Thursday, 25 April 2013

Manet: Return to Venice

Palazzo Ducale, Venice
24 April –  18 August 2013

Manet's portrait of Emile Zola, which seems more impressive when compared with similar portraits by Lorenzo Lotto.
Struggling to reinvent old forms for modern audiences, Manet's genius is best served by direct comparisons with his influences, as this show proves.

How context matters. If my low opinion of Manet was confirmed at the recent UK Academy exhibition, it was partly contradicted seeing some of the same pictures at this new show at the Doge's Palace in Venice.

Crucially, one of his undoubted masterpieces, Olympia, is here, presented alongside its inspiration, Titian’s Urbino Venus.

The exhibition is fully justified for this conjunction of masterpieces alone, though the rest of the works deserve attention. The curators may not succeed in showing the overwhelming influence of Italy upon the Frenchman, but by providing some of the sources of his work, we can study how he specifically transforms them.

The two outstanding examples of this are his transformation of Venetian paintings, that of Titian highlighted here and of Giorgione’s La tempesta, transformed into Le déjeuner  sur l’herbe.

Neither of the latter works are here, but the Courtauld’s smaller version of the Manet is here, and it is possible to see the Giorgione in Venice at the Accademia, so some form of comparison is possible.

Why compare at all? Because Manet’s achievement becomes more powerful.

The flatness, the coldness, the detachment; the assertive gaze of Victorine Meurent,  above all the sense that the nude women in these paintings are the ultimate modern expression of the form. If the dejeuner is more than ‘just’ a nude, in that it is also a mystery, and therefore the greater work, that also reflects the peculiar mystery of the original.

Titian’s work, in contrast, while impressive, is probably not the best expression of his own genius. That said, it gains when compared with Manet’s work.

His handling of the oils is remarkable, so thin that the canvas is clearly visible beneath (but perhaps this is an effect of time?), yet so subtle that it truly looks as if blood courses through it. Manet, in contrast, has thick handling in his signature flat style.

And yet, we feel somehow closer to the colder Manet. Pornography and sexual fantasies are closer now to Manet’s idea than to Titian’s – sex objects, even in our fantasies, are no longer wholly available.

On a slightly less exalted plane, we can see Manet’s portrait of his champion Emile Zola next to his possible model, Lorenzo Lotto’s portrait of a young man. Both make a virtue of sombre black, though here Manet is less uncannily powerful: he found no new way of conveying intense curiosity.

The other comparisons invited throughout the exhibition make a similar point: Manet’s desire to reinvent past examples for what he felt was a new situation, sometimes successfully ‘making it new’ other times less so.

The best sign of the artist’s success is that we do indeed now see the world in different visual terms than our ancestors did; and this is partly due to his example.

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