French painter Manet London exhibition

Manet, Portrait of Berthe Morisot

By Christine Lindey in Britain:

Manet: Portraying Life

Royal Academy, London W1

Saturday 09 February 2013

Edouard Manet‘s portraits defied convention by conveying the essence of his subjects through the act of painting itself,

The invention of photography in 1839 had a momentous impact on art, not least on portraiture.

Previously most portraits had depicted the ruling class but now the petit bourgeois and professional classes had likenesses of themselves. But this partial democratisation gave renewed social status to painted portraits and as the bourgeoisie gained in size and power so grew the demand.

By the early 1860s when Edouard Manet (1832-1883) reached artistic maturity, most artists saw portrait painting as a tedious but necessary means of survival as they aspired to the elevated heights of history painting.

So why did Manet, a man of independent means, bother to paint portraits? And why should we pay £15 to look at his depictions of people with most of whom we have no connection or knowledge? Because his portraits transgress their subject’s identity and many are not purely portraits anyway.

Manet answered the poet-critic Charles Baudelaire‘s call for artists to distill permanent and heroic beauty from the evanescent spectacle of contemporary urban life. A republican and a realist, Manet was impatient with the hypocrisies of the Second Empire. Challenging its aesthetic and social expectations by which philosophical and moral ideas were communicated through biblical, historical or mythological narratives, Manet painted non-narrative representations of the everyday on a grand scale.

His passion was for people. Making the most of his privileged gender and wealth, he strolled through the boulevards, parks and cafes of Haussmann’s Paris observing details of dress, gesture and comportment in the fast-changing city’s public places where social classes intermingled.

Painting directly from models or friends and family posed in the studio, he recreated his vivid impressions of modernity.

Manet often portrayed people to characterise social “types,” whether commissioned or not, and entertainers and their clients in the leisured classes feature large. The Street Singer depicts a life-size, itinerant busker emerging from a bar clutching her guitar while The Artist: Marcelin Desboutin shows the subject in scruffy clothes. His bushy beard and long hair protruding from a battered hat typifies a bohemian.

The Amazon typifies Madame Saguez, a shop keeper’s daughter, as an elegant horse woman, the newly fashionable bourgeois pastime in Paris’s Bois de Boulogne.

Only occasionally did Manet use the traditional portrait convention of identifying a sitter’s social role through attributes – the writer Emile Zola is pictured at a book-laden desk and the painter Eva Gonzalez at her easel, palette in hand.

Manet understood that conveying modernity was as much a matter of form as of subject. Realising that speed characterised modern times he echoed this by working quickly and spontaneously to retain the freshness of his initial responses.

Leaving hands or parts of the background seemingly unfinished imply previous and potentially imminent mobility of hands, bodies and facial expressions.

When most artists vied with photography to reproduce detailed illusions of their subjects Manet welcomed the medium as a liberator from such laboured, glass-like finish. He replaced the academician’s modulated half tones, glazes and repressed brush marks with stark tonal contrasts and broad, visible brushstrokes, while unmodulated areas of colour and visible outlines stressed the flatness of the canvas.

To contemporaries such audacious lack of finish signified professional incompetence. Exposing the materials and processes of his craft was a revolutionary act which asserted that the “how” of painting was as important as the “what” in conveying meaning.

Manet’s paintings impart his pleasure in manipulating wet paint to convey the physiognomy and character of his sitters.

Observing his subject intensely, he then outlined the curve of a cheek, the pleats of a dress, the swirl of a hat with swift and accurately judged sweeps of the paint-laden brush.

With similar boldness he made sharp transitions of tone. In his portrait of the Impressionist painter Berthe Morisot, the velvety black of hat, eye and necktie contrast with the pale creaminess of nose and cheek

The exhibition would have worked better as a smaller and more rigorously defined one in the Royal Academy’s upstairs galleries. Its main spaces are padded out by closing two rooms, filling another with reference material and, oddly, giving the medium-sized Music In The Tuileries Gardens a room to itself despite its being a crowd scene rather than a portrait.

Some of the captions give distracting and overly detailed information about the portraits’ sitters but they also provide interesting explanations about patronage and the social significance of dress and settings.

If working now Manet would depict people wearing jeans, hoodies and trainers in coffee shops and shopping malls. Extracting beauty from the commonplace, Manet’s paintings express and transgress his own times.

This is a chance to see originals gathered from all over the world by a giant of Modernism whose works are so supremely visual that no printed or digital reproduction can do them justice. Go if you can.

Runs until April 14. Box office: (020) 7300 8000.

See also here.

5 thoughts on “French painter Manet London exhibition

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