One of T.J. Clark’s objectives in The Painting of Modern Life is to make us ‘unlearn our present ease with Impressionism’, and in this he succeeds magnificently.footnote By raising the issue of the representation of class (usually dismissed as irrelevant in art history), he opens up the whole field of Impressionist painting to a range of questions and readings which are seldom addressed. The book sets out to demonstrate that the Impressionists, who were above all concerned to represent ‘modern life’, were unable to identify its major dynamic: the changing nature of class relations, and in this it is not entirely successful. This is in part a result of its form, for The Painting of Modern Life is a collection of essays. Admittedly these are very closely linked, but they are discrete essays none the less. Clark is not then providing, as he did in his two earlier books on Courbet, a comprehensive account of the determinants and mediations of a particular area of Impressionist painting. Rather, his purpose, within the framework of discussing the representation of class and the significance of ‘modern life’, is to study very closely four paintings and their particular determinants. The shift of focus between the essays—from a detailed account of the contemporary reviews of Manet’s Olympia, to a discussion of the changing nature of the suburban landscape—gives the book as a whole a quite distinctive rhythm and effect, for each essay asks a specific range of questions and enlists its own forms of analysis. This structure limits the effectiveness of the book’s central argument. For, although the essays are connected by a general introduction and conclusion and share a common problematic, not all the issues raised in the introduction are addressed in the essays, nor are all the conclusions argued through.

This is not to imply that there is a lack of coherence, nor that the main thesis is unconvincing—only that too many perspectives are opened up, too many issues raised and questions posed, too few answered. Clark is starting a debate, not contributing to one that is already under way, and therefore faces the problem of having to set out the terms. None of the ground that he covers can be taken for granted. The problems of the essay form are exacerbated by the constraints of originality and some of the central arguments need room to spread. Each essay could have been a book.

Clark’s central concern with the issue of class is implicit in his definition of sociey: ‘a set of means for solidarity, distance, belonging and exclusion. These things are needed pre-eminently to enable the production of material life to fix an order in which men and women can make their living and have some confidence that they will continue to do so. Orders of this sort appear to be established most potently by representations . . . (which) are constantly subordinated to the test of social practice . . . In capitalist society economic representations are the matrix around which all others are organized. In particular the class of an individual . . . is the determinant fact of social life’ (pp. 6–7). The latter half of the nineteenth century witnessed the increasing invasion of commodity production into everyday life. It was also a period in which class relations and the representations of class were undergoing dramatic change, in which the ‘nouvelles couches sociales were being constructed as an entity apart from the proletariat’ (p. 235), in which, with the inevitable extension of control over all aspects of working-class life—including, for the first time, leisure—the site and forms of class struggle were changing. Clark pays special attention to the new Parisian petite bourgeoisie and to public forms of leisure, the area of spectacle that was the ‘great symbolic field in which the battle for bourgeois identity was fought’ (p. 204). This area was also a central concern of Manet and the Impressionists, particularly in the 1860s and ’70s.

In his four essays Clark dissects four themes, each corresponding to one of Manet’s major paintings. He looks at the Haussmannization of Paris (Manet’s L’Exposition Universelle de 1867); the prostitute (Olympia, 1863); the environs of Paris (Argenteuil, Les Canotiers, 1874); the café concert (Un Bar aux Folies-Bergère, 1882). For Clark, Manet was the one Impressionist painter able to depict the unease and ambiguity of modern life and to locate these in class terms, in the struggles of the petite bourgeoisie. Other painters, and indeed writers, of the period saw modernity revealed in the unfixed and unfinished, in ambiguity and improvisation: they remained ‘on the surface and made do with ambiguity’ (p. 47). Manet conveys some of what lies beneath that surface. The starting-point for each of Clark’s essays is the interrelationship between the restructuring of class relations, the elements that characterized modern life and the ways in which they were represented and perceived.

The essay on Haussmann’s Paris is certainly one of the most interesting discussions available on this extensively analysed phenomenon. Many historians have shown that Haussmanization was a coherent project, essentially to do with the bourgeoisification and sanitizing of Paris, the removal of the working class from the centre to the periphery, the opening of the city to allow greater control, to prevent urban riots, and to facilitate the entry of modern communications. Clark goes further than this and looks at the underlying changes in class relations. Paris, he stresses, remained an overwhelmingly working-class city, even after the exodus from the centre and despite the pressure of rising rents and restricted space. The old quartier economy, however, was being destroyed as small-scale localized production became increasingly determined by broader social relations. The kind of mass-produced goods demanded by the grands magasins, for example, radically altered the organization and quality of work performed in the quartiers. ‘The unity of work, residence and distraction’ (p. 58) was splintered, inter-class relations were changed and the locus of class struggle shifted from the quartier to the city as a whole. ‘Life was increasingly classed and classified along universalized class lines which were located outside the quartier’ (p. 59). Haussmann’s boulevards opened up the city to capital, and homogenized the business of Paris.

The city was now seen in two conflicting ways: as illegible, confused, chaotic; and simultaneously as inflexible and divided, its previous unity shattered. Haussmann’s critics deplored the loss of street life (the life of the quartier) and blamed the city and the Baron for changes which were essentially brought about by capital. Clark points out the extent to which Haussmann and his critics shared a similar vision of what a city should be: a place of order, clear representation, ultimate coherence, a city with ‘its own scale, focus and imagery’ (p. 66). Haussmann vainly attempted to create this, but it was no longer possible. Capital had rendered the city unintelligible. Manet’s painting of the Exposition Universelle of 1867 seized on many of the contradictions of modern Paris, representing in part the view that the city had been erased to make way for something else: ‘an image put in place of a city which had lost its own means of representation’ (p. 62). The very form of the painting, its deliberate sketchiness, demonstrates the changing make-shift, unfinished nature of the city itself. The ‘great categories of collective life . . . have not yet been made over to the commodity form though the effort to do so is impressive’ (p. 63). Clark also shows how the real interest for Manet—as for the citizens in the painting—and one of the essential elements of modern life is the spectacle of each other: heterogeneous Parisians, with Paris itself as a backdrop’, ‘a gas-lit picture in a diorama’ (p. 62).

The shift in focus between the first and second essays is dramatic. Whereas Manet’s painting serves essentially to illustrate Clark’s discussion of the city, in the essay on Olympia the painting itself is used to consruct the central thesis that ‘nakednesss is a strong sign of class’ (p. 146). Clark argues that the horror evoked by Olympia was a direct result of the fact that Manet’s subject was not ‘a nude’—protected from any connotations of class—but a naked, working-class prostitute. Moreover, the prostitute was not entering into the game, essential to the bourgeois client at that period, which demanded the fiction of desire and the invisibility of class. The essay has three main themes: the contemporary critical response to the painting; the essential class-significance of the distinction between fille and courtesan; and the way in which Manet defines Olympia’s body in paint. While the central discussion of class is extremely illuminating, Clark seems to ignore another crucial aspect: namely, what Olympia represented as a woman. The painting depicts a particular body, its references are to other particular bodies rather than to ‘the nude’ and to the realm of fantasy and generalized desire to which the nude belongs. Olympia thus refers to the realm of lived sexuality. But, as well as asserting her physical particularity, she is also expressing her knowledge of herself as a naked woman, the fact that she is in control of the situation and makes no pretence about what that situation is. She is unambiguously asserting her own power. It is arguable that these claims were as important as her class position in determining the effect she had on her audience. After all, this was the period in which any kind of assertion of independence by women was illegitimate, in which bourgeois women were subjected to extraordinarily elaborate restrictions, in which they created a scandal if they walked on their own in the street. A painting which showed a woman asserting her independence, her control over her self, her body and her sex in so unambiguous a way can only have been deeply shocking.