“Who is this Monet whose name sounds just like mine and who is taking advantage of my notoriety?” said Edouard Manet in 1865. I remember being a fledgling art history student and thinking almost the opposite: “Who is this Manet whose name sounds just like one of the few artists I’ve actually heard of?” Bloody confusing for any AS Level pupil. Still, at least Monet and Manet were actually spellable, unlike old Bruna… Broonalesski… Brunelleschi… or whatever that bloke who built that dome in Florence is called. Unlike other Renaissance masters like Leonardo et al, he probably failed to become one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles because his name was too unspellable.
Then we discovered Manet, to confuse matters further, became friends with Monet and they even painted pictures of each other; Monet by Manet, Manet by Monet etc. Oh, for the love of…
Anyway, I digress. The purpose of this blog is to tell you all about Edouard Manet, the ‘Father of Modernism’, whose work forms the basis for the superb show on at The Royal Academy at the moment. He gets the quotation marks around his ‘Father of Modernism’ because he’s often attributed that label, and like many sensationalised titles or style-labels, I’m not sure it’s particularly helpful. But rather than dwell on that, let’s state what is true, which is that he was certainly a pioneer for the modern age.
His bold painting style, unafraid to do something as academically frowned-upon as painting thin black outlines round his figures, or leaving areas of his canvases ‘unfinished’, riled many of the more traditional members of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris. But often more problematic for them, was his subject matter, which depicted a reality that he saw, rather than an ideal that the institution wanted to see. His Street Singer of 1862, on display here, is a great example of this. Depicted is a life-sized portrait of an ordinary, working woman. The Académie would have had issue with this for a number of reasons, not just with her ordinariness; wearing street costume and holding the instruments of her trade, but also the fact that it has been created on scale normally reserved for historical figures or members of the aristocracy.
There is also a smaller version of his Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (Lunch on the grass), which along with Olympia (not present) is his most famous work. He could have depicted a nude in the surrounding landscape and the Academy would have appreciated its association with masters like Titian and Ingres. But, by placing her with two fully dressed gentlemen, who barely notice her as she directly confronts us with her gaze, he created uproar amongst the critics. If viewing this in 1863, their contemporary clothing and the recognisable faces of the artist’s brother and future brother-in-law would reinforce the notion that we were not looking at a classic, but something very modern. The close proximity of the figures and the suggestive fruit with cherries spilt out onto the leafy ground provides us with an obvious sexual message; ‘all most shocking’ the Académie might say.
Manet was no stranger to controversy as the title of this show recognises: ‘Portraying Life’. In my last blog, I mentioned the hierarchy of genres, which the art academies of Europe set in order to formalise an approach to governing the cultural value of a painting. And this exhibition demonstrates successfully that Manet wasn’t afraid to flirt with the boundaries of these categories and it isn’t clear whether we’re looking at a genre painting or a portrait.
Throughout the show we see many of his family and circle of friends, whom he used as his models. The beautiful painting of a pouting Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets, wearing a black hat and clothing, is powerfully juxtaposed against a painting of the same sitter in mourning after the death of her father. Both portraits use black extensively; a colour the Academy believed should never be used.
Sometimes Manet catches the identity of his sitter, and sometimes he deliberately chooses not to, as with the portrait of one of his greatest supporters, Emile Zola. He reads a discourse on Goya and Velasquez (two of Manet’s greatest influences), there are Japanese wall hangings and prints (another source of influence for the artist), a book on Manet written by Zola, and a drawing of his infamous Olympia – the portrait of Zola is more about the artist than the sitter.
We see the different guises of Victorine Meurent, his favourite model. In The Railway, rather than being about her, she is part of a very modern scene, which baffled critics. They failed to understand why Manet had abandoned traditional depth in space and given such prominence to the wrought-iron railings and the volumes of steam produced by a recently departed train from the Gare Saint-Lazare. Now, of course, we know of it as one of the great images of modernity, just as we know Edouard Manet as one of the great painters of modernity.
Manet: Portraying Life is at The Royal Academy until 14th April
By Edward Lines