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Death by firing squad.

Ben Reiss looks at the background to Manet's extraordinary series of paintings of the demise of a Mexican emperor, now on display at MOMA, New York, and described in the catalogue by John Elderfield published in Britain this month.

IS IT THE IGNOMINIOUS END OF TRAITORS AND SPIES or the honourable death accorded to those soldiers who deserve to die no other way? Saddam Hussein clearly saw it as the latter when he requested it for his execution while the SS during the Second World War evidently believed it to be the former, using firing squads to dispose of members of the French Resistance captured alive. Death by firing squad also provided the catalyst for a series of the most striking paintings of the nineteenth century, Edouard Manet's 'The Execution of Emperor Maximilian'.

Through much of his career, Manet (1832-83), steered clear of such politically risky subjects as that of the death of Maximilian as the French system of censorship made it unviable to dally with such ideas. He held firm republican views and was horrified when, in 1851, Louis Napoleon made himself Emperor Napoleon III of France. When Napoleon invaded Mexico, most ordinary French citizens took little interest; Manet, on the other hand, was horrified by this action. He held anti-imperialist opinions and had a strong interest in Latin America, having spent several months in Rio de Janiero while in the navy. This led him to produce a series of paintings which, though appearing simply to echo the French interest in Spanish art and culture, may in fact be politically loaded. 'Incident in a Bullfight' (1862-64) portrays a bull menacing three toreros having just killed a toreador. The painting was cut in half and re-exhibited in 1867, and the fallen toreador; now known as 'The Dead Man', may represent the French victims of the Mexican war and 'the Bullfight' (the rest of the painting) the continuing French casualties. Few people at the time were aware of this dimension to his work, which can be seen as forming the basis for his later, more politically overt paintings of the death of Emperor Maximilian.

The Austrian Maximilian was chosen to govern Mexico by Napoleon III in order to shift the problem of the troublesome campaign onto another country's shoulders and to provide grounds for an alliance with Austria. In 1863 the French, intervening on behalf of conservative landowners against the reformist Juarez government in Mexico, triumphed after being humiliated at Puebla in 1862; the crown was offered to Maximilian. He accepted it, but only on the provisos that Napoleon guaranteed his position of power and the Mexicans themselves offered him the crown. These demands appeared to be met but in such a way as to swiftly make Maximilian's position untenable. He knew this was a risk but, pressed by Napoleon and driven by his own idealism, he took the crown and marched into Mexico City in June 1864. The unenthusiastic response to his entry highlighted one problem: the Mexican people themselves had not in fact requested Maximilian as emperor, and only a small group of Royalists (the Assembly of Nobles) had asked for his presence.

His liberal policies seemed to be an attempt to offer peace to Juarez (the old president of Mexico, now in charge of a rebel government in Chihuahua) who wanted nothing but complete power. When the American Civil War ended in 1865 and the new president Andrew Johnson officially recognized Juarez's government, Maximilian's position began a swift and painful collapse. Guerrilla forces (now bulked up by US volunteers) were gaining the upper hand. Maximilian himself was behaving increasingly erratically, weaving between the rabidly conservative and excessively liberal. General Miramon attempted to desert Maximilian for Juarez while General Mejia began to lose control in the north. The final straw came when all French troops were withdrawn from Mexico on February 5th, 1867. Maximilian, Mejia and Miramon were arrested and sentenced to death for treason. At Queretaro on June 19th, 1867, the abandoned Emperor Maximilian, with his two generals, was shot.

Edouard Manet did not, of course, personally see Maximilian killed. Yet, in his anger at Napoleon's work in Mexico and, perhaps, his pity for Maximilian and his untimely death, he wished to make a clear pictorial statement of his political views. However, this would mean going against his beliefs about painting being based on scenes the artist had witnessed himself, and in the process he created a kind of history painting different to the type he so despised. Using the press reports of the execution, he created his first canvas of 'Execution of the Emperor Maximilian' (1867, now in Boston) in a style that tallied with the historical accounts while retaining the uncertainty of narrative that was integral to much of his other work. That it looks spontaneous and rough is due to both Manet's painting style and methods: when he disliked a painting he simply started afresh on a new canvas. Some of the soldiers appear to be wearing sombreros and brown uniforms (indicating guerrillas) while others sport dark uniforms and dark caps (suggesting soldiers). Did Manet include this ambiguity because he did not know the identity of the firing squad? Or because his information changed while he was painting? Or because he thought he knew but did not want the public to know?

By the time he began his second version (1867-68, and in pieces since 1883 when his son cut up the deterioriating canvas; now in the National Gallery, London), Manet had settled on the Mexican army uniform of the executioners. They all wear a dark blue uniform with dark caps, white belts and white spats. These uniforms were 'almost identical to that of [the French] troops' as Emile Zola wryly noted, and many critics lambasted the painting for implicating the French in Maximilian's death. This response may not have been entirely accidental on Manet's part: the NCO on the right of the painting bears more than a passing resemblance to Napoleon III himself. A lithograph of the painting circulated that appeared to confirm this identification.

Manet produced two more canvases on the subject in 1868-69 (one now in Copenhagen and the other in Mannheim). By this time he had seen further details of the actual event, including prints and photographs. Now he made the features of the NCO more neutral with the addition of sideburns. Maximilian's sombrero, though,--worn in response to the 'beautiful sky' he wished for (and received, as all four paintings contain a patch of blue sky, mottled with a smattering of clouds to mourn his passing) on the day of his death--is pushed back from his forehead, evoking a halo and making Maximilian a Christ-like figure, a sacrificial lamb of the French campaign.

None of these paintings were displayed in France during Manet's lifetime, though he sent one to the United States in 1879. But all of them, plus the photographs and prints connected with the execution, are on display until January 29th at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) New York. The exhibition, curated by John Elderfield, takes the viewer on a creative journey from the history of the shooting itself to the final versions of the painting. And it is, perhaps, no coincidence that an exhibition so centred upon regime change should be displayed at this moment in history.

Ben Reiss 'Manet and the Execution of Maximilian' by John Elderfield is published in Britain on Monday January 15th 2007 by The Museum of Modern Art, New York and distributed by Thames & Hudson, price [pounds sterling] 17.95, ISBN 0-87070-423-0.
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Title Annotation:FRONTLINE; Edouard Manet's art exhibition
Author:Reiss, Ben
Publication:History Today
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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