Edouard Manet, Jesus Mocked by the Soldiers, 1864–65, Oil on canvas, 75 ⅛ x 58 ⅜ inches
Pasty male flesh, muscled hairy chests, leather, fur, rope-bound hands, a bloody cloth and a whip: this painting is intriguing to contemplate in reproduction, but quite startling to see in person. I don’t believe there is another Manet painting that depicts a group of people composed solely of men, and particularly in various stages of undress. It reads like a spectrum of masculinity. The frisson of male power relationships intrude on the religious connotations implied by the crown of thorns, the upward cast of the eyes, and the title, Jesus Mocked by the Soldiers. Painted in 1864-65, the painting now hangs in The Chicago Art Institute, but originally it was paired by Manet with his more famous Olympia, in the salon of 1865.
As with Olympia, and many other Manet paintings, we occupy an unstable place as viewers. A narrative is suggested but there is a dislocation in the normal suspension of disbelief. We experience a vibration between different levels of representation: between a painting of a story, a realist painting of a group of models or actors, and the theatrical enactment of a scene where a slightly effete intellectual white boy is bullied by lower class brutes, identified as soldiers, but really more like a gang. Yet it is also hard to escape being in the present, self-consciously experiencing oneself in the act of looking at the painting, admiring the formal construction—the opposing vectors formed by various limbs, edges, creases and rods that create negative spaces that reveal subtle information, as well as the action of the paint. Simultaneously there is the awareness of all the narrative possibilities this mise-en-scene implies.
Jesus Mocked by the Soldiers (Detail)
In person, there is the actual life-size transubstantiation of the physicality of the paint into flesh. The paint that depicts the body of Jesus is so thick and layered that there is no trace of the weave of the canvas. Manet paints this body without idealization, left knee roughly abraded, bound hands darkening from the blood collecting in the veins. Look at Manet’s astounding tonal control as he makes the right thigh seem to swell from the pressure of the left one, and you can actually see the veins protruding from the left shin. Standing in front of the painting, one feels the prurient urge to peek into the small shadowed space at eye level that Manet has painted between the man’s thighs and the cloth that barely covers his nakedness. He sits passively with his reddened, roped hands dangling across his body, and his left foot provocatively flexed. If it were a woman being depicted, the sadomasochistic eroticism would be obvious.
Jesus Mocked by the Soldiers (Detail)
And isn’t that part of the point here? The way the body of Jesus is literally degraded by its femininity? In both the Jesus Mocked, and the Olympia, flesh is displayed to us. Except that Olympia is in possession of her nakedness, while Jesus has been stripped, and humiliated by his. He is passive and powerless which in a group of men usually provokes feelings of aggression. This aggression is embodied by the two macho presenters: the massive old man in the metal helmet, and the sinewy young man holding the cloak either in an action of exposure or in a gesture of covering up. The confusing ambiguity adds tension.
And then there is the third “soldier.” No macho posturing in his pose. He seems to be the mastermind of this little drama. He is fully clothed and crouching at the lower left of the frame and holding a thin reed-like stick with a grey tip in his left hand. Maybe it is a thrashing rod. I have always thought of it as a pointer or probe of some kind, and that the figure was a Dr. Mengele type absorbed in the act of examination. He epitomizes the perversion of a detached scientific curiosity, like the bright little boy that tears the wings off flies, or sets fire to ants with a magnifying glass. Perhaps he is meant to be a stand-in for us, the beholder, and we assume his point of view and gaze. But also the stick could be a substitute paintbrush, for it ambiguously has that shape, and he could also represent the painter. Manet also had a red beard, and though at the time everyone recognized the model for Jesus as the local locksmith, I can’t help but feel, with all the public taunting and ridicule that Manet’s work provoked, he was partly casting himself as a beleaguered “Man of Sorrows.” And yet, perhaps to provide a little humorous self-mockery, he was identifying with the tormenter as well.