that space collapses all of
    those rules about perspective and atmospheric perspective and
    constructing space and finish. This is a painting that’s meant
    in just about every way to signify the modern and the contemporary. Man: And it really does. Think about what it means to
    have the primary central figure
    turned away from us completely so we cannot see anything but the
    very edge of her face and her cheek. Woman: And look at how unfinished. Her arm is really lax
    modeling to define it. Nothing is framed.
    Nothing is in the center. It’s the way that we experience the city. It’s the way that our eye moves. Man: Where does he put his focus? For a moment it’s on the puppy. For a
    moment it’s on the young woman’s face, but it’s especially on her hat
    and the fashion of her hat. Woman: Yes, it’s very much about fashion
    and about reading people in the city based on what they’re
    wearing, reading their class. Man: You know we still do this.
    It’s an intensely modern painting. (piano music)