The Esthetics of Mystery (excerpt)

by Kenneth King

Published in the Spring 2014 issue of The Antioch Review


Because mystery is an experience that lies beyond the known, it precludes aesthetics, but paradoxically only art and esthetic phenomena can provide concrete insights into the enigmatic.

Édouard Manet’s remarkably prescient painting, The Funeral (1867), depicts Baudelaire’s burial and might be the first truly modernist painting. The work, though unfinished, is not incomplete, and embodies and celebrates an uncanny mystery. What is being rendered in The Funeral is the afterlife and death of a celebrated poet.

Looking at this stark painting, one cannot help but surmise how the daguerreotype liberated painting from the mis-en-scène. Manet has shifted the entire axis of representational painting by creating a field of ciphers—the essences, traces, and visual codes of likeness and semblance that key eye and brain into instant recognition with very few realistic indices, features, figures, or details. He has painted a pure reflectivity of the event.

The lower half of the painting is much darker, indicating the spare entrance to the Montparnasse cemetery. On the lower far left a clump of trees contains a small enigmatic cove. This placement creates a strange contrast that vies with procession in the center, behind the funeral hearse and driver on the far right. The closure of trees though contains an indistinct, numinous white shape, an unfinished illumination, perhaps the deceased’s doppelgänger?

The mourners are rendered as a bare abstraction with minimal details—a dark splotch constitutes the group with some circles for heads and a pair of legs—nonetheless this rough gestalt telegraphs their arrangement and stately solemnity.  Some of the strokes appear to have been gouged out with a palette knife.

Herman Rorschach did not create the inkblot test until 1921, but decades earlier Manet’s painting mysteriously foreshadowed and embodied it. The clouds are tentatively indicated by moody squiggled shadings, like those a child might draw, but with unmistakably masterful textual nuances that uncannily capture the unbound. Manet is playing with absence and presence by creating presence through absence, and by absenting realism, or abdicating it, he renders the mystery of the event more authentically than photographic precision. The mystery isn’t what’s represented, but what’s reflected; not what is seen, but how the act of seeing realigns and reconstitutes itself. The subject is not the scene, the funeral, but perception itself.

© Kenneth King. For permission to reprint, contact

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