On one wall of the Royal Academy's superb exhibition of Manet's portraits, hang his paintings of Zola and of Mallarmé. Painted only eight years apart, in 1868 and 1876, respectively, and hung within touching distance, their style and approach could hardly be more different.
Manet's figures always have a certain glassiness, a detachment; the gaze that emanates from a picture, if it does, is rarely uncomplicatedly inviting; in a great work like the Dejeuner sur l'herbe (1862-3), Victorine Meurent, the model for the central nude, looks coolly out of the picture, perhaps anticipating the viewer's startled response and smiling gently at our bourgeois propriety. In the great and mysterious The Railway (1873), Meurent peers out at us, her expression at once fearful, reproving, and amused, leading us into the aporetic structure of the painting. In both (and most) paintings, the figures are awkward, detached. Manet's Zola is certainly no exception. He sits stiffly, uncomfortably, slightly apart from his desk, a large book cradled in his left hand, his right resting on his knee.
There are many reasons why Zola might have been uncomfortable: Manet was notorious for the number of sittings he required of his subjects (another painting in the exhibition, of Georges Clemenceau, is brilliant but a sketch because the young politician could not commit to the hours posing for the artist); and also this is not Zola's home. While the painting might lead us to think we are looking at the author in his study, it's actually Manet's studio. But one of the great puzzles of the picture is what Zola is looking at. His gaze is directed off to the right of the canvas, but slightly below the horizon. It's unclear whether he is gazing at something with his famous cool amoral detachment, or if he is lost in thought; is his attention directed outwardly or inwardly?
As it happens, that's rather a faultline for Zola's work. Is he an empiricist, meticulously itemising the data of the world without judgment or favour? Or is he offering us a vivid sense of his own perspective on things; how far is everything knowingly and proudly coloured by his temperament? Manet was painting in the wake of the great figure of mid-century French art, Courbet, whose realism was founded in a rather Romantic (though he denied this) assertion of the free individual: it was by asserting his own individuality that he was free to be a Realist, and it was by being a Realist that he asserted his individuality. Zola has flushed the Romanticism out of his system much more than Courbet, though his characteristic formulation of Naturalism - 'a corner of life seen through a temperament' - is a not-wholly-successful attempt to square the circle of artistic creativity and scientific objectivity. So the question of Zola's engagement with the outside world is a significant one.
Indeed, the whole orientation of the picture is strange. Zola is looking off canvas, but also away from the canvas. Manet has placed around Zola several items that represent the author's literary and artistic interests - books, a pen, and a reproduction of Manet's Olympe (1863), which Zola had defended, and the large blue pamphlet is Zola's commendatory defence of Manet from the catcalls of the Salon - yet Zola's gaze specifically seems to be away from all of these things. There is a profound sense of disconnection between Zola the man and his artistic context.
In a stimulating essay on Zola and painting, Robert Lethbridge argues that perhaps the painting is offering an implicit critique of Zola's attitudes to Manet, which tended to see the painter as a figure triumphantly of his time, and had the downside of denying the painter autonomy; he was, as it were, simply the most vigorous symptom of his era. (This was, as it happened, how Zola tended to describe everything - in very mechanistic, functionalist terms.) He notes that Zola's eye-glasses are left dangling in the picture, adding an imputation of sightlessness. Zola is turned away from Manet in the very moment of affirming Manet. Lethbridge also notes that in two more-or-less contemporary collective portraits of artists and critics - Fantin-Latour Un Atelier aux Batignolles (1870) and Bazille's Mon Atelier (1869-70) - Zola is again turned away from the main action and once you notice it, you can't unnotice it. It's almost as if all these artists are saying, look at Zola; so close, but always looking the wrong way.
The image of Mallarmé, however, is different again. Zola is framed by his (and Manet's obsessions). Mallarmé, by contrast, is in an an indistinct space; it's an interior, but the size, scale, main use of the room is unspecified. The details of the room - in contrast to the meticulous rendering of paintings within paintings and other decorative elements that characterise the Zola portrait - are very loosely sketched in. It’s hard to make out if the wall behind Mallarmé is wallpapered, or directly painted; it's just, I suppose, possible there is a plant behind him. There is almost a hallucinatory quality to the picture as if the background is out of focus, part-imagined. The heavy impasto turns the air thick, which seems to blend with Mallarmé's generous cigar smoke. Showing someone smoking was a mid-nineteenth century pictorial trope suggesting Bohemianism (one of the many ways Courbet established his avant-gardism was to paint himself smoking). Here the smoking suggests we are at the interface between this and another world; all that is solid melts into air, the material becoming ethereal. Unlike Zola's bourgeois uprightness, Mallarmé lolls to his right in a position that could be comfortable, but could be narcotic. Indeed, Manet's hooded eyes might suggest that he is shrouded in thought, but it might also imply he's on opiates.
It's easy to point up the differences and see in the Zola portrait the arch-naturalist and ardent empiricist while Mallarmé is all cosmic unities and transcendental experience. But I wonder if actually Manet saw the portraits as rather similar. It's tempting to think that Zola's gaze is his being caught by some curiosity, his instinct for empirical observation even manifesting when sitting for his portrait, while Mallarme is caught in a moment of apprehending the 'beyond'; but, in fact, the gazes are fairly comparable. Look at them again and imagine that Mallarmé is observing the movement of a beetle, while Zola is the lost in the realms of Higher Thought; it fits well enough.
Indeed, while Zola and Mallarmé were exponents of opposed and rival schools - Naturalism and Symbolism - in 1880s Paris, it's a mistake to think that they occupied positions on either side of a fiercely-defended Berlin Wall of literary modernism. One might see the portraits as emphasising the overlaps and continuities between the two. Mallarme's gaze is, as I have suggested, as ambiguous as Zola's. Is he seeing or are we observing someone unseeing? Is he looking or imagining, in a state of concentration or of reverie? Both Zola and Mallarmé, the paintings seem to say, in their own ways, are ambiguously related to this and another world. Indeed, placed side by side, the two portraits reveal a series of rhymes and reflections of each other. Zola looks away from the rear wall in the painting to the right; Mallarmé looks away from the rear wall to the left. Zola has one hand on his leg and the other on some papers; Mallarmé has one hand in his jacket and the other on some papers. Zola looks stiff and awkward and Mallarmé lolls, but neither of them is entirely 'there'. Mallarmé is surrounded by thick air in which, one fancies, revelations and emanations pulse. Zola is equally hemmed in, but by the art and culture of his time.
Can you have both? At the time, followers of Zola and Mallarmé frequently came to blows, particularly at fledgling performances of the Theatre d'Art. The manifesto culture of early Modernism meant that masts were there to have colours nailed to and it's hard now to think that there might have been much overlap. But, of course, their followers came to blows because they'd both been to the same theatre shows. Did they just go to heckle? Surely not - at least surely not all of them. It is worth remembering that, with the philistine and corrupt years of the Second Empire still in living memory, it is perfectly likely that the Naturalists and Symbolists considered themselves fellow travellers in the cause of pushing art and literature to the centre of debate.
In any case, can one survive without the other? It would be a grotesque simplification to suggest that Symbolism lacked any reference to the contemporary and that Naturalism was artless. In a smart article ('Zola by Mallarmé', New Approaches to Zola, ed. Hannah Thompson. London: Emile Zola Society, 2003, pp. 79-89) Roger Pearson argues that their differences, and specifically Mallarmé's disdain for Zola, have been overplayed; he suggests that Mallarme was ready to 'absorb himself in the "poesie" of the Rougon-Macquart' (p. 88). That is, Mallarmé perhaps saw what it took critics decades to see: that Zola great novels have profound aesthetic virtues, and not just sociological ones. Similarly, Mallarmé's poems, for all their gestures at the metaphysical, at transcending time, are steeped in the culture of the 1880s and 1890s. Mallarmé caught the distinct character of the present every bit as much as Zola.
I thought of this while watching Anders Lustgarten's play at the Royal Court, If You Don't Let Us Dream, We Won't Let You Sleep. The play is a polemic against austerity economics. For the first half it presents a satirically-imagined version of the world we are in, only very slightly exaggerated, in which bankers create new financial instruments to monetize a drop in social ills like unemployment, rape and murder, and then create further instruments to hedge against those things rising: in other words, capitalism can literally profit from misery. The poor have meters installed in their houses, meanwhile young white men indulge in vicious racism "for a laugh" and the welfare state is increasingly staffed by volunteers. In the second half, a group of revolutionaries occupy a disused courtroom and plan to put capitalism on trial. This becomes a long debate about the history of the current austerity bullshit. Towards the end of the play, the two halves join up: a council worker has been sent in to assess the health & safety aspects of the squat. He is the black man abused in the first half, who reacted, and was sent to prison. One of the revolutionaries was in that white gang and, as the lights fade, they have effected some kind of reconciliation.
My hopes for this show weren't particularly high. I saw a previous play of his, A Day at the Racists, which seemed to me to see political comment as something too important to be worked through things as trivial as pleasing theatrical form, character, or dialogue. It was agitprop. This play is too and it had been preceded by some rather self-satisfied interviews with the playwright so I kind of feared the worst.
And, look, I don't think this is a great play. I don't know that it's even a good play. But I liked it. The first half has tons of energy with the short, punchy scenes setting out a vision of the present. The scenes are sketchy, the characters are functions, but there was a real power in the scenarios. Even in the second half, which I thought was pretty terrible, the arguments about austerity economics are fascinating and, for what it's worth, I completely agree with them.
Why is the second half terrible? Well, it's a long scene that tries to bring characters and storylines together, so it's where his ability not just to skewer a contemporary type but to create story, character and action needs to come to the fore - and he's not very good at any of that. What is the situation? Seriously, what IS it? An activist group have occupied a disused court room to put capitalism on trial. They've done what? There's no real representative of capitalism in the room. So it's a conceptual trial? Not very active activists, then. And if it's conceptual, why bother occupy a court room? They could have done it in the comfort of their own homes or on Skype or something. And you realise that it's one of those attitude to playmaking which says, lock people in a room because that way they have to sit around and debate the issues of the play. Nothing really needs to happen. And, as if he realises this, he makes something happen. A health and safety inspector comes round and one of the activists recognises him as the black guy that his racist friends attacked in a pub earlier in the play. The activist is now politically re-educated in prison, of course, but he now needs to get the guy's forgiveness. Or something. Does he? Can't he keep out of his way? And another question: the inspector is likely to get them evicted - was this because he'd spotted his previous nemesis? Or was he always going to do that anyway? (Isn't that why he was sent in?) If it's the former, it's (a) a clumsy coincidence and (b) makes the politics smaller; if it's the latter, why does the activist need forgiveness from him at all? What difference will it make? In the event, in a horribly clunky scene, the two seem to have a rapprochement of some kind, though exactly what that is, except for a vague sense that the left should stick together, remains mysterious.
But as I say, I liked it. I know it doesn't sound like it. In theatre, if this is a meaningful thing to say, I guess I lean more towards the Mallarmé than the Zola end of things. I like imagination, formal invention, experiment rather than observation, commentary, and content. Or I think I do. But actually, the theatre is one of those fantastic large social spaces that bring people together to experience the same things and that has a real political value. It was just simply very thrilling to sit in the Royal Court hearing those things said about austerity economics in public. I've thought, read, and said things like that with friends, on Twitter, in the New Statesman, and so on. But it's easy to feel that you're a member of a tiny band in those contexts, nodding along to the things you'd like to believe are true. In a theatre it feels quite different.
In February 2003, when two million people marched through the streets of London in protest against the coming invasion of Iraq the march organisers hit a problem. There were so many people that a dangerous bottleneck was building up on Waterloo Bridge. In order to stretch the march out on the approach, they created an additional loop of the march which took us down across Upper Ground and then up through the terraces of the National Theatre. I wish I had a photo of the National that day, thronged with demonstrators, orderly and disorderly, bedecked in badges and banners, spikey with people and protest. Flash forward 18 months and Stuff Happens by David Hare opens inside the building, on the Olivier stage. In between times, the Iraq War went ahead anyway, in the teeth of popular opposition. The predicted smooth victory, in which British and American troops were to be hailed as a liberation force, draped with garlands, gave way to a chaotic handover, the stubborn non-appearance of those WMDs, and the beginnings of a lethal insurgency. And in that theatre, twice in the play the audience burst into applause at a couple of the sentiments. Again, Stuff Happens was not a play I loved very much, but you had to respect the power of theatre as a public space, a large forum for collective thought and feeling.
That's what I felt about Anders Lustgarten's play. For all its 'technical' faults, it gave us a chance to feel collectively and to experience these heretical thoughts being expressed in public. And while it's so easy for aesthetically-minded critics to be sniffy about Zola's earnestness, his research, his naivety, who captured the Second Empire better than he? Sometimes, art needs to bring us the real news and Anders Lustgarten has done that.