January 31, 2023

Manet at the Royal Academy: Why I was disappointed

Battling your way down the Piccadilly line on a Saturday night is never appealing, but to make it to the opening night of Manet’s exhibition at the Royal Academy it seemed worthwhile. Having left the RA the previous year stunned and stimulated by the display of the works of Manet’s close friend, Edgar Degas, I expected no less from the guy known by some as the founder of modern art. I was disappointed. Even Manet himself would have left feeling deflated.


What amazed me about the Degas exhibition was how it was possible to glean so much solely by looking at the pictures. Everything was explained by various series of sketches, a simple display of the shadows cast by a revolving figurine or a short film by the Lumière brothers. You could look at a finished piece and ‘get it’ without a degree from the Courtauld. The exhibition spoke for itself. You didn’t need to walk around the gallery looking like one of Derren Brown’s subjects with an audio guide strapped to the side of your face. It was actually possible for anyone to stand pensively in front of one of his chef d’oeuvres and to nod, and to mean it this time.


Despite pride telling me I would rather sit on the Fourth Plinth in nothing but my socks than walk into an exhibition with an audio guide pressed to my ear, I wish I’d ignored it. I learnt nothing. I gained no new perspectives. At least if I’d chosen gallery disgrace I’d have come away knowing Manet’s shoe size, preferred brand of washing powder and favourite member of One Direction.


Previous exhibitions in Madrid and Paris have explored the context of Manet’s work; his relationships with his forbears and contemporaries. Context is one of the most important things when it comes to looking at art. The curator of this exhibition, MaryAnne Stevens, has taken the view that Manet had tried so hard to distance himself from the impressionists and for that reason context wasn’t important.


What the curator failed to appreciate is that context extends beyond what other artist were doing at the time. With no artist is it more important to look closely at the subjects. Beautiful paintings of Emile Zola, Georges Clemenceau and Stephane Mallarmé were left without enough information about the relationship between these famous figures and the artist. I feel Stevens could have drawn far more attention to the overlap of social circles in mid 19th century Paris. Woody Allen’s ‘Midnight in Paris’, a blockbuster illustrating the Parisian social network of artists of the early 20th century, was a huge hit, despite starring Owen Wilson. It is a subject that fascinates everyone, and it is particularly interesting when examined now. Most people either on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn and getting kicks from finding mutual friends or followers. Would someone not get the same kick from discovering Baudelaire, the author of their favourite poem, met Manet daily in the Tuileries and encouraged him to develop his ideas?


Baudelaire’s essay, “The Salon of 1846: On the Heroism of Modern Life”, arguing that men in frock coats were the modern heroic equivalents of gladiators in classical times, was a great inspiration for Manet. These ideas were later refined in his 1863 essay “The Painter of Modern Life” (hello exhibition title). These inspired Manet’s paintings of the bourgeoisie, living their bourgeois lives, for the bourgeoisie. No pretentiousness, depicting them as the heroes he believed them to be. There was no need to dress them up as the upper class. “The Street Singer” is a perfect example. A lady standing in a doorway, guitar hanging from her hip working her way through a bunch of grapes. It’s modern day equivalent would be a Tumblr upload of a busker eating a Subway on her lunch break. The paintings of Manet’s family and friends would have appeared in his Mobile Uploads album on Facebook. They’re honest, straightforward snapshots of bourgeois life. This was a revolutionary approach to portraiture. It’s the kind of portraiture we now encounter everyday.


If Manet had had Facebook then ‘Music in the Tuileries’ would have been his cover photo. It features him surrounded by his friends and contemporaries; the composer Offenbach, the novelist Champfleury and the painter Bazille, along with Baudelaire, Zola and others. With a room dedicated to this painting I feel that Stevens has really missed a trick not mapping out the links between the subjects. There is a half hearted attempt at this in the next room, plotting Manet’s favourite Parisian haunts, but it doesn’t feel like enough.


There are some unfinished works on display, such as Monsieur Arnaud on Horseback, that Manet never showed to the public, and you can understand why. Showing paintings that don’t stand up to Manet’s high standard seems rather unfair to the artist. It feels a bit like a frape. As though Stevens has pinched his iPhone and uploaded pictures of him asleep next to a bucket after a heavy night out to Facebook. A definite ‘untag’.


This exhibition features some beautiful paintings but does nothing to introduce you to the subjects. As a result you feel like you’re Facebook stalking a stranger. After a while you begin to lose interest, realise it’s been a waste of your time and feel a bit creepy.


This collection of paintings had so much potential and could easily have been the landmark exhibition it promised to be. Instead it was just a bunch of portraits, waving at each other across the gallery space, wondering what they were doing there. I left just as confused as they were. Fortunately the return journey on the Piccadilly line was less stressful and I had the opportunity to wonder what the point was.

by Kitty Mayo

3 Comments on Manet at the Royal Academy: Why I was disappointed

  1. “Context is one of the most important things when it comes to looking at art”
    I absolutely agree with you. Context is maybe so important as the paintings, without it the exhibition are more difficult to understanding…

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