Manet: Portraying Life – Royal Academy: 26 January – 14 April 2013
Having visited the Royal Academy’s latest ‘blockbuster’ show soon after it opened I have been unable to shake off a feeling of disappointment. Other reviewers have been very positive, so I feel that I must have missed something. Indeed, it has been this uncertainty that has delayed the posting of my review. However, my conclusion is that, as a lover of portraiture, I had expected a different experience. There is something about the ability of the artist to capture, by the outward appearance of the sitter, the essence of the human soul that is, for me, without value. I am also a huge admirer of Eduard Manet. Yet this exhibition failed to captivate me, given the above. Yet in fairness to the RA, the exhibition’s title, whilst suggesting portraiture, cleverly plays with this genre to produce a show that explores Manet the modernist – the portrayer of modern life. Do not expect portraiture, then, in the conventional sense of the psychological power of a Rembrandt or Van Dyke. I would add also that the exhibition was extremely busy, and I was frequently unable to position myself with good viewing, and when so, not for long enough to deeply contemplate the work before me.
Look, rather, for Manet the mark maker, the antecedent to Cezanne who, it is said, was the first artist to use the marks of the brush for their own sake, rather than a mimetic tool. It was for this rejection of the mimetic that the American critic Clement Greenberg cited Manet as the first Modernist painter – in his highly influential 1960 paper Modernist Painting – ‘by virtue of the frankness with which [Manet’s paintings] declared the flat surfaces on which they were painted’. An excellent example is Mme Manet in the Conservatory (1879) with its freely sketched plants, and series of almost abstracted black brush marks suggesting the momentary presence of Zizzy, the family cat. A number of paintings displaying this sketchy technique are considered to be unfinished, for example Woman with a Cat (1880) with its wide slashing brush strokes, and the portrait of the politician George Clemenceau (1979-80); yet these unfinished works vividly illustrate Manet’s mark making , as with Clemenceau, where horizontal brush marks mirror the horizontality of the balustrade and Clemenceau’s folded arms, giving a directional force, from left to right, so that we read the picture as if it were the printed page.
As with many of Manet’s paintings (Olympia, Le dejeuner sur l’herbe), we see in these portraits Manet’s engagement with the Old Masters. Clemenceau may be said to refer to Titian’s Portrait of a Man with a Quilted Sleeve, or the Bellinis’ use of the parapet in their portrait compositions, perhaps most notably Giovanni’s Pieta (1490) where Christ’s hand, resting on the parapet – as does Titian’s Quilted Sleeve – invades the picture plane, as Clemenceau’s frock coat appears to do. Yet Manet’s nod to the Old Masters merely serves, arguably, to emphasise his modernity. Not only does he illustrate the markers of 19th century modernity – for example in The Railway (1873) which, with the inclusion of Manet’s muse and model, Victorine Meurent, incorporates portraiture within genre painting, notes the RA, and in Music in the Tuileries Gardens (1862), a robust response to Baudelaire’s call for artists to depict modern life, which illustrates the Parisian leisured class – but Manet does so in a manner that is often totally shocking to Academic discipline. In the Tuileries Gardens Manet almost refuses perspective and traditional composition to ‘declar[e] the flat surfaces on which [it is]painted’. On a curatorial note, this painting is bizarrely given a room of its own perhaps because it includes a host of portraits from Manet’s social and cultural circle; a small painting, however, it seems lost in such surroundings and suggests the RA’s need to pad out the exhibition’s collection to blockbuster status. As indeed does the following room with seated tables and illustrated books, with, I assume, reproductions of those paintings on which the RA were unable to lay their hands.
At the start of this review I opinioned not to expect portraits that are ‘windows of the soul’. You may feel differently. However, notable exceptions to this very subjective statement are Manet’s portraits of his sister-in-law, the artist Berthe Morisot. Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets (1872) and Berthe Morisot in Mourning (1874) as well as being fine illustrations of Manet’s love of black – an admiration for the work of Velazquez which is repeatedly evident throughout the exhibition – are arguably the most intimate portraits on view. In the former, Manet, with an economy of palette, gives us a captivating portrait of a fresh-faced woman of wide-eyed beauty. Two years later, the same palette and sweeping brush strokes convey a grief stricken, sunken cheeked, hollow eyed woman of pathos. Indeed, the eyes tell it all.
Please do see this exhibition. There is much to recommend it. However, I hesitate to say that it is not an RA blockbuster, in spite of Manet’s stature. Unfortunately many of his best works are not here, but there are exquisite works and much to be learnt about the artist from the paintings on view.
It may also interest readers to know that Tim Marlow is hosting a series, ‘Exhibition:Great Art on Screen’, the first featuring Manet: Portraying Life. The first showing in cinemas is 11 April 2013.