Thursday, 14 March 2013

Manet: Portraying Life - A Review

Manet: Portraying Life at the Royal Academy sets out to explore one area of the artist's oeuvre that "has, until now, received scant attention in the United Kingdom: his portraits." The exhibition documents Manet's relationship with his family and his friends who included some of the notable Parisian figures of his day, such as Claude Monet, Emile Zola, Charles Baudelaire and Antonin Proust, and thus considers Manet's portrayal of Parisian society.

Unlike many of his fellow artists, as a gentleman of means, Manet did not have to rely on portraiture for an income. This gave him a freedom to develop an independent approach to the genre. He had time to walk daily about the city (usually with Baudelaire) observing and sketching the ever-changing world that was Paris in the 1860s.

Manet: Portraying Life is a very disappointing exhibition for the simple reason that there are not sufficient works of quality to qualify this as a major Royal Academy exhibition. The tell-tale signs that the curators struggled to attract sufficient support from the major collections are there for all to see. The number of rooms for the exhibition has been reduced from the norm, one room is devoted solely to Music in the Tuileries Gardens 1862, which, excellent social commentary that it is, hardly has the clout to command such a space! The next room has a timeline of Manet's life along one wall and an annotated panorama of 1860s Paris along another - all good educational padding, but not really what we expect from the RA. Sixty canvases, some unfinished - many of them duds, hung over ten galleries; (as they say in the States) "you do the Math."

Don't get me wrong, there are some important works here and the exhibition makes the most of them. The Portrait of Emile Zola 1868 is outstanding, and the explanatory commentary excellent. Likewise, The Luncheon 1868 and Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets 1872 are particular highlights.

However, the exhibition was summed up for me by its finale: Manet's controversial masterpiece, Déjeuner sur l'herbe - but not the original - an inferior later copy. The whole experience was just a little second best!

Manet: Portraying Life is at The Royal Academy until 14th April

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