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A Bar at the Folies-Bergère

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The Last Resort

It is interesting to compare Manet’s painting with this photograph from the series The Last Resort by British photographer Martin Parr.

Parr visited the resort of New Brighton, on the Wirral, in the mid-eighties and took a series of photographs that find both humour and sadness in the life of an ailing seaside town. This picture shows a girl selling ice cream in a tatty shop to a small crowd of customers off the seafront.

In both compositions, there are strong horizontal lines formed by a counter in the foreground, and verticals just right of centre formed by a pillar and a door respectively. A balcony and another pillar in the Manet and the wooden frame of the shop window in the Parr add further to the grid structure.

Both pictures show a young girl staring directly at the viewer (by coincidence their features are so similar that you could imagine that in another life the girl in Parr’s photograph might have modelled for Manet), and both show the scene which confronts them. In the Manet, this perspective is achieved by the way of the mirror wall behind the counter, in which most of the painting is contained; to get the same viewpoint, Parr had to position himself behind the counter with the girl turned towards him. The photograph also contains a large reflective surface (the shop window), but by contrast with Manet’s scene of animated bustle, Parr’s window is a bleak, empty plane.

Both girls are ill at ease, and look as if they would rather be somewhere else. They are still, while all around them is a throng of customers. Both also have an unwelcome vistor. Manet’s girl is being approached by the somewhat sinister figure in the top hat: her reaction is to withdraw behind an impassive expression, but her discomforture is plain to see. In Parr’s photograph the intruder is clearly the photographer himself, and the ice-cream girl’s reaction is one of irritation and indignance. As Parr says: ‘This photo is all about the girl being confronted with my presence and saying, What the hell are you doing here?’

The environment of the two pictures could hardly be more different, and you could imagine that the two girls might be happier if they could swap places: from champagne, flowers and chandeliers in the one, to nylon and formica, smears of ice cream and stacks of cheap cornets in the other. But the two artists have captured different reactions to a feeling with which we are all familiar: the feeling of being trapped in an awkward situation which we cannot control. And in the contrasting milieus of a smart but disreputable nightclub and a faded seaside town, both Manet and Parr suggest the wider sense of social dislocation and uncertainty which has been such a pervasive theme in art since the late nineteenth century.

Copyright Martin Parr/Magnum
Courtesy of the Rocket Gallery, London

Mirrors: The Place of Realism
Mirrors: Illogical Geometry

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The Last Resort

Martin Parr

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