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Manet Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets
Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets, 1872 
Oil on canvas, 56 x 41 cm Musee d Orsay, Paris

Photo © RMN (Musee d'Orsay) / Herve Lewandowski

Touching the here and now

When Édouard Manet painted people he transformed portraiture into something quite new. His way of depicting the essence of an individual was in the context of her or his time, stripped of artistic conventions and what had been until then, an ever-present mythologizing and historicism.

Review by Corinna Lotz

The Royal Academy and the Toledo Museum of Art (Ohio) allow us to explore a new side of Manet’s creativity through bringing together 54 canvases and intriguing contemporary photographs. It is the biggest ever Manet exhibition in the UK.

Until now the “father of Impressionism” was perhaps better known for his iconoclastic Dejeuner sur L’Herbe and The Execution of Maximilan and Olympia – which were ferociously attacked by the press of the day. It was only due to writers like Zacharie Astruc, Emile Zola and poet friends Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé, that the artist’s revolutionary contribution eventually became accepted.

When Manet painted people he transformed portraiture into something quite new.  His way of depicting the essence of an individual was in the context of her or his time, stripped of artistic conventions and what had been until then, an ever-present mythologising and historicism.

What made Manet so scandalous was his translation into colour and form of a direct view of the world around him. While drawing on Old Masters like Velázquez, he refused to gaze backwards, as established artists did, lulling viewers with “the known”. Instead of glorifying the present by giving it the aura of the past, Manet reached out and touched the here and now.

Manet: Portraying Life brings us up against things as they are in the bright light of the present. Even after 150 years, Manet retains the power to disturb and enlighten simultaneously. He can still shock, except that today we have the benefit of hindsight. We know what followed – a succession of “isms” which both reflected and transformed history – Impressionism, Symbolism, Cubism, Futurism, Suprematism, Abstraction and the rest.

Manet’s uncompromising shift to the present caused consternation in the Paris Salon of the 1860s, then considered the one and only place for artistic excellence. Others, such as the Realists led by Gustave Courbet, had challenged the pre-eminence of “history painting” during the revolutionary 1840s. But in the years of the Second French Empire, it was Manet, inspired by Courbet, who invaded the very heart of cultural and political reaction.

When Louis-Napoleon seized power in 1852 and crowned himself Emperor, under the mantle of his uncle Napoleon I, Karl Marx famously wrote that “the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living”. It was precisely this nightmare that Manet shook off – in terms of visual art – dragging people kicking and screaming, into grasping the world around them.

Manet lived and breathed the life of Paris, which Baron Haussmann, commissioned by the Emperor, had transformed from a medieval city  into a modern metropolis. Manet was, it is rightly said, both urban and urbane. In this respect he set himself apart from the Impressionist school, with their focus on nature’s changing moods and their need to paint out of doors.

Monet Beach at Trouville
Monet Beach at Trouville National Gallery London

In his embrace of the contemporary, he adopted an increasingly blonde palette, brightly-lit-flesh tones, the areas of colour made with clearly visible brushmarks. His flattening out of depth (inspired by Japanese woodcuts) and rejection of traditional tonal modelling, no doubt influenced by the rise of photography – were taken up by the Impressionists-to-be. It’s a fascinating exercise, for example, to compare Manet’s portraits of Morisot (1868-71) with Monet’s Beach at Trouville (1870).

Music in the Tuileries (1862) hangs in a vast space, allowing visitors to pore over the galaxy of artists, musicians, critics, poets, society ladies and members of Manet’s family who chatter and mingle below the trees. It is indeed a “cultural self-portrait” as curator MaryAnne Stevens notes in the catalogue, displaying the aesthetic that Manet shared with Baudelaire, brought together a year later in his book, The Painter of Modern Life.

Manet Music in the Tuileries Gardens
Music in the Tuileries Gardens, 1862  Oil on canvas  76 x 118 cm The National Gallery, London

Music in the Tuileries will be familiar to National Gallery lovers (it can be viewed free of charge when it is at home), but seeing it here, it looks entirely fresh – its revolutionary and elusive nature enhanced by its solo performance.  It is followed by an atmospheric gallery, containing only huge maps of Paris, with tables and bentwood chairs where visitors can take a break, be transported into 19th century Paris and absorb the accompanying guides and catalogues.

Manet retains the ability to thwart critical interpretation. We never really feel we can be certain what is going on. There is always a mystery, sense of unease and awkwardness between the subject and the background, that something that escapes being pinned down. Probably that is what gives his work a unique quality of the lived moment with an added enigmatic quality that is all his own.

Manet: The Railway
The Railway, 1873  Oil on canvas  93 x 112 cm  National Gallery of Art, Washington

Masterpieces like the superb Luncheon in the Studio from 1868 (Neue Pinakothek Munich), The Railway (1873, National Gallery, Washington), and In the Garden (1870, Shelburne Museum, Vermont) all have that sense of being caught up in a psychological puzzle. The people involved – as in life – do and yet do not relate to each other.  The central character in The Luncheon is the mysterious 16-year-old Leon Leenhoff, Manet’s wife’s son, probably from an earlier relationship. It is rightly considered one of the most enigmatic in the artist’s oeuvre. There is a sense of tension – perhaps a family argument? – in the sullen yet defiant look on the boy’s face. Added to this are the unexplained accoutrements of 17th and 18th century painterly prototypes – a helmet, a mirror on the wall, a view through a window and a traditional still-life on the table.

Manet’s fabulous image of his friend and informal student, Berthe Morisot, is displayed in the Royal Academy’s courtyard, vastly enlarged from the original canvas to billboard proportions. Using the image of Morisot, who was an independent artist in her own right, in this way draws attention to the fact that alongside a new kind of art, a new kind of woman came into being in the late 19th century.

The artist’s closeness to Morisot, who was to become his sister-in-law, was highly symbiotic: three paintings in this display bear witness to his powerful appreciation of her varying moods. The attraction between them was both personal and artistic - she became his equal in liberating the brush from a descriptive function.

At first glance, Morisot with a Bunch of Violets seems a spontaneous response to an attractive, almost breathless, young woman. But its immediacy, its rich velvety blacks, the ambiguity of space, the almost photographic contre-jour effect, the bravura wet-in-wet brushstrokes which simultaneously define light and depth, all come together to produce an unforgettable vision. The paint actually becomes the flesh and blood woman. The feathery brushstrokes which define her hair and the edge of her chimney-sweep bonnet, seem to quiver and move.

The breadth and complexity of Manet’s circle of acquaintances, especially his female friends becomes increasingly evident.  Are these portraits really portraits, you ask yourself? Or are they simply the people that Manet knew and loved?  They cross over backwards and forwards from “portrait” into “genre”. They were often not commissions, but his personal choices. On the male side are critics, politicians (including Georges Clemenceau, later to become French prime minister), the radical socialist Henri Rochefort, poets, critics and writers.  His dynamic but casual vision of the avant-garde poet Stéphane Mallarmé, thoughtfully fingering a book with a lit cigar in his hand, the other in his pocket, is one of the marvels of 19th century portraiture – and yet it is also a mood painting.

Manet’s portrait of Eva Gonzalès is one of the very few where he presents an artist actually at work – albeit in quite a humorous way. Morisot, on the other hand, is depicted as simply herself, as indeed are many of the other people that he painted, whatever their professions.

Manet Street Singer
Street Singer, c.1862 Oil on canvas  171 x 106 cm 
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Manet’s wife Suzanne appears and reappears as a pianist, sitting with her cat, in the conservatory, or with her son at an open window overlooking the sea. His favourite model, Victorine Meurent, was also a painter. But in The Railway she is simply a young woman fingering a book and cuddling her puppy. Manet had painted her earlier as a street singer munching cherries, notoriously as the defiant reclining nude courtesan Olympia, and sitting naked by fully-dressed gentlemen at a picnic in an ambiguous take on the old Italian master Giorgione. This melding of genres stunned and perplexed Manet’s critics no end.

His friend, the anti-imperialist journalist and later Fine Arts Minister Antonin Proust, commissioned a four-part ensemble in which women appear as the four seasons. Autumn was modelled by Méry Laurent, actress, supporter and close friend of the artist. Like so many other of his late portraits, including many sensitive pastels, this remained in the artist’s studio until his untimely death in 1883 aged only 51.

The epoch of blockbusters is still with us and there are aspects of this show which are doubtless problematic – such as the executive lounge treatment for those who can pay £30 for a quieter experience. Some will be aggrieved by the crowds and others may feel that some of the clearly unfinished works make for an uneven experience. On the plus side is the inclusion of the Portrait of Fanny Claus, the violinist who accompanies Morisot in Manet’s famous The Balcony. This painting was saved from export by public subscription last year and now belongs to the Ashmolean in Oxford, a vital addition to public ownership of Manets in Britain. When all the dust settles around this show Manet will be more than ever a holy grail for those who love painting and life.

24 January 2013

Manet: Portraying Life is at the Royal Academy until 14 April

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