Manet at the Royal Academy

A few months ago I visited the pre Raphaelite exhibition at Tate Britain and then went straight in to see the Turner Prize shortlist which seemed weak in comparison. I had not quite the reverse experience this week but close. I visited the new Manet Exhibition at the Royal Academy and then almost immediately went to A Greater Splash over at the Tate. To my mind A Greater Splash had it over the Manet and seeing the two together provided an object lesson on why art has to keep moving and innovate even if you don’t always like the innovations.  I will talk about the Greater Splash soon. Today it’s Manet.

Luncheon on the Grass
Déjeuner sur l’Herbe: the version you want to see is in Paris

The retrospective of Manet’s portraits Portraying Life  has been trumpeted by the RA as “singularly important” and  “unmissable”.  According to the Sunday Times 45,000 tickets were pre sold, more than those sold for Van Gogh at the same point, so getting there early in the run seemed like a good idea. Unfortunately, it is  the paintings you probably most want to see that are missing. There is no Olympia, the  Musée d’Orsay in Paris keeps it safely behind their walls and doesn’t let it go; there is only a small and rather miserably fuzzy Déjeuner sur l’Herbe borrowed from the Courtaulds, that pesky Musée d’Orsay has hung onto the big, bold, superbly painted one and the curators  had not even managed to persuade the Courtaulds to lend them the The Bar at the Folies-Bergère.

Music in the Tuileries Gardens: normally on show in the National Gallery

True there was the Music in the Tuileries Gardens, though this is normally hanging in the National Gallery, so not worth a special visit, the Railway and Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets which is currently plastered over posters on the underground. But they were diluted by what the RA described as status portraits, in other words portraits designed  to make their subject feel important. While wandering around this exhibition it was possibly intellectually to appreciate the loose brush work  which was to make Manet the father of  modern art, but I found it  impossible to feel emotionally why he was so revolutionary.

Indeed, for the most part, the paintings appeared decorative, safe and a little boring. They provided a glimpse of 19th century Parisian life, interesting if you recognise the spot where Music in the Tuileries Gardens were painted.  It was also instructive to note  how he used a dab of light to suggest noses or expressions and how well he could paint eyes. He had his failings too, which is encouraging for all artists whose work does not always go as planned.  I noticed, for instance, that he did not really enjoy painting hands. Of course he could if  he put his mind to it – he was Manet. But when he was doing portraits in a hurry either to satisfy rich clients or simply because he wanted to get on to the next canvas, you will see that hands get hidden more than the law of averages suggests  should happen. They were tucked in pockets, or in muffs,  behind backs or just below the bottom edge of the canvas.

Manet: Portrait of Georges Clemenceau
Isabelle Lemonnier with a muff
Manet: Isabelle Lemonnier with a muff

He was also not great at  horses, Look at the Cavalier (Equestrian Portrait of Mr Arnaud) the horse’s head has a slightly cardboard cut out feel. Apparently the x-ray evidence shows the portrait was completed by another hand – maybe it was the horse’s head that was painted by someone else – or  its hind legs, or ……well actually none of it is very good.

Manet : The Cavalier (Equestrian Portrait of Mr Arnaud) apparently finished by another hand

There were of course several superb paintings there, and ones which are not so easy to see without travelling further afield than Paris. The Luncheon painted in 1868 is particularly intriguing.

manet luncheon
Manet: The Luncheon – the young Leon looks past us with a haughty expression

Look at  the rather haughty  and bold expressions of the young man Leon, who might or might not have been Manet’s son. It  is similar to  the expression of the young prostitute staring boldly out of the picture in Olympia and also that of the nude in Déjeuner sur L’herbe . Whereas both the woman looks at us in the other two pictures, Leon’s gaze goes beyond us, looking at something or somebody he sees over our right shoulder but it still has the boldness, the quality of taking stock, that is part of what makes  both Déjeuner and Olympia so arresting.

I enjoyed seeing the Luncheon; I also liked the portrait of Georges Clemenceau, shown above; and Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets, though I had seen it so many times in the publicity for the exhibition, it was hard to summon up more of a reaction to it than – ‘oh yes, there it is.’ I now know more about Manet than I did before I went, but overall there just weren’t enough of the most celebrated pictures there to be satisfying. It was as if the Musée d’Orsay had put up a virtual sign at the exit saying, “you’ve seen the rest, now see the best.” I went as a guest of a member, but I can’t believe you wouldn’t feel a bit short-changed if you were paying the full suggested £17 entry fee. There was something else too. Without the best, the works seemed so strongly rooted in another time. Manet may have been the father of modern art, but at the Royal Academy, in this exhibition, you could really feel the generation gap.

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