Abstract Critical

The Manet Lesson: Subjectivity and the ultra-foreground

Written by David Sweet


The recent, rather uneven Manet show, a real tribute to the marketing audacity of the Royal Academy, was best understood if its guiding curatorial concept was turned upside down. The title was ‘Manet: Portraying Life’. Yet the exhibition showed that he was not that good at portraying life. The proof can be found in the face of Lise Caminéanu.[i] The girl’s expression completely defeats the painter, yet her sleeves and gloves are beautifully rendered. The problem is that the subject’s features are animated and animation is of no use to Manet. That’s because, despite his project to merge into one style all the official genres into which French painting was then divided, he was really a still-life painter, more narrowly, a master of the nature morte

Most stories of modern painting begin with Manet. He is particularly easy to accommodate in the evolutionary narrative that leads from figuration to abstraction, as well as the more technical account of the notion of pictorial flatness associated with modernism. There is nothing too much wrong with these interpretations except they seem to have lost their forcefulness or ability to influence contemporary practice. However, what I want to suggest here is that his contribution is not just to the history of the medium. His interest in still life led him to emphasise excessively the power of the foreground, and the foreground is the locus for a variety of experience that remains relevant, contemporary and distinct.


A quick circuit of the Academy’s galleries was enough to reveal Manet’s limitations when he strays too far from the principles of still life in staging the figure compositions. The obvious characteristic of the still life is that it shows forms positioned very close to the viewer, relatively unaffected by perspective shrinkage. So the first principle is to maintain near equivalence between the actual size of the object and its painted counterpart. This principle is not followed in the National Gallery’s modestly proportioned Music in the Tuileries Gardens (1860-62). Although it was given a room and a pool of light to itself, the figures it contained were just too small. The two children playing in the middle of the foreground are especially tiny, contributing to the sense that the painting, like the half size sketch of Dejeuner sur l’herbe that was also on show, was a study for a much larger work.

The outstanding exhibit however, The Luncheon 1865, is a particularly successful example of nature morte principles applied to the construction of the multiple portrait. There are people in the picture yet, as with many of Manet’s sitters, they are not noticeably vivacious. Because of this lack of animation the work seems dominated by lifeless objects; not just the miscellaneous stuff on the left, (what is that cat actually doing?) and the food, cutlery and glassware on the table, but the shirt and tie, jacket and particularly the hat, worn by the young man. The standing figure is not only constructed of still life components but is occupying a sort of ultra-foreground position, in front of the hanging cloth, that conventionally marks the forward limit of pictorial space in the nature morte genre. He is joined in that location by the white accented objects in the bottom left corner and the peeled fruit perched on the table’s edge. As if following their example, the glazed jardiniére holding the palm plant jumps forward out of position bringing with it the otherwise receding figure of the woman in grey. The seated male figure on the right, though muted tonally, is drawn larger than he should be, so he too seems to be travelling forward into the same space.

The Luncheon is assembled from a series of foregrounds. It contains a backdrop but this area is pictorially inert. The painting’s formal dynamic is directed towards the viewer, not ‘inwards’ to the horizon or vanishing point. The effect is that most of the active forms are not just on the surface of the canvas, but somehow that they are nearer than that, as if breaking out of the picture plane and into the viewer’s lap. The ultra-foreground in Manet is a particularly modern location and might explain the visual impact his paintings had on the public of the time, which, I think, can still be sensed by a contemporary audience.

Of course, flatness is vital to the success of this strategy. Had Manet not also eliminated the half-tones and reduced the traditional, sculptural bulk of the forms, his work could not have advanced much beyond Carravaggio. The table cloth’s edge in the Italian’s Supper at Emmaus (c 1596-1602) marks the nearest point of the painting’s spatial system, as it does in The Luncheon. However, the seated figure on the left, plus his chair, the teetering fruit basket, and the outstretched left hand of the second apostle, all breach the axiomatic window plane on which the logic of perspective relies. But there is a difference. The forms in the ultra-foreground in the Carravaggio seem ‘defenestrated’, occupying an extension of perspective illusion to increase the drama of the event. I will make that use of that distinction later.



If the key European pictorial image of the early 19th century is, arguably, Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above a Sea of Cloud of 1818, the equivalent on the threshold of the 20th would probably be the Lumiere brothers’ 50 second film, Train arriving at a Station, exhibited in 1895.[ii] From a relatively safe vantage point, Friedrich’s lightly shod spectator contemplates the deep space of the northern Romantic landscape tradition, impersonating the posture and mental state of the viewer of the painting in which he stands, and the viewer of those many other works this example stands for. The Lumieres’ film, though it establishes a similar perspective, violently reverses the orientation of the action, sending the train’s form hurtling towards the viewer, through the middle-distance, into the foreground, then into the ultra-foreground. The audience, seeing the engine rushing towards them, though not fearful, would not have felt they were entirely disinterested spectators, like Friedrich’s wanderer. Reports of them running for cover are, of course, not true. It must have had a reasonably novel and interesting impact however, emphasising sensations of mobility, movement and modernity encountered in the context of a relatively new medium, otherwise the myths would not have grown up around the film.

Train Arriving at a Station was not a ‘3-D’ film as generally defined, despite the sensational effect. If it were it would be easy to classify it as a novelty, if one offering a fairly trivial visual experience, on a par with trompe-l’oeil painting perhaps. The 21st century’s version of stereoscopic moving imagery is more convincing than that available in the past, and some claim it might be the future of cinema, but 3D remains a gimmick for now. The audience may involuntarily react to an arrow apparently travelling towards them through the darkness, but this is a behavioural response, not a cognitive one that engages the critical faculties.

But there are a host of examples in the visual arts where 2 and 3 dimensional codes are fused together, the relief being the most obvious hybrid category. There was a rapid extension of this methodology with the phenomenon of the ‘flatbed picture plane’, identified by Leo Steinberg in 1968, in the works of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg[iii]. At that time, with these artists at least, using a flatbed surface seems to be part of the desire to expand and update the empire of figuration, which had been in decline. However, building abstract forms out from a rectangular, wall-based back-plate, and combining them with other flat elements, is also a common, almost ‘traditional’ practice, with Frank Stella one of its most celebrated exponents.

His exercise of this dimensional option can be traced back to the ‘Polish Village’ series of 1970-73, but before then, he rigorously disciplined the behaviour of his pictorial elements. In his early work he located his monochrome stripes in the pictorial foreground, but with the ‘Irregular Polygons’ and the ‘Protractor’ paintings he intensified the formal dynamic and enhanced this with his use of fluorescent pigment. Paintings like Moultonboro III, (1966) began to consist of both foreground and ultra-foreground elements, as in Manet, the second levered into position against the first. But they did not actually establish themselves in the third dimension. The interplay between literal and depicted shape was legible enough to defeat objecthood. However, Stella eventually gave in to the temptation to transcend the limits of the ultra-foreground, exactly like his hero Carravaggio before him, defenestrating the forms into a literalised Baroque space, curving outwards, pushing over the boundary of pictorial fiction and into the real world of bas-relief, in the ‘French Curve’ and ‘Exotic Bird’ series of the late seventies and eighties.

I’ve tried to differentiate the idea of the foreground and ultra-foreground from the surface partly because it gives the surface a spatial location rather than identifying it with the material flatness of the support, though both functions are highly compatible. If the prevailing movement is forwards rather than inwards, it will set up different operating conditions within painting and a combination of the two, in Hans Hofmann’s notion of ‘push/pull’ has long been part of the theory of abstraction. Some abstract painters exploit the dynamic of the ultra-foreground and some don’t. Kenneth Noland for instance did not make use of it and nor did Robyn Denny, both were happy with the foreground, but Peter Halley does. His stuff typically operates in a similar way to middle-period, pre-3D Stella. Its deployment also leads to work like Stella’s and Halley’s being thought of as brash, shouty or importunate, but this is a relatively minor matter of taste. You could say Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) was brash, but it also seems a good example of a painting that works by trapping all its formal energy in a series of foregrounds.


A work whose quality is not in doubt, Matisse’s L’Escargot 1953, also exploits Manet’s dynamic. The white base, even though it functions as a platform holding the pasted paper, is invested with the visual charge of the foreground. That’s because its whiteness has a positive chromatic value, being in a complementary relationship with the black rectangle. (In A Memory of Oceania, 1953, the white acts as a ground, not a foreground, because the small amounts of black are either confined to the margins or appear as drawn lines. Black does not function as colour.)[iv] In L’Escargot the jagged orange border advances one more notch beyond the white foreground, pushing the four corner shapes, (clockwise from the top, mauve, dark green, pale green, and dark blue) before it. At several junctures the elements in the central spiral arrangement overlap these shapes in the top left, top right and bottom right corners, with the final sequence ending with the green indented flag-like component, supported on three points in the middle of the work, which in turn aligns with the blue oblong block near the base.

I’m aware that in material terms L’Escargot is a collage, or gouache decoupée, and is one of a number of related pieces, many of which have a decorative intention. However it is not decorative. Effectively it can only be understood as a painting, not a very shallow relief. That means the white area cannot be legitimately construed as a species of the ‘flatbed’ picture plane, a back-board onto which heterogeneous objects of varying thickness can be affixed[v]. It has a pictorial and an optical value as a colour. Because of this, it can deliver the chromatic content of the cut out paper elements directly to the viewer more intensely. The forward momentum of the pictorial dynamic, the movement from the white foreground to the ultra-foreground, produces an enhanced colour experience. This, together with the optical sizzle of the pairs of complementaries – four, if one includes the black/white – makes L’Escargot, in effect, a late Fauvist masterpiece.


I want to argue that the link between Manet, the Lumiere brothers and L’Escargot, the common dynamic I have tried to describe, represents an important advance in the modernist project, and in the modernist imagination. On this occasion I’m not retelling the Greenbergian story of modernist painting and its goal of flatness and medium specificity. But, while not wanting to get waylaid by the argument about ‘progress’ or historicity, I do want to insist on the idea of ‘advanced’ art as a way of accounting for this development. Art can advance, but it can also retreat, leaving examples of advanced art culturally isolated or, as in our time, trivialised, to be reclaimed, perhaps or perhaps not, by the next forward step. I want to connect the experience of the ultra-foreground with the location of a certain kind of active subjectivity that is essential to understanding the ‘offer’ of modernist art. It obviously is related to abstract painting but the next examples are from sculpture and literature.

The sculpture Anthony Caro made from 1960 till around 1970 was advanced modernist art. Two works can be taken as representative, Early One Morning 1962 and Prairie 1967, and if one needs to define Caro’s historical ‘moment’, it was his major Hayward Gallery exhibition in early 1969[vi]. Yet this body of work does not look like it is guided by an equivalent of the modernist painting notion of medium specificity. It seems more like an attempt to invent a new medium rather than distil the essence of sculpture or define its norms. Eliminating the plinth transgressed these norms in any case, as did his radical approach to the figure, sculpture’s traditional subject, and both of these moves together establish his modernist credentials.

Caro’s modernism rests on abstraction. The language he adopted harks back to cubism; planes replace solids, interiors switch places with exteriors, negatives stand for positives, as in Picasso’s seminal Guitar, 1912[vii]. But, where Picasso relied on the identity of the guitar holding good through these formal interventions, Caro took the risk of abandoning overt figurative imagery, thereby liberating the construction of the pieces and maximising the scope of formal, non-naturalistic invention. But he would have ended up as a purveyor of sculpture of constructivist spatial engineering had he not held onto the figure, not as image or as an object but as a point at the centre of a field of experience. This characteristic stems from what Michael Fried called Caro’s ‘intense preoccupation with the livedness of the body’.[viii]

In a radically cubist manner, Caro shifts the focus from the exterior, observable body and its anatomical integrity, to the relational matrix of sensations as experienced from the interior. This experience belongs to what Maurice Merleau-Ponty describes as the ‘phenomenal’ in contrast to the ‘objective’ body[ix]. The common awareness of our own active subjectivity at the very centre of our universe positions us in relation to the world in which we move. But we do not register our own substance in the same language we use for the objects and people in our perceptual field. This is unavoidable because usually we don’t feel we are made of the same stuff, or of anything else. As Merleau-Ponty writes ‘We can never fill up, in the picture of the world, that gap which we ourselves are.’[x] We do not operate at a distance from ourselves; we live in our foreground. To simplify Fried’s argument we are present to ourselves and, in our encounters with Caro’s modernism as opposed to confronting the objects of minimalism, the work is present to us in the realm of our presentness to ourselves.

By dispensing with the base Caro got rid of the psychological threshold that separated or distanced the sculpture from the viewer. Adding a coat of coloured paint reduced detail and increased formal dynamism and immediacy. I would argue that these modifications locate his work of the sixties in the sculptural equivalent of the foreground and ultra-foreground. As with the Lumieres’ train, the complex and irregular visual events of the sculpture are propelled in the direction of the viewer, rather than pulled back to the gravitational core of the ‘objective’ figure. Caro’s intuitive evocation of the ‘phenomenal’ as opposed to objective body, which underpins his sculptural ‘syntax’, was achieved by a move towards abstraction. At some point, the realm of self-awareness and awareness of the sculpture are co-extensive, leading to a very particular sort of subjective experience. It was this mode of subjectivity, in the context of aesthetic judgement, which Fried found vastly superior to that called forth by ‘objecthood’.

The next task is to argue why this type of subjectivity, which I’ve associated with the foreground/ultra-foreground experience, is specifically modernist, advanced and relevant. The example I want to offer in support of this argument comes from literature.


Ford Maddox Ford’s Parade’s End, a four-volume novel published between 1924 and 1928, is advanced art, and a modernist masterpiece. It employs a sort of augmented stream of consciousness technique, which becomes more and more intense as the long work progresses. At the start of the third volume there is an account, lasting eleven pages, of a telephone call, which takes place on Armistice Day 1918, between Valentine Wannop and someone she at first does not recognise.[xi] The description is highly inclusive. It takes in the physical surroundings and the sensations they occasion, making reference to information retrieved from earlier volumes, and recounts the fragmented conversation itself. But it goes further than a mere record of the protagonist’s interior monologue. It exposes the full contents of the character’s conscious mind, including the immediate impact of the words heard and misheard, the secondary memories and reflections that accompany them, and the unspoken thoughts about the past and future prompted by these reflections, to which the author claims privileged access in the way novelists do. The effect is to push the already foregrounded character even further in the direction of the reader, entangling the described mental events of the protagonist in the mental events of reading itself in a merged subjectivity.

The modernism of Parade’s End is partly to do with literary form. Apart from the stream of consciousness device, it deploys a strong distinction between story and plot, and displays a generally fractured, non-naturalistic structure, with temporal shifts and discontinuities, and moments of de-familiarisation and insecurity throughout the narrative. It also demonstrates the particular power of the novel as a medium, dealing with subjectivity and the interior life in a way other art forms cannot. Its use of the foreground and ultra-foreground is also part of that modernism but the point I want to make is that its literary modernism is underlined by the modernity of the experience at its epicentre. That is of course the experience of a new kind of warfare.

Ford served as an infantry officer in the Great War from 1915 to 1917 and saw action at the Somme and Ypres. This is an ‘extrinsic’ biographical fact about the author, but it’s part of the power of the art form that it is relatively easy to turn this into an ‘intrinsic’ feature of the novel. Crucial events in the fiction take place in the trenches and camps that Ford was familiar with, and the trauma associated with those circumstances, which he himself would have felt, are convincingly depicted and communicated to the reader. But the main theme is the effect of all this on the mind of the book’s chief protagonist who we are told is a Government statistician with a very particular range of intellectual skills. Being under bombardment, with limited protection, presents a threat not so much to life and limb, but sanity and the mantainence of mental functions. When these are impaired, the reader can monitor their activity from descriptions of the character’s consciousness, his thoughts, his efforts to recall knowledge or information about his past and so forth. The subjectivity we are invited to examine, and to some extent participate in, is formed under specific and unprecedented conditions, which, I would claim, are the conditions of modernity in an intense form.


Parade’s End is a war novel and a modernist masterpiece. In it, the narrative and aesthetic techniques of modernism and abstraction, which were circulating in the literature of the pre-war period, become fused what might be called the advanced cultural experience of the Great War itself and help render this experience more vivid through the medium of subjectivity. The experiences are analogous. Though the historical events are now a distant memory, the contemporary reader of Parade’s End is offered enough material from within the work ‘about’ the Great War to understand the interdependence between its literary devices and the fictional world they create. The experience of the War as described and the experience of the reader are mutually intelligible under the rubric of modernism.

If this idea of mutually reinforcing, analogous experiences is applied to Caro’s sculpture it’s possible to see how his abstraction and his concern for the phenomenal or ‘lived’ body, are interdependent and mutually intelligible in the context of his advanced modernist project. But, when art retreats, experiential intelligibility is harder to access. Despite the absent plinth, the sculpture becomes distanced from the contemporary viewer, perhaps classed as an historical curiosity or evolutionary dead end, and the foreground, together with the subjective entanglement on which the success of the sculpture depends, is put out of reach. Caro’s abstraction becomes incomprehensible in the way that the ‘inhuman’ abstraction of Tatlin or Gabo does not, and the figuration of Rodin or Gormley, or early Caro for that matter, never will.

The reason Caro’s work of the sixties has met this fate is that the cultural discourse of the last forty years has concentrated not on the phenomenal but the objective body, the literal body implied in minimalist art’s ‘hidden anthropomorphism’[xii]. It is the objective body that is gendered, has racial characteristics, is able or differently abled, fit or unfit, fat or thin, eating or dieting; And it this body that has become increasingly identified with the Self, imposing its image on the workings of the phenomenal body. In the early sixties, the self, the unit of identity, was the free individual consciousness. The rise of drug use in the later sixties, after what might be called the ‘Sgt. Pepper’ moment, somewhat betrayed this idea by devaluing the currency of sanity.

Yet the modernist experience of subjectivity, linked to abstraction, hasn’t gone anywhere. (Where would it go?) It underwrote many of the innovations in visual art in the 20th century and remains legible in our wider culture. The construction of subjectivity by Abstract Expressionism, in a period when abstraction was dominant, with its stress on the individual’s unconscious mind, on an interior which was the source of art, on the singular existentialist actor, allowed the art it inspired to be ‘understood’ in the way that perspective makes Velasquez intelligible.

Dreaming, the ultimate, incorrigible subjective experience and manifestation of the life of the mind, was treated seriously and invoked in non-naturalistic surrealist imagery that eventually found a place in abstraction. Since then the subject may have been downgraded, in more ways than one. Nowadays, if people talk about their dreams they turn out to be about winning the Euromillions or a place in the Masterchef final. But we still actually dream, and know the difference between real dreams and wishful thinking. Moreover, not only are dreams, especially nightmares, still widely referenced in the cultural domain, but one could argue that the ancient conditions of dreaming seem uncannily to prepare us for the analogous conditions of the modern world’s most significant medium, the cinema. The darkness, the unstable, moving images familiar from dreaming make film intelligible in the way that experience of ‘living’ is necessary to understand the experience of the theatre, and maybe most of broadcast TV.

Identity now however, is often regarded not as an individual matter but predicated, without remainder, on our acknowledged membership of a group, atheist/theist, Moslem/Christian, white/person of colour, male/female, gay/straight, young/old. It follows that subjectivity has been similarly colonised by such taxonomy. 

The economies of abstraction in Caro’s work means it relies implicitly on the analogue of the phenomenal body. Ford could write at length about the Great War to produce a context to which the literary modernism of his novel, to some extent appropriated from a younger generation of writers, can be related. This context remains comprehensible, or ‘present’ in the work when read now.  But Caro cannot do that. Part of his sculpture, and an important modernist part, is lost, or becomes unintelligible, if his attitude to the ‘livedness’ of the body is not readily shared by the audience. It cannot be present to them in the realm of their presentness to themselves if they are not present to themselves.


The intelligibility of abstract art is often raised as a problem. Abstract painting is intelligible through our experience of painting after Manet. We have to make sense of that and carry that sense forward into our encounters with new work. Painting before Manet is made intelligible through, though cannot be judged by, our experience of the perceived world, where we learn to distinguish between near and far, up and down. Manet’s foregrounds participate in both experiences. Manet’s self-conscious modernity defines a new territory in which subjectivity can operate more productively, but it does not secure it for all time.

The experience of the ultra-foreground has been reiterated since Manet. Impressionism may have retreated from his advanced position, but then it was reoccupied by Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, L’Escargot, Stella’s Moultonboro III, by the Great War. But, as the problem of Caro’s intelligibility illustrates, subjectivity, in the context of art appreciation, has been radically rearranged, first by minimalism, and later by the identity politics associated with postmodernism, which makes access to the modernist experience, and so to modernist art, more difficult. Without this experience, abstraction is always in danger of slipping into decoration, even the very serious decoration sanctioned by mathematics, or being seduced by the pastoral romance of painterly mark-making.

[i] Edouard Manet, Portait of Lise Caminéanu (1878)

[ii] The first public showing of the Lumieres’ film was in December 1895. An account by someone who attended, records that the audience response was one of delight and amazement, not terror. (see Matthew Sweet, Inventing the Victorians, 2001. p. 23.)

[iii]Leo Steinberg Other Criteria 172 pp. 61-98. It was given originally as a lecture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1968.

[iv] I saw both of these works in the Matisse exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in 1968, fifteen years after they were made. They will be shown again in the Tate exhibition planned for next year, sixty years after Matisse’s death.

[v] Interestingly Steinberg sees the flatbed picture plane as a new plane of thinking, attuned to the contemporary urban experience.

[vi] See Michael Fried’s catalogue essay for the Hayward exhibition Jan to Mar 1969. This essay is not included in his collected essays, Art & Objecthood 1998. 

[vii] This construction was discussed in Tim Scott’s Where is Abstract Sculpture? on this web site. 2nd May 2013.

[viii] Michael Fried, Hayward exhibition catalogue introduction, p12.

[ix] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 1962, p. 431-432.

[x] Ibid p. 207

[xi] Ford Maddox Ford, A Man Could Stand Up – pp. 503-514

[xii] Michael Fried, ‘Art and Objecthood’ 1967, in Art and Objecthood, Collected Essays, 1998 p.157.

  1. Tim Scott said…

    Leaving aside David Sweet’s philosophico/aesthetic analysis of Caro’s sixties abstraction, there is one crucial factor that he has ignored. If Caro had not encountered, at the time, the Smith/construction/STEEL idea, the forms of ‘Early one Morning’ and ‘Prairie’ could not have existed. ‘Dejeuner sur l’Herbe’ and ‘Demoiselles d’Avignon’ are made in much the same way; ‘Torse d’Adele’ and ‘Prairie’ are not. Sweet’s interesting ideas about foreground, background and still life are wisdom in retrospect; sculptors just don’t think like that; their concerns are this stuff in front of them, and what on earth to do with it until inspiration strikes. Of course there will be a history behind them, but it is making the history that counts. Caro’s sixties abstraction is revolutionary not because he knew what he was doing, but simply because he was following his nose – but what a nose !

  2. Tim Scott said…

    Leaving aside David Sweet’s philosophico/aesthetic analysis of Caro’s sixties abstraction; he has missed one crucial factor. Had Caro not encountered Smith/construction/STEEL when he did, the forms of ‘Early One Morning’ or ‘Prairie’ simply could not have existed. ‘Demoiselles d’Avignon’ and ‘Dejeuner sur l’Herbe’were made in much the same way; ‘Torse d’Adele’ and Prairie were not. It needed Picasso’s intervention with ‘construction’ to lay a path for Caro. Speculations on spatial play; foreground, background and so on, are wisdom in retrospect. The fact is that sculptors are not thinking like that when they do it.They may have all the intellectual challenges in the world in front of them, but at the moment of action they have to battle with what they can physically do with the stuff in front of them. I do think,however, that David Sweet’s point about still life is a very interesting one; and of course we then come back to Picasso and his subjects for ‘collage’and ‘comstruction’.

  3. Robert Linsley said…

    Interesting take on a problem (maybe the wrong word) that’s still alive in abstraction today. I’ve always liked Caro and thought I knew why, but your reading defeats me somewhat. It’s a little too theoretical or something like that. My first instinct is to say that the unintelligible is attractive in itself, so if modernist art has become unintelligible then it has acquired a new life. I also wonder if those who don’t get it today maybe never did. They’ve had their say for some time now, at first claiming that their world was left out of abstraction, playing the victim in other words, nowadays entrenched. Abstraction still stands for what it is.