Regicide and modern art – II

Photo by Carmela Gross


Édouard Manet's sharp, synthetic brushstroke stripped light of its symbolic power

natural right of colors

Among all the attacks that Édouard Manet’s painting committed – according to Pierre Francastel’s “principle of violent opposition” – against the dogma of pictorial unity and harmony, one of the most fruitful (as a generator of new syntactic possibilities and which soon it would also play a decisive role as a factor in the transition of painting to another regime) consisted in attacking the unity of light in favor of the independent irruption of colors.

Édouard Manet's sharp, synthetic brushstroke stripped light of its symbolic power. No sign of anything similar to the remorse and nostalgia that painted Delacroix's (1798-1863) art with a veneer of melancholy and religiosity. Thus, Édouard Manet reduced pictorial luminosity, by pulverizing it, to the condition of matter or something similar to a remainder of input or physical residue, as a portion of non-formalized paint – which remains on the canvas and still draws attention today. Similarly, colors ceased to appear as unitary representations of light and therefore of spirituality, to present themselves crudely only in material terms. They became opaque and distinct. They began to strictly adhere to the area occupied by the screen, impermeable to each other.[I]

physical skepticism

In this way, the idea of ​​color, convertible into a sign and degree of the unity of light – in turn, a symbol of the unity of everything – was replaced by the notion of color as a fragment – ​​therefore, irreducible matter and with no other value than that of use, that is, anchored to the situation. Thus, the option so much to Manet's taste of bringing light colors to light and dark to dark, was set up as a strategy specially designed to demarcate the economic turn in progress in Haussmann's Paris, as if it configured a space allotted or fragmented according to private interests. . By referring each color to empirical and material individuation within the limits of each one, such a maneuver converted them into portions of a new worldview, derived rather from the separating perception and the inherent hostility to the competition and opposition of interests, than from the unifying feeling.

For this reason, despite being uncontained, the indignation of Victor de Jankovitz, a critic of the time, was made in his sharp and precise fashion in measuring the radical novelty represented by the anti-romantic and anti-idealist painting of Olympia in terms of colour, luminosity and overall vision.

It is worth returning to the terms of Victor de Jankovitz's exasperation, who curiously loses the reach of reflection without losing the ability to distinguish, starting with the realistic affiliation of the pictorial experiment in question: “The author represents us, under the name of Olympia, a young woman lying on a bed, wearing a ribbon in her hair and holding a vine leaf in her hand. The expression on her face is that of a being premature and given to vice; the body of a rotten color, recalls the horror of the Mortuary (...) Alongside errors of all kinds and audacious inaccuracies, there is a considerable error in this painting, made impressive in the works of realists. Indeed, if the majority of his paintings are so distressing to nature and to our eyes, it is because the harmonic part, which is linked to the irradiation of light and the atmosphere, is, so to speak, completely sacrificed. From so much eliminating the feeling of the soul, or the spirit of the thing, in the interpretation of nature, the sensations of the eyes only give them the local color, like the Chinese, without any combination with air and light. One would say that it is a question of a physical skepticism”.[ii]

riot of sensations

Discarding the completely mistaken and somewhat comical value judgment, the critic noted and called “physical skepticism” the unprecedented cognitive valuation of sensation and physiology, along with the emptying of the feeling of unity, once guaranteed by the subject’s suprasensible premise transcendental Kantian and reproduced by romantic subjectivity.

Thus, with the painting of Édouard Manet, a raw and soulless realism was implanted, which prioritized sensation. The diversity of things and the conflict of interests appeared. The disenchantment of light, as it involves the individuation and materialization of each color, corresponds to the aesthetic experience in the discontinuous world; world without a priori unity and, while converted into an object of calculation, subject only to abstract unification.

It is concluded that the republican realism of Édouard Manet came to install against the creationist unitarianism and against the illusionism of the “ancien régime” chromatic the primacy of a dispute or competition of colors. If white and black reduced to their inscription as quantities ceased to symbolize spirit and darkness, the free market regime of colors was established, frankly dissonant as analogous terms of different sensations.

In order to understand the historical and political significance of such a step, allow me to insist and even repeat that the unity of light constituted a true cornerstone for the European tradition of the previous two centuries. Let us remember that the pictorial discourse of “luminism” established throughout the historical arc initiated by Caravaggio (1571-1610) and developed by Rembrandt (1606-69) and his successors, and which extended at least to the romantic painting of the “sublime”, it was organically linked to the Cartesian idea of ​​the soul as a substance or thinking nature and thus constituted the double or equivalent from the judgmental point of view of the subject of reason.

The replacement in the symbolic economy of such a device by another – in which the monarchical and monocular model of light came to give way to the clash of colors with each other, that is, the impossibility of vision transitioning smoothly from one color to another – has parallels with radical changes in economic and social orders. In this way, the difficult and abrupt passage from one light color to another, for example, between white, cream and pink in Olympia, meant the end of the protocol of tonal conciliations. In other words, this passage opened up the fall of the gaze, precipitated from the heights in which the “divine right of infinity and transcendence” prevailed – integrating and unifying all colors –, to fall into the raw sensibility of the materialistic cartography of rival interests – embodied in the chromatic particularities.

But, in summary, despite the prevalence of the principle of violent opposition suggesting a conflicting situation in which differences were revived as rupture and chaos, it was still not a question of the foundation of a new visual system. In this case, the scene rather signaled a generalized disintegration and crisis of the pictorial order disturbed by the unbridled competition of the colors among themselves. 

color totemism

Before we get to collage – which seemed at first glance to constitute a revolution in painting – let us go through another moment of his preparation in the realm of sensations. Van Gogh (1853-90) and Gauguin (1848-1903) leveraged, through new uses and chromatic techniques, the tendency previously elaborated by Manet, of constituting chromatic entities that repelled each other.

In this way, they dissociated the use of color from the grammar of the plane, that is, from the logic of depth and unity, critically emptying the possibility or credibility of the device of the so-called “local color”, that is, of color subordinated to the index function. naturalness or authenticity of the object, regardless of the spontaneity of the subject of perception. Thus, Van Gogh introduced a new conception of color and from this titanic critical operation were born the many skies of his painting, leaked in colors and tactile lines, of proximity and tones never seen before in European painting.

Thus, purified and analytically enhanced to the point of absorbing the legislating functions of drawing, color became the new foundation of spatial representation. Indeed, by gaining thickness and the status of matter with Van Gogh, color made possible a new way of spatially representing volumes and the distance between things. Mass and distance relations began to translate into currents of energy evidenced by the color and material traces of the brushstrokes – these, no longer signs, but physical indices, signs such as a trace of a material event on a surface.

The substitution of line for color as the new standard for measuring space should not be underestimated: the mature work of Cézanne (1839-1906) was also born, among other factors, from this kind of struggle of colors, outlined during Van Gogh's stay in Provence, dethroning – like a primitive horde that slaughters the father – the empire of drawing (as a double of understanding and reason) over the other plastic faculties. In this case, the color came to be used as “Ariadne's thread”. He led Van Gogh and Cézanne to triumph against the labyrinth of appearances. It allowed them – just as other analytical means also allowed Marx (1818-83) and Freud (1856-1939) – to go beyond a spiritualized order of representations about man and social life and lay down the pillars of a new economy and pictorial syntax on material bases.

For this reason, perhaps it is possible to speak of the elaboration of new principles and new regulation for painting based on the natural right of its inputs (supports, colors, brushstrokes, etc.). Thus, when space appears implied from now on, it will no longer be as an a priori mental form, but rather as an instance of an affective-corporal content – ​​for example, the energy flows evidenced by Van Gogh –, space, therefore, resulting from the reciprocal determination between subject and object.

It was from this new level as much as from a rereading of stained glass by the Symbolist painter and writer Émile Bernard (1868-1941), that Gauguin set out to re-conceive the pictorial order in terms of independent and discontinuous fields of color, so-called “partitioned“. Today we can also distinguish them as a protocol. From this primal collage, a new kind of objectified light was born in the painting. This operation constituted the main vector of Matisse's discourse (1869-1954). Freed from the taboo that ennobled it, drawing was also reborn, but from now on no longer as a reflection of understanding, but the child of the plebeian extraction of tactility – but this is another story, that of the scribble as a line-lumpen, which would lead us along other paths .

In conclusion, the question of the representation of light or the production of pictorial value, inherent to the religious and metaphysical tradition of Western painting, was overcome in this new historical level by its fabrication according to exclusively chromatic and shock relations – that is, relations established only from the living work of colors and their articulation in a collage way, as discontinuous portions. In this way, in the economy of the new materialist chromatic regime, the production of light generated from painting itself began, and not from the representation or allusion to an extra-pictorial and highly symbolic phenomenon, but even openly metaphysical. In short, since then we have had a direct luminosity born, not elsewhere, but manufactured from the contrast itself, that is, from the reciprocal attrition of the colors on the canvas.

With Matisse, there is no longer any verisimilitude in evoking any previous unity, be it that of the metaphysical light that supposed tonality, or that of the organic fluency proper to the time of craftsmanship. Matisse's compositions appear to be made up of clearly separated and heterogeneous surfaces. But these parts interacted provocatively, constituting a collage or a new synthesis between different parts, which remained as such – perhaps hence the erotic happiness or materialist utopia that Matisse's works promised.

However, I want to underline that I use in this brief summary of the history of modern painting past tenses, because the effect of all these canvases in the current era of neoliberal totalitarianism, and also of the so-called “end of history”, is quite different than the narrative of materialistic irruption that I have just made to you. But the liquidation of the conditions of possibility of the aesthetic experience is also another story, which is not the place to address. So far I have spoken to you of a world and a sensibility that have disappeared.

* Luiz Renato Martins he is professor-advisor of PPG in Economic History (FFLCH-USP) and Visual Arts (ECA-USP). He is the author, among other books, of The Conspiracy of Modern Art (Haymarket/ HMBS).

To read the first article in the series click on

Extract from the original version (in Portuguese) of chap. 11, “From a lunch on the grass to the bridges of Petrograd (notes from a seminar in Madrid): regicide and the dialectical history of modern art”, from the book La Conspiration de l'Art Moderne et Other Essais, edition and introduction by François Albera, translation by Baptiste Grasset, Paris, editions Amsterdam (2024, prim. semester, proc. FAPESP 18/26469-9).


[I] One of Manet's characteristic maneuvers, in this sense, consisted of making explicit the manufactured content of the representation of light, through the contrast of matte and bright colors; for example in street singer (ca. 1862, Boston, Museum of Fine Arts) and in Un Moine in Prières (Monk in Prayer, 1865, Boston, Museum of Fine Arts).

[ii] «L'auteur nous représente, sous le nom d'Olympia, une jeune fille couchée sur un lit, ayant pour tout vemtement, un noeud de ruban dans les cheveux, et la main pour feuille de vigne. L'expression du visage dela est celle d'un être prématuré et vicieux; le corps dela d'une couleur faisandée, rapelle l'horreur de la Morgue (…)

/ A côté d'erreurs de tous genres et d'audacieuses incorrections, on trouve dans ce tableau un considérable défaut, devenu frappant dans les oeuvres des réalistes. En effet, si la plupart de leurs tableaux dele affligent tant la nature et nos yeux, c'est que la partie harmonique qui tient aux rayonnements de la lumière et à l'atmosphère est pour ainsi dire complètement sacrifiée. A force d'éliminer le sentiment de l'âme, ou l'esprit de la chose, dans l'interprétation de la nature, les sensations des yeux ne leur donnent, comme aux Chinois, que la couleur locale nullement combinée avec l'air et le jour. On dirait du septicisme physique.” Apud TJ CLARK, The Painting of Modern Life – Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers, P. 96, no. 62 to p. 288, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1984.

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