Monday, 8 April 2013

Manet: Portraying life

Royal Academy, 26 January - 14 April 2013

'Berthe Morisot with a bouquet of flowers' from the Musée d'Orsay.
Reproduced from here.

Lots of duds, but the best evidence for the struggle to be modern within older traditions.

John Updike once started a review of a Monet exhibition revealing he'd gone to see what a bad Monet looked like. I admit to reversing that here: I wanted to know what a good Manet looks like.

Despite his pedigree as the hugely influential pre-impressionist painter of modern life, his paintings are fairly drab and unmemorable, with one or two exceptions. Modern life may be rubbish, but his impressionist colleagues were usually able to make much more of it.

Perhaps the tension between the traditional models and the supposedly modern environment, a tension certainly present in Manet at least as much as any major artist since, crushed most of his genius.

Sadly the evidence of this exhibition does not much improve my opinion.

Too many works were either deemed too poor by the artist for public display, or were unfinished, but not in an interesting sense, despite the curators' hopeful claims.

Stilted poses. Hypnotically large patches of flat single colour (often black). Women in glaring white, men in sombre black. Dull scenes that we're informed were revolutionary, but now just seem everyday. Manet seemed confirmed as a period piece.

But thankfully I was able to fulfil my quest. The Courtauld's (smaller) version of Dinner on the Lawn is the real thing, and I'm all the more grateful for Manet when I realise how many times he failed to achieve the right balance between old and new forms.

In fact, all of the paintings here featuring Victorine Meurent reveal what must have been a new type of image of women. Still trapped in a male-dominated world (and gaze) but aware of it, and resentful. The resentment, and its implicit powerlessness, is something we find unsettling for reasons different from the original viewers, and I wonder if claims to be 'modern' do Manet poor service.

My favourite image here, though, is a portrait of the grieving Berthe Morisot. It has been used in all the publicity for this exhibition, but justifiably. Other portraits on show of the same subject show that Manet wasn't always able to capture what we now recognise as fierce intelligence and independence.

Sometimes, his failures are especially important. A late pastel portrait 'Suzette Lemaire' is done so delicately it invoked the galant era 150 years before Manet, yet the subject is so thoroughly modern, so self-aware and independent, that the medium itself seems to fail, rather than the artist.

For anyone fascinated by the struggle to innovate within the standards set by strong (even overwhelming) precursors, this exhibition illustrates just how hard that struggle is, with many failures needed for each success. For anyone wanting just the outcome, the masterworks of this fascinating artist, this is the wrong exhibition.

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