To the RA yesterday to see the Manet : Portraying Life exhibition.
Exhibitions of Edouard Manet’s works are few and far between over here mainly because his true masterpieces are fastidiously retained by the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. The RA has not been successful in prising works such as The Luncheon On the Grass, the Bar at the Folies Bergeres and Olympia from the grasp of the French and so has had to content itself with exploring his portraits. Operating under this handicap, the RA has made a good fist of the exhibition although it is a bit like the proverbial curate’s egg in reverse.
To get the gripes out of the way first – there are too many blank walls and the use of the third room (out of eight) to display a map of Paris at the time that the artist lived there just smacks of padding. An undoubted masterpiece, Music in the Tuileries gardens – a modernist take of a typical Zoffany ensemble a century on – is too small to carry off a room in its own right. To stretch out little over 60 exhibits across eight rooms has proven to be somewhat of a challenge.
That said, there are some undoubted masterpieces on display. My particular favourites were The Railway, the arresting portrait of Emile Zola, the two contrasting portraits of fellow artist, Berthe Morisot – in the one of her in mourning her face seems to melt in grief – and the magnificent first room which contains some of the many portraits of his wife and son (or was he his half-brother? – Leon’s paternity is disputed). Some of the pictures are unfinished (some too unfinished to warrant prominence in an exhibition of this stature) but give an insight into his technique.
Manet’s brush strokes are bold and, at times, frenetic giving the impression that he painted in one take. In reality, however, he took almost Virgilian care over his work, often scraping back to the canvas at night what he had painted during the day. Stylistically, Manet stands as the bridgehead between the classical styles and the Impressionists with whom he associated and was seen as a father figure to but was never really content to be numbered amongst. He was concerned to paint real life and his choice of subject matter and style often provoked violent reactions from his contemporaries. What is distinctive about Manet’s portraiture is his use of black in all its shades which has the impact of accentuating the lighter colours and tones on the canvas. He also makes use of what might be termed a dappled effect which brings further light and shade to his subjects. I was fascinated by his use of vertical and horizontal props – railings, balconies, trellises – which clearly helped him to design his picture and to draw his viewer’s eye to where he wanted. In many of the (finished) pictures, the background is often as interesting as the subject itself.
The exhibition, despite its pre-opening hype, was not overcrowded when I got there – perhaps an unintended benefit of having too few exhibits in too large a space – and people queuing on spec for tickets seemed to move along with ease.
It has to be recommended simply because of the rarity of seeing Manet’s works en masse over here but, I think, it could have been so much better.