22 February 2013

Manet Portraits at the RA

It must have seemed a good idea at the time for the Royal Academy to put on the first major exhibition of Manet’s portraiture in the UK, Manet: Portraying Life, which has now arrived in London after showing at the Toledo Museum of Art. But not so easy to put into practice. For a start Olympia 1863, Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe 1862/3 and The Balcony 1869, all pictures highly relevant to the theme and to the pivotal position which Édouard Manet (1832-83) occupies between the traditions of the Salon and Modernism, are never (well, hardly ever - see Update 7 March below!) loaned by the Musée d’Orsay. Secondly, no more than 54 works make up the show, a surprising number of which are unfinished. One picture, Interior at Arcachon 1871 is making its second appearance at the RA in five months. But thirdly, and more fundamentally, what is a portrait as opposed to a picture which includes one or more human figures?

The answer, I would guess, is something to do with the indication of character and personality which the painter conveys in the portrait and through the immediate context chosen for the subject. On that basis, there are some fine portraits in the RA show, for example those of Emile Zola 1878, Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets 1872 (detail in banner above), Stephen Mallarmé 1876 (below), and The Luncheon, 1868, which primarily depicts Léon, the son of Manet’s wife (left).

But others are barely portraits, for example the players in A Game of Croquet 1873 (above), despite its considerable interest in terms of the separation of Manet from the Impressionists. Again, in what sense is the National Gallery’s Music in the Tuileries Gardens 1862, on solitary display in the second gallery and provided with a who’s-who of the 20 individuals in the picture, a work of portraiture (below)?  A portrait of a sector of contemporary society, perhaps.

The absence of the Musée d’Orsay’s Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe is mitigated to some extent by the presence of the Courtauld’s smaller later c1863-8 version. However, the latter’s generosity didn’t extend to a loan of Suzon at her [The] Bar at the Folies-Bergère 1882 (below right), which would have been preferable to so much Victorine Meurent, however fine The Railway 1873 may be.

The small scale of the exhibition helps to explain why Gallery 3 is given over to Manet’s timeline and maps of Paris and France - not that Manet spent much time outside the former. His presence in Arcachon stemmed from his leaving Paris during the period of the Commune, unlike Courbet (who, by the way, appears in the left part of Monet’s version of Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe 1865-1866).

The RA’s show was given considerable media coverage at the start of the year and it certainly provides an opportunity to see significant works by a major artist and to appreciate his skill in painting in black and dark brown which is hardly apparent in reproductions. Nonetheless I do wonder whether some visitors will be disappointed, particularly at a full ticket price of £15. Reviving my 'anticipointment index' of a year ago, I rate it at 3 out of 5, the lower being the better. Manet: Portraying Life continues to 14 April.

UPDATE 7 March

The Musée d’Orsay, with the special permission of President Hollande, is going to lend Olympia (above left) for the first time to an exhibition in Venice this year.

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