Édouard Manet's portraits are being exhibited at the Royal Academy. Manet, born 1832 into a bourgeoisie family in Paris, led the transition from realism to impressionism. It may not seem so at first glance, but he was rather ahead of his time. You can tell by his frequent use of Ivory black. On the whole, the impressionists had used black more sparingly than he did.
Between Man Ray and Manet, whose current London exhibition features more celebrities? Man Ray captures a satisfying scope of them on camera, from Picasso to Duchamp (see review), but shifting backwards to the previous century, we can see that Manet painted a fair few of his time, and his confident, masterful use of black paint - his trademark - comes through in each of these paintings. By the looks of things, many of his friends (well, at least the ones he chose to paint), were highly acclaimed novelists and poets.
These portraits are unconventional in more ways one; for example look at The Gare Saint-Lazare (The Railway), where the child in the painting has her back to the viewer. We've seen artists like Gerhard Richter presenting subjects like this, withholding emotional an connection, but it is quite a modern concept.
When this painting was displayed at the Salon of 1874, it had received mixed reviews and remarks such as, “Is Manet’s Railway a double portrait or a subject picture? We lack the information to solve this problem.” And as Richard Dorment aptly puts it: that’s the whole point.
Another well-known piece, Music in theTuileries was regarded as unfinished by some, and when you stare at it for long enough, it is not hard to see why. Look at this section of painting (right).
When you extract it from the overall painting, it looks a mishmash. Is the one by the tree trunk a face in the crowd Manet thought we would not notice? Maybe it is not supposed to be a face - I hope not.
Still, the depicted atmosphere of the gardens are effectively communicated, the crowd and green mesh of the trees appear endless. And those top hats just exude a sense of euphoria. Manet's works, finished or unfinished, have a lasting impact. He manages to lure us in with his casual, immediate, loosely applied wide brush-strokes. Every stroke has a clear purpose of colour.
My last remarks are about the production of the exhibition itself. It is curated in a curious way. Whilst each painting is inherently faultlessly displayed, they are either crammed in side by side or, in a couple of the smaller rooms, very sparsely dispersed. Music in the Tuileries was given an entire wall, and an entire room, to itself - a whole room. I know it is one of his important pieces but still. Really? The set up is a bit of a maze too. I would not recommend going on a weekend if you can avoid it - very crowded and there is likely to be a ticket queue (unless you have pre-booked or are a 'friend' of the RA - I certainly became one after seeing the queue on a rainy Saturday afternoon). Heavily marketed though, since its opening, Manet's name has been everywhere. I even had a Manet print on my coffee cup from Paul's. Nice. Exhibition on until 14th April.