Susan's "subject matter, context and medium...present a coherent artistic vision"
John Torreano, Clinical Professor of Studio Art, NYU

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Seymour Chwast

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Friday, November 13, 2020

Manet, My Muse and I

In grad school, one of my classmates, upon viewing my paintings of my cat, Muse, criticized them for their (intentional) lack of anatomical correctness. Then he gratuitously suggested, "If you want to learn how to draw a cat, trace a photograph of a cat." I countered, "Art, even traditional figurative painting, is not a representation, copy, or imitation of life. It is especially not a tracing of life; it is a transcendence of life." The French painter Eduard Manet (1832- 1883) was always careful to filter out the expressive or symbolic content of his models, so that the viewer's attention would not be distracted from the pictorial content--brush strokes and color patches. By this filtering, he transcended the literal meaning of the subject. The model would still have been the inspiration for the painting, but the subject would have been painting. The models in Manet's creations transcend their actual selves and become truer, purer, never-before-seen versions of themselves. They are distilled down to their essence. Manet's paintings were revolutionary visual manifestos of artistic freedom. His canvases exhibited what he believed to be the "natural laws" of the world of painting. Because of this, Manet's works are substantially different from those solidly constructed works of, for example, Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) with their familiar reality. Manet described the natural immediacies of the eyes' perception in terms of painting. The results were broad, flat areas on his canvases using no transitional tones to show what the eye takes in at a glance–not the way things really are. Manet believed that the painter's first loyalty must be to his canvas, not the world outside the canvas. This is the beginning of an attitude which was later to be summed up under the rubric of "Art for Art's Sake." Manet's life was devoted to "pure painting"–to the belief that brushstrokes and color patches themselves, not what they stand for, are an artist's tools, as well as her primary reality. If Manet had painted my cat: Muse would have been a totally new image and the painting's content, although literally Muse's image, would have been about painting itself. The anatomical shapes of Muse's head and body would be less important than the shapes that he would have abstracted from Muse's form. The abstracted shapes would more accurately exhibit Muse's essence than the more literally rendered versions of Muse's "actual" shapes. These "actual" shapes would have inspired Manet. They would not have limited him, as they do less gifted artists who search for "realism" in painting. In his concern for being true to the canvas, Manet would have found the truth, rather than merely the cuteness of a little cat in a three-dimensional "window." He would have had to make painterly decisions and some "sacrifices" at the expense of literal reality. Yet, he would have remained faithful to the canvas–his primary concern. By freeing himself of reproducing literal reality, Manet was able to capture the essence of his subject in a more truthful way. He would have transcended Muse, the signifier, and come to a clearer, purer painting of Muse. Art would have been created and the figurative subject abstracted in such a way as to be totally new and dazzling. When I painted my cat: I was delighted to see there is no more dazzling way to see a signifier abstracted and transcended than to spend an afternoon observing Muse. He is more my muse than my cat. He is, in fact, the perfect example of transcendence. Although he engages in the usual cat-like activities of eating, stretching, napping, purring, stalking and climbing, the shapes he assumes while so doing are more important than the fact he is a feline. The shapes he affects are so abstract as to make me altogether forget that he is a cat. He has transcended cat as animal and in so doing has become a fresher, purer, more universal image. Sometimes he is a ribbon or, perhaps, a comet as he leaps over my head. Then he is a sphere–a ball about to bounce off a shelf. He is a rectangular brick as he stuffs himself into a shoebox for a nap, and is flat as a modernist's canvas, or a pancake, when he tries to squeeze through a tiny space between window and sill. Finally, he is the crescent moon as he arches his back in preparation for battle with the neighbor's cat. Even he seems to know that the shapes he assumes are more significant than the fact that he is a cat. He never loses his "catness," but he transcends it--by leaps and bounds!


  1. Reminds me of another cat I used to know.

  2. Muse had an identical twin named Bocci. Perhaps you are thinking of him.