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Blank faces: when it came to portrait painting, Manet's brilliance often deserted him.

Manet: Portraying Life

26 January-14 April 2012

Royal Academy of Arts, London

Catalogue by Carol M. Armstrong

and Colin B. Bailey (eds.)

ISBN 9781905711741 (hardback), 35 [pounds sterling]

(Royal Academy Publications)

According to Edouard Manet (1832-82): 'The eye should forget all else it has seen, and learn anew the lessons set before it.' It is good advice when approaching the gathering of his portraits currently at London's Royal Academy of Arts (and formerly at the Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio), because 'Manet: Portraying Life' prompts the question: how with this shape-shifting artist do you define a portrait? Aside from his still lifes and a cluster of landscapes, almost everything he painted contains people and is in a literal sense a portrait. Had the RA put on an exhibition entitled 'Manet: Genre Painter', at least half of the paintings in this show could appear in it equally happily.

Manet himself was not concerned with explaining his position astride this shifting line. As a realist and the artist who best fulfilled Baudelaire's call for the painter of modern life, he was less interested in defining categories than in creating a personal record of the modern world. 'Our only obligation,' he wrote, 'should be to distil what we can from our epoch, though without belittling what earlier periods have achieved.'

As the son of a senior civil servant, Manet was independently wealthy and not restricted by the need to sell paintings. Consequently he rarely worked to commission but used family and friends as his models instead. He did, however, have one favourite professional model, Victorine Meurent, and it is his paintings of her that best illustrate his disregard for conventional genres. Victorine is the central figure in the two most scandalous paintings of the 19th century--Olympia (1863) and Le dejeuner sur l'herbe (1862-63)--in which Manet represented her, unashamedly naked, as a prostitute. Her features, red hair and expressionless gaze make her instantly recognisable in both.

She is present too in the most striking picture in the RA exhibition, The Railway (1873, Fig. 2). Here, though, she is fully clothed and sits reading, with a sleeping puppy in her lap, as a small child on her left watches a steam train passing by on the other side of some railings. It is a painting that perfectly encapsulates the theme of the show: simultaneously a portrait and a modern street scene, the figures both individual (the child is the daughter of Manet's neighbour Alphonse Hirsch) and generic. It is both spontaneous in its snapshot of everyday life and carefully wrought--a studio work with a careful composition that pushes the figures to the front of the picture plane.

The Railway and other works, such as Music in the Tuileries Gardens (1862; Fig. 3) and The Luncheon (1868), in which three seemingly unrelated figures play out some small enigmatic drama in a domestic interior, show Manet using his sitters as actors in here-and-now mise-en-scenes. When he painted conventional portraits, the results were not as successful.

It was not a question of familiarity with the sitter. The first room of the exhibition is hung with pictures of his wife Suzanne Leenhoff and her illegitimate son Leon (who some people think was Manet's), which are more than physiognomic records. The Swallows 0873), showing Suzanne and the painter's mother on a blustery heath, and The Velocipedist (1871), which depicts Leon on his bicycle, are fleeting images of people he loved, small paintings full of life and immediacy. When he painted his writer friends such as Stephane Mallarme and George Moore--the former wondrously walrus-like, the latter leaning towards the viewer while astride a chair a la Christine Keeler--the same intimacy is present.

However, in full-scale productions such as his portraits of his journalist friend Antonin Proust (Fig. 4) and the painter Eva Gonzales, the sense of the viewer being in the same room as the subjects is missing. The little enlivening touches--the tilt of a head, a finger keeping place in the pages of a book --are replaced by stolidity. The bravura handling is present but these are at heart still lifes, with people taking the place of fruit or flowers.

Manet's ambition was 'not to remain the same, not to repeat the next day what I had made the day before, to constantly be inspired by something new, to register a new note'. This flibbertigibbet streak perhaps accounts for his refusal to stick with a successful technique when he found one. Forever moving on is an admirable painterly trait but not necessarily a useful one in a portraitist. There are really two Manets on display here, the artist and the face painter.

What this exhibition reveals is that, while he may have been a great painter, Manet was not always a great portraitist, largely because his pictures show an essential lack of interest in psychology. If the best portraits reveal the inner life as well as the external appearance, then Manet stayed outside the skin. His portrait of Emile Zola (1868), for example, is as much about the accoutrements of the writer's study as the man who defended Manet staunchly against the numerous critics of his salon appearances. The eye is naturally drawn not to the rather bland figure of Zola but to the flurry of books, papers and prints that surround him.

This unevenness and fluidity make Manet an often maddening painter, all the more so because when the stars were aligned he could enter the inner world of his subjects rather than staying, ever the flaneur, at an emotional distance. There is a small, rapid portrait here of 1874 showing Manet's sister-in-law Berthe Morisot in mourning for her father (Fig. 1). It is an extraordinarily expressive work, in which her grief is transmitted through slashed blacks and heavy impasto. Her eyes, dragged open by sorrow and the weight of her hand on her cheek, are painful to look into.

With only 50 portraits (a sizeable chunk, nevertheless, of the 430 oils listed in the catalogue raisonne) there are perhaps slightly too few canvases to fill the RA's rooms. This, though, is an important and unprecedented exhibition, lo years in the making, that shows not only the expected--Manet's strengths--but just as interestingly, his weaknesses.

Michael Prodger is Senior Research Fellow in the History of Modern Art at the University of Buckingham.
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Title Annotation:Manet: Portraying Life
Author:Prodger, Michael
Publication:Apollo
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 1, 2013
Words:1053
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