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Manet disappoints

This is a post from the archive. Information contained within it may now be out of date.
Once again there are lengthy around the block queues at London’s Royal Academy. Their publicity department has done its job to perfection, having honed its skills on last year’s Hockney exhibition and further managed the expectations of the public with its grandiosely named ‘Constable, Gainsborough, Turner and the Making of Landscape’, the manipulators of the dark arts of advertising have turned their attention to Manet one of the great painters of 19th Century France.
However, this eagerly awaited exhibition at the Royal Academy is not the major blockbuster that the art-loving public was hoping for or expecting. For a start the great pictures that place him firmly in the upper pantheon of French painting and on which he would stake his claim to be the ‘father of modernism’ are just not there. There is no ‘Olympia’, no Dejeuner sur L’Herbe , no ‘Dead Toreador ‘ or ‘Bar at the Folies-Bergere’ to name but a small selection of the artist’s major works. The latter, one of his most recognisable images is still down the street to the Courtauld Gallery should you want to see Manet at the top of his form. Luckily there are in the exhibition a number of very good paintings: such as ‘The Luncheon in the Studio’, the ‘Portrait of Emile Zola’, ‘Berthe Morisot with Violets’ and ‘The Railway’ and ‘The Amazon’ and for that we must be grateful indeed.

The rest of the exhibition is packed with painting in various stages of completion. If you did not know of his great paintings and of his importance in the history of art, you might wonder what all the fuss is about. Manet is renowned for the quality of his brushwork and that is evident in the show, but there are so many paintings labelled ‘not exhibited in his lifetime’ that you may start to wonder why this exhibition was ever put together in the first place. Manet himself would probably be surprised that so many unfinished paintings have been included. He was not averse to exhibiting unresolved paintings and this is part of his claim to a modernistic approach: they’re being no slick solutions to his pictorial problems, but he never claimed these were anything but works in progress. There is a tendency for artists to conceal their working processes, giving the impression that the final statement is all that matters as they strive after the masterpiece that will make their reputations. Masterpieces, in the main, only come about through hard work and Manet’s technique involved assiduously scraping down his paintings (much like his contemporary, James Whistler) when he was unsatisfied with the work so far. In this way he could learn from the previous results and yet paint the canvas again, quickly and with certainty and thus give the impression of practised ease and alla prima verve.

In fact an exhibition half this size and shown upstairs in the smaller gallery would make far more sense to the general public. But on the other hand, for fellow artists, an insight into his working processes is there for all to see.
Artists who like to concern themselves with process at the expense of resolution will find much to appreciate. All stages of Manet’s painting style are on display here: from the barely started, to the unfinished, to the obviously unresolved. The general presentation however, leaves a lot to be desired. The gallery walls are painted a dark grey and the widely spaced paintings are dramatically spot-lit. The National Galleries ‘Music in the Tuileries’ has been given a room all to itself in which it seems lost and there is another room containing a large map of Paris and some rather specialist reading material. One cannot help but think of such displays as ‘padding’! The Royal Academy must be congratulating their Publicity Department and their Hanging Committee for turning this moderate exhibition of mainly scholarly interest into a money-spinning blockbuster!
The pastels in the show are not his strongest medium. The ‘Portrait of Susanne Leenhoff’ looks inept especially when exhibited next to the much stronger painting ‘Mademoiselle Manet in the Conservatory’ which once hung in the couples’ bedroom.
In the hard fought competition for the most unfinished painting in the show the prize must go to the equestrian portrait ‘The Portrait of M. Arnaud (The Rider)’. This painting, photographed in his studio after his death with a legless horse, now mysteriously had legs painted on! His ‘Portrait of Carlus Duran’ has barely been blocked in: it shows Manet drawing boldly onto a large canvas in a spontaneous and direct fashion but then for whatever reason, abandoning it. Likewise a point comes where a painting stops being ‘unfinished’ and starts to be described as ‘unresolved’ ie cannot be finished as is often the case here. Then there is the point where enough of the portrait has been finished for it to be just about accepted as ‘finished’ and sometimes a painting seems over done as in ‘The Portrait of Marcellin Desboutin’. Here, a bohemian artist friend has been made to look respectable in a highly finished painting that contrasts with his more famous appearance as the morose drinker in Degas 1875 painting ‘Absinthe’ an infinitely better work.
Disappointing as this this exhibition is, and the criticism is not with Manet himself rather it is with the organisers of the exhibition. However the crumbs we are given from the table of the master should be enough to satisfy fans of this great painter until we can have a more definitive exhibition of his work.
Images: The Amazon, The Luncheon, Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets

Posted by author: Jim
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17 thoughts on “Manet disappoints

  • I have not seen and am unlikely to be able to see this exhibition but this review is interesting in that it seems to me to suggest that the stated intent of the RA, to display Manet’s work as a portrait painter, does not come over. I am always sceptical of these blockbuster shows, they seem to me often to be more about getting the maximum income than really making a serious contribution to the artistic life of the community, but then I am a sceptic by nature!
    However, given the apparent number of works less rather than more finished, is there a value for the student in seeing the process of a recognised proto-modernist artist do you think Jim, or is it an example of a curator scratching around for something not yet done?

    • In one way it is interesting to see work in progress by such a famous painter and refreshing to see him struggling with the whole process of painting. It helps to explain his compositions and their spacial dilemmas . My argument is not with Manet but with the R.A’s promotion and need for a blockbuster. It is however up to students if they want to pay the £15 entry fee (£10 for students. )

    • I was visiting the Fleming Collection round the corner and the curator there said that a lot of people were coming out of the RA not having realised that they had been to an exhibition specifically about Manet’s portraiture and felt cheated. I suppose the wording on the blurb is not clear enough as portraiture isn’t the first thing I think of with Manet and when I read ‘Manet – portraying life’ on the tube posters I assumed that it was a reference to his response to modernity.

  • Sadly the Manet reminded me of the Hopper exhibition I saw in Paris in the summer: spaced far apart on dark backgrounds, which in the case of the Manets, only added to the ‘chocolate box’ appearance of these wonderful paintings. At least the RA can organise queuing better than the Grand Palais, & honour timed bookings.
    I’m not sorry I went, because I would grab any chance to see works like this in the flesh, but I’m glad I have an Artpass & got a good reduction! Both experiences made me dive into the nearest small gallery to look at good painting without the hype.

  • I agree with your thoughts on the RA Jim.
    Do you think the idea of an exhibition of Manet the portrait painter was a good one (however badly realised in this case)? It isn’t how I think of him I must say, do you think it could add much to our understanding of him as a prot-modernist?

    • If you separate out portrait painting from the subject paintings which this show couldn’t do , then the paintings of Modern Life ,albeit Paris in the 1860s stand out as major achievements. Indebted as he was to Valazquez and Goya and art does not exist in a vacuum, he pays homage to them in a modern setting and with his own technique. The show is worth going to just to see the ‘Luncheon in the Studio ‘ 1868.

      • I rather suspected that the RA’s video on the exhibition was selective at best. All this is rather a shame as I think that a good argument can be made that Manet was the most important of his contemporaries, at least in terms of the birth of Modernism and a really well curated exhibition of his work could be quite something.

  • Perhaps the whole idea should of been to show unknown works and another side of Manet’s ‘unfinished’ ‘process’ and marketed as such, this way if you know what your getting expectations aren’t let down. I think it is interesting and it strengthens my likely hood of attending now that I have read your review!!!!
    I like seeing the ‘big’ and ‘famous’ works of artists but having visited galleries for over 25 years here and abroad it is stimulating to view other works to round up my knowledge and visually stimulate me.

  • I have been round once very quickly and decided I would definitely return to study the work in more detail.
    What I found refreshing was seeing work I did not know at all. Not being a huge fan of Manet, I thought I had much to learn from this exhibition and it was good to see work other than the very famous works which are reproduced over and over to their detriment.
    Once I have been again, I will be able to better decide if I agree with Jim on the overall exhibition nor not.

  • There was hardly any queue at all when I saw the exhibition, mid week, and I decided it wasn’t as popular as other recent blockbusters. I loved seeing the unfinished works. I also thought I saw the Dejeuner sur l’herbe. As Jim says it wasn’t there, I’m wondering if I imagined it.

    • No, you didn’t imagine it. The picture on display is the half size earlier version of Le Dejeuner sur L’herbe which normally hangs in the Courtauld Gallery . The original large scale version is to be found in the Musee D’Orsay in Paris.

  • My mother came to London, and so we went to see this exhibition and the landscape one too. I though the landscape one was more disappointing. I have seen many Manet’s paintings and my mum even more but we were happy with what Jim calls the crumbs. In particular, I loved the way he paints hands (and feet), when he painted them carefully or fast, finished or not – not like a photo – but everything about them was purposeful. I remember saying that even if they had exhibited just Manet’s ‘hands’ I would have been happy. A real master class.

  • I would love to see this. The Luncheon is one of my favourite paintings by anyone. Years and years ago (the eighties. I think) I saw a very good Manet exhibition in Paris. All the good paintings were there. It was packed, unfortunately, but left an impression on me.

  • I saw the exhibition last Friday and hardly dared admit to myself that I was slightly disappointed, particularly as it was incredibly busy and hard to get close to the paintings. I agree with Jim about the ‘padding’ and the odd decision to put the Tuileries Gardens in a dark room on its own. Having said all that it was still interesting and good to see some famous works in the original.

  • Visited exhibition last weekend and agree with everything you said.the exhibition was poorly hung its aim did not come across.What it suggested to was Manet started paintings and abandoned them.So much unfinished/unresolved work detracted from the few notible works.Music in the tuileries is awful,interesting works were packed together, curitural notes omitted the paintings usual home,not the standard of exibition one hopes for from the R.A.

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