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My cultural rehabilitation and The bar at the Folies-Bergère

Photo Credit: Édouard Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1982), The Courtauld Gallery | Wikipedia

If you have a hammer, all you see is nails!


My wife and I have been married for over thirty years and in that time I have undergone a gradual cultural rehabilitation. I had an idyllic rural upbringing at the edge of the largest rainforest in Sri Lanka, with flowing rivers and lush vegetation. While I was busy climbing trees, plucking Mangoes and studying textbooks, she was privileged to a much more culturally rounded education, visiting museums and art galleries and taking trips to the theatre.

After years spent studying, visiting an art gallery as a leisure activity was a foreign concept to me! During one of many cultural rehabilitation trips to the Courtauld Gallery in London I stumbled across Edouard Manet’s The bar at the Folies-Bergère and was immediately transfixed by this beautiful painting.

When my wife asked me ‘what is so special about this painting?’ My years of medical exam prep and passion for my surgical discipline had me well prepared ‘Well...she has a physiological goitre, and it is a sign of beauty, She has left partial facial palsy resulting in a slightly drooping eye and tiny squint’. Wendy was not impressed “You cannot see anything else beyond Thyroids and parotids and their complications!?’ Well, if you have a hammer, all you see is nails! Here is what I learned that day…

The setting, the Folies-Bergère is a Parisian music hall and cabaret venue not unlike the famous Moulin Rouge. It is a place where the Parisian bourgeoisie go to see and be seen, to drink and to meet ‘women of the night’.

The painting is about reflection, both literally and metaphorically – the focus is a beautiful bar maid, she stands in front of a mirrored bar; the scene we see behind her is taking place in front of her. A gentleman at the right-hand corner of the image (her left) is trying to engage her in a conversation, as she stares vacantly at the trapeze artist hanging in the upper left hand corner.

The moustachioed man chatting to her has more on his mind than just having a drink at the bar. The bar maid is detached from her opulent surroundings, perhaps she is contemplating the man’s proposal, or perhaps she is thinking of her children at home who are hungry. It maybe that she is a respectable working-class woman looking to make a respectable living.

Manet painted this at the end of his life when he was dying from Syphilis – was this picture a final reminder of the pleasures that were about to take his life?

Photo credit: John Brack, The Bar (1954), National Gallery of Victoria | Wikipedia

Nearly 3 decades later during another cultural rehabilitation venture, I came across this painting, The Bar, by John Brack in the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. After the lecture I received three decades ago I thought this was the time to impress my wife and show off my appreciation of fine art.

After a quick Google, armed with the instant acquired knowledge I explained that this was an Australian take on the bar at the Folies-Bergere. The painting depicts “The six o'clock swill” a period in post war Australia where bars closed at 6pm, so it was imperative to drink as much as possible in the hour before.

This time the customers are ordinary working-class Aussies and the barmaid a classic no nonsense "Australian Sheila". There is not a single man in the crowd who has the courage to chat her up, let alone attempt an indecent proposal. She is firmly established by clawing the table with outstretched firm fingers indicating ‘I am no push over.’

My wife was pleased to hear that I now understand that visiting art galleries to see paintings is not just about enjoying the visual image but trying to interpret what the artist had on his mind when he spent long hours painting it.

Jayantha Premachandra


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