Identity and Dis-identity as Unity: Paintings of Modern Life

Vanessa J Müller

Alienation is nothing new: the concept as developed by Marx dates back to late nineteenth century and reflects how, in a capitalist mode of production, the worker is alienated from what he produces, from his labour, from his own historicity. It is also applicable to the human in general. But how did artists respond to it? Some works from the time when Marx shaped his idea of alienation show what is actually at stake when painting as a mode of representation is in doubt about the depiction of ‘modern life’, i.e., life in times of high industrialisation, rapidly growing metropolises, accelerating economic imbalance, and, most notably: when glaciation has taken over social relations.

There is a painting by Edgar Degas from 1875 that has two very distinct titles, namely Place de la Concorde, Paris and Viscount Lepic and his Daughters(1). Quite apart from the fact that a street picture apparently can also be a family portrait and vice versa, the painting reflects a composition clearly borrowed from decisive-moment photography invented during that period. It is possible to make out figures moving through the background of the Place de la Concorde with the Tuilieries, while Count Lepic and his daughters are clearly depicted in the foreground. Just as decisive-moment photography elevates chance to the object of the composition by capturing fragments of a particular reality, which in turn reveals itself as transitory by means of the contingent sectional focus, so too Degas draws upon a staged chance occurrence that radically cuts into the figures on the left-hand and bottom edges of the painting. The effect of the latter is to force the group of people away from the centre of the action, leaving the actual middle of the composition completely empty. However, where Degas is concerned, the implied gesture of isolation is deliberate, because it is unfolding in the place where it is most irritating, namely in the bosom of the family. Whereas Count Lepic is turning to the right and is virtually striding out of the picture, his daughters stare indifferently in the direction opposite to which they are seemingly heading. The partial figure of a man can be discerned on the left-hand edge looking towards the group of three, but they are not paying him any attention. The refined quality of this composition contradicts the posited notion of chance to such an extent that one could say that separation is the mode of community for the individuals here: alienation and isolation form the actual motif, which for its part is curiously at odds with the vibrancy of the street scene celebrated by contemporary photography of the era (2).

Degas’ painting illustrates a contrast between the city and people, architecture and portrait, which would itself introduce the theme of alienation as a metaphor for a structurally as well as economically determined environment. Degas’ painting also shows that at the height of capitalism — localised by Walter Benjamin, following Marx, in Paris at the end of the nineteenth century — certain genres no longer functioned: the family portrait duly evoked in one of the painting’s titles bears witness to a dislocated unity, whereas the topographically recognisable street scene (posited on the anonymity of the figures within) is contradicted by the group of figures, who are unequivocally recognisable as its protagonists. The dissociated subject of capitalism becomes lost in the shattered perception of a space, which itself disintegrates into separate entities. This ‘neither/nor’ between unity and fragmentation reflected in the alternative titles of the painting does not mark a break with particular conventions in painting or even an abolition of historical typologies, and yet it does cast doubt upon the unconditional validity of the picture. The latent melancholy emanating from the painting is therefore not simply due to the motif, but is inherent in the painting as a mode of representation itself.

Alienation does not mean loneliness or being alone, but manifests as a relationship, albeit one that is deficient in its key respect. The alienated relationship is a relationship that claims to be valid, even if it no longer exists. It is thus neither a non-relationship nor simply the absence of a relationship, but a relation characterised by unrelatedness. Relationships from which one has become alienated mysteriously claim to still be one’s own, even though they have become alien. Suppose, for instance, you have been alienated from your family; this implies that you have not always been a stranger to them. You are still connected in some way, regardless of the real (actually lived) relationship. (3)

Impressionist landscape paintings celebrate the longed-for, irretrievably lost unity of man with nature in colourful, open compositions. But when it comes to the representation of people, there is a notable deficit in interpersonal communication: the desire for harmony with nature goes hand in hand with a feeling of separation while being close to others, as shown in particular in some paintings by Edgar Degas and Édouard Manet.

It might be a coincidence that the latter died the same year as Karl Marx. But the ‘painter of modern life’, as Baudelaire called him, created compositions that illustrate the paradoxical relation of unrelatedness perfectly. Standing close together, the figures featured in works of his like The Balcony (4) or The Studio (both from 1868) are key examples of dislocated unities, of people being together on their own. In The Balcony, the pyramidal structure of the composition with the man’s hands mediating between the women’s heads evokes staged stability, and yet the dominant impression is not cohesion but separation. In The Studio, a young man (Manet’s son Léon) leans against a table set for dinner while a woman stands behind him and a second man sits at the table smoking. None of the persons seems to be connected; especially the main figure is exposed in isolation.

The work most often associated with alienation, Manet’s last painting A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (5) from 1882, shares this compositional structure. It depicts a specific location, one of Paris’ many so-called cafés-concert, which is also identifiable from the title itself. We see a young barmaid behind the counter in front of a huge mirror that reflects the interior of the crowded bar. She looks tired. The historical specificity has influenced several interpretations that differ from contemporary critical opinion — which, for its part, viewed the barmaid as a coquette typical of fin de siècle Paris – by identifying her instead as a representative of a new underclass. T. J. Clark called Manet’s painting ‘an image of oppressive prostitution’ and the young woman’s wistfulness an ‘expression of alienation’ (6). The ‘wistfulness’ might indicate that the loss implicit in alienation could still be felt at that time; that the idea of — and longing for — a state of being one with oneself and the world was, at least hypothetically, within reach. The impressionist landscapes (although mostly devoid of people) point to that. Today, the ideal of reconciliation with nature can no longer be filed under nostalgia, but has become an ideological question — an issue we will discuss in future contributions.

But, above all, Manet’s painting is perplexing on account of the large mirror, which is located behind the bar and reflects the events unfolding in front of it. The woman at the centre and facing the viewer is also reflected in the mirror, albeit from a perspective that is simply impossible in reality. In the reflection, she is turned sideways towards a man, a position which corresponds to her sideways posture captured in an earlier sketch, but which was replaced by the frontal pose addressing the viewer, which we now behold in the finished painting. There has been much speculation about the reasons for this obvious mistake in the composition. The German art historian Max Imdahl offers a reading, which has the advantage of making the composition of the extant painting the basis of all interpretation. The young woman behind the bar and her reflection are separate, inasmuch as the mirror image is clearly displaced, i.e., incorrect. But in what way, Imdahl asks, is this incorrect reflection correct?

‘It is correct as a pictorially — but also as a merely pictorially — visible expression of the indivisible in the modality of the divisible or of the divisible in the modality of the indivisible: one is inclined to interpret this extremely special reciprocity between the young woman and her reflection as a configuration of identity and dis-identity as a unity, whereby such a unity of identity and dis-identity would understandably be impossible to illustrate without the incorrect reflection. In the finished painting, the configuration of unified identity and dis-identity produces a dual yet divided existence of the young woman with regard to her individuality and her role. Indubitably, the split between the individual and the role determines the consciousness of human self-alienation resulting from the pressures of modern society obtaining in the burgeoning urban way of life at that time. Perhaps this is the precise meaning of the painting, namely that the right to individual identity in modern society and the demands of the role one plays are irreconcilable […] If one differentiates between real and reflected reality, as well as between first and second reality or between reality and illusion, then the young woman, as an individual, resides in the first reality, whereas her role has its place in the second.’ (7)

This differentiation makes the paintings of modern life from more than a century ago valid expressions of a feeling familiar also to today’s viewer: they are representations of the irreconcilable split between one’s self and one’s role, of the performance we have to deliver and the idea of an authentic self, of the right to individual identity and the demands of society at large. Striving for the authentic just seems to deepen that split, and the mirror we use to check our image might deliver a reflection as incorrect as the one in Manet’s painting. In A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, the man with the top-hat who can be seen in the mirror on the right might represent the viewer. He and everybody else in the picture but the barmaid are part of the reflected world, whereas she is ‘real’ and yet disconnected from all around her. We think we know how the painting’s composition functions, and yet it can only be understood when we accept that what is considered to be wrong is actually right — a conclusion reminiscent of Adorno’s famous note in Minima Moralia that ‘there is no right life in the wrong one’.

According to Marx, work in terms of consciously shaping the world around us makes us human. Alienation is the separation between the subject and what makes him or her human. We are alienated from our powers as individuals, and forced to sell our labour in return for a wage. As workers, we are disconnected from what we produce, be it material or immaterial. Even time does not belong to the worker as wage labour makes time belong to the employer. Workers, being replaceable, need to compete against each other for jobs and promotions. If work was once highly cooperative, capitalism makes it competitive. We are alienated from our community, separated from the production process, forced into relations of competition rather than cooperation, and we do not get to understand how our individual powers are reflected in and contribute to humanity as a whole. Therefore, we are alienated from ourselves and from our historicity: from what makes us subjects of history. How can this be linked to A Bar at the Folies-Bergère? The bartender is alienated from what she produces. We can assume that she does not have any connections to her clients beyond commodification and she is there simply for her wage. She is wearing a corset, which is her work uniform. To work for her means being told how to do your job, from the way you act to the way you dress. The woman in the painting can be exchanged at any time by another bartender. She is replaceable and that, together with the other modes of behaviour inclined with her job, dehumanises her.

In these paintings by Degas and Manet something is obviously wrong yet difficult to name. The focus on the French bourgeoisie is also a potential source of irritation, although the contemporary viewer might presume that alienation is bound to the working class and therefore does not concern them. It was filmmakers like Antonioni who took up this idea and set their characters adrift in a world of separation, exploring the existential angst of the bourgeoisie while at the same time including a critique of late capitalism running through the depictions of the apathetic, alienated upper middle-class, who are, like their predecessors in French fin de siècle, exposed in their isolation.

This text contribution was written within the framework of the UNRELATED project.


(1) Edgar Degas, Place de la Concorde, Paris and Viscount Lepic and his Daughters, 1875, oil on canvas, 78.4 x 117.5 cm, Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg (2) Cf. Max Imdahl, “Édouard Manets Un Bar aux Folies-Bergère – Das Falsche als das Richtige“, in: Imdahl (ed.), Wie eindeutig ist ein Kunstwerk? (Cologne: DuMont, 1986), pp. 75–102. (3) Cf. Rahel Jaeggi: Entfremdung. Zur Aktualität eines sozialphilosophischen Problems (Frankfurt: Campus Verlag, 2005), pp. 43–44. (4) Édouard Manet, The Balcony, 1868, oil on canvas, 169 × 125 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris (5)Édouard Manet, Un bar aux Folies Bergère, oil on canvas, 96 x 130 cm, Courtauld Gallery, London (6) T. J. Clark, “The Bar at the Folies-Bergère”, in: The Wolf and the Lamb: Popular Culture in France, ed. J. Beauroy, M. Bertrand and E. Gargar (Anma Libri: Saratoga / California, 1977), p. 236. (7) Imdahl, “Edouard Manets Un Bar aux Folies-Bergère – Das Falsche als das Richtige”, p. 102.