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Once again there are lengthy around the block queues at London’s Royal Academy. Their publicity department has done its job to perfection, having honed its skills on last year’s Hockney exhibition and further managed the expectations of the public with its grandiosely named ‘Constable, Gainsborough, Turner and the Making of Landscape’, the manipulators of the dark arts of advertising have turned their attention to Manet one of the great painters of 19th Century France.
However, this eagerly awaited exhibition at the Royal Academy is not the major blockbuster that the art-loving public was hoping for or expecting. For a start the great pictures that place him firmly in the upper pantheon of French painting and on which he would stake his claim to be the ‘father of modernism’ are just not there. There is no ‘Olympia’, no Dejeuner sur L’Herbe , no ‘Dead Toreador ‘ or ‘Bar at the Folies-Bergere’ to name but a small selection of the artist’s major works. The latter, one of his most recognisable images is still down the street to the Courtauld Gallery should you want to see Manet at the top of his form. Luckily there are in the exhibition a number of very good paintings: such as ‘The Luncheon in the Studio’, the ‘Portrait of Emile Zola’, ‘Berthe Morisot with Violets’ and ‘The Railway’ and ‘The Amazon’ and for that we must be grateful indeed.
The rest of the exhibition is packed with painting in various stages of completion. If you did not know of his great paintings and of his importance in the history of art, you might wonder what all the fuss is about. Manet is renowned for the quality of his brushwork and that is evident in the show, but there are so many paintings labelled ‘not exhibited in his lifetime’ that you may start to wonder why this exhibition was ever put together in the first place. Manet himself would probably be surprised that so many unfinished paintings have been included. He was not averse to exhibiting unresolved paintings and this is part of his claim to a modernistic approach: they’re being no slick solutions to his pictorial problems, but he never claimed these were anything but works in progress. There is a tendency for artists to conceal their working processes, giving the impression that the final statement is all that matters as they strive after the masterpiece that will make their reputations. Masterpieces, in the main, only come about through hard work and Manet’s technique involved assiduously scraping down his paintings (much like his contemporary, James Whistler) when he was unsatisfied with the work so far. In this way he could learn from the previous results and yet paint the canvas again, quickly and with certainty and thus give the impression of practised ease and alla prima verve.
In fact an exhibition half this size and shown upstairs in the smaller gallery would make far more sense to the general public. But on the other hand, for fellow artists, an insight into his working processes is there for all to see.
Artists who like to concern themselves with process at the expense of resolution will find much to appreciate. All stages of Manet’s painting style are on display here: from the barely started, to the unfinished, to the obviously unresolved. The general presentation however, leaves a lot to be desired. The gallery walls are painted a dark grey and the widely spaced paintings are dramatically spot-lit. The National Galleries ‘Music in the Tuileries’ has been given a room all to itself in which it seems lost and there is another room containing a large map of Paris and some rather specialist reading material. One cannot help but think of such displays as ‘padding’! The Royal Academy must be congratulating their Publicity Department and their Hanging Committee for turning this moderate exhibition of mainly scholarly interest into a money-spinning blockbuster!
The pastels in the show are not his strongest medium. The ‘Portrait of Susanne Leenhoff’ looks inept especially when exhibited next to the much stronger painting ‘Mademoiselle Manet in the Conservatory’ which once hung in the couples’ bedroom.
In the hard fought competition for the most unfinished painting in the show the prize must go to the equestrian portrait ‘The Portrait of M. Arnaud (The Rider)’. This painting, photographed in his studio after his death with a legless horse, now mysteriously had legs painted on! His ‘Portrait of Carlus Duran’ has barely been blocked in: it shows Manet drawing boldly onto a large canvas in a spontaneous and direct fashion but then for whatever reason, abandoning it. Likewise a point comes where a painting stops being ‘unfinished’ and starts to be described as ‘unresolved’ ie cannot be finished as is often the case here. Then there is the point where enough of the portrait has been finished for it to be just about accepted as ‘finished’ and sometimes a painting seems over done as in ‘The Portrait of Marcellin Desboutin’. Here, a bohemian artist friend has been made to look respectable in a highly finished painting that contrasts with his more famous appearance as the morose drinker in Degas 1875 painting ‘Absinthe’ an infinitely better work.
Disappointing as this this exhibition is, and the criticism is not with Manet himself rather it is with the organisers of the exhibition. However the crumbs we are given from the table of the master should be enough to satisfy fans of this great painter until we can have a more definitive exhibition of his work.
Images: The Amazon, The Luncheon, Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets