There are many reasons to admire Manet, but on a recent trip to the Courtauld Gallery in London markontour found a new one: the painter’s celebration of Burton beer.
The primary reason for our visit was to see the little ‘Breugel, Not Breugel’ exhibition upstairs, a gently educational exploration of the many imitators of sixteenth century observational artist Peter Breugel the Elder. I’ve loved the works of the man himself since reading ‘Headlong’, Peter Frayn’s clever art detective novel, in which a lost painting from Breugel’s series on months of the year is apparently rediscovered.
Seeing the remaining Months in Vienna’s Kunsthistoriche gallery later sealed the deal and I became a Breugel fan. This Netherlandish artists’ determination to chronicle the lives of ordinary people in extraordinary detail marked him out from his contemporaries, who were still mostly painting Bible scenes or flattering portraits of their patrons. Markontour is no art critic, but I think I like Lowry and Edward Hopper for the same reason.
But back to Manet. This is a blog about Manet. Or, more accurately, this is a blog about Manet’s love of Bass beer.
The painting itself is famous enough to draw the crowds even after being captured for a good fifteen minutes by one of Van Gogh’s post ear-mutilation self-portraits. But it was the little red triangle on a brown bottle that caught my eye, rather than the famous scene of a bored-looking barmaid standing disconsolantly behind a marble-topped bar. A glass bowl of oranges sits to her left hand and to the right is champagne. But unmistakably nestled among them are two bottles of Bass, the world’s first trademark standing proud.
Why are they there? To the modern eye the Folies Bergere seems posh. The barmaid wears lace and a brooch. The chandeliers look big enough to set sail in. Moreover, this is Paris and we all know the French have always drunk wine, or insipid lager if it’s hot, not fruity, English pale ale.
Maybe the Folies was not so upmarket as it looked. The information card in the gallery says it was a place middle-class men went to pick up prostitutes. The moustachioed customer whose refelction is captured in the bar-room mirror certainly looks as if he could be just as intent on purchasing the barmaid as the drinks. That might explain why she looks so sad, even fearful.
Or maybe it was just that this beer from my home town really was once more famous than Coke is today – the most popular branded drink in the world for a while.
Or was Bass, in wine blinkered France, a curiosity to be savoured in some places? The peer of a good Bordeaux for the discerning few?
Markontour has no idea and I’ll leave it to others to Google the answer, but I did enjoy tasking my gallery companions with finding a reference to Britain’s brewing capital in the old masters. And, as I slouch in a down-to-earth Italian restaurant, escaping the summer downpour in Rio, I’m still mulling it over in a self-satisfied, old-Burtonian sort of way. I reckon Manet just knew a good pint when he supped one..