“I cannot do anything without the model. I do not know how to invent. If I amount to anything today, I put it down to precise interpretations and faithful analysis.” – Manet
The quality in Manet’s paintings that the RA’s Manet: Portraying Life brings out the most is perhaps his ability to capture his subject. His subtle manipulation of realism to embody the psychology of a subject in their very form easily outweighs the ability of the photograph – of which many are also displayed – to provide a portrait. Despite Manet’s wry comment about his incapacity to invent due to his borrowed subjects, the manner in which the subjects are portrayed is extremely inventive; his painting is a highly distinctive blend of the old masters and a foreshadowing of the Impressionists, and the exhibition displays both his more traditional works and his highly modern ones (and sometimes both qualities appear in the same painting, such as The Railway.)
Manet’s perception – and invention – of the ‘modern’ appears everywhere in this exhibition, from the more literal use of ‘modern’ subjects like railways and the leisure pursuits of the new bourgeoisie, to the startlingly modern style of Music in the Tuileries Gardens. The painting partly reflects Baudelaire’s view of modern beauty as being embodied in fashion, alongside the idea that music is the highest form of art due to its use of form rather than descriptive comment. Here, in his portrait of society listening to music, Manet emphasises this particular idea of modernity by focussing on form rather than narrative, producing a ‘societal self-portrait’ of modern society, in both subject and method. The exhibition also features a room dedicated to biography – the highlight of which is the inclusion of Manet’s literal duel with a critic – and a map of Manet’s Paris covering a whole wall.
The show has been slated in the press for its inclusion of many of Manet’s less masterful portraits, but even if you visit only to see The Luncheon and Music in the Tuileries Gardens, and the beautiful though less challenging portraits of Eva Gonzales, your trip will be an enjoyable one. Perhaps to seasoned art critics the wide selection of Manet’s works is not discriminating enough, but as someone who has never seen more than a couple of Manet paintings in the same room before (as many young British people will not have), the diversity is engaging.
As a final thought, whilst blockbuster exhibitions of the great painters are pleasing for fans and eye-opening for the uninitiated, could major galleries benefit from taking more risks? Beautiful and worthwhile as Manet is, I’m keen to see more thought-provoking and less obviously crowd-pleasing exhibitions, such as last year’s Building the Revolution.
Manet: Portraying Life runs from 26th January – 14th April.