Edouard Manet at the Royal Academy

Posted on: 14 February 2013 by Gareth Hargreaves

Manet: Portraying Life has opened to rave reviews at the RA in Piccadilly.

Berthe Morisot (detail)Edouard Manet is often described as the father of modern art - a rebellious free spirit whose work, it is also said, inspired the impressionist movement. So it is not too surprising that this spring’s RA blockbuster is such a hit.

Naysayers have pointed fingers at the absence of some of the artist’s most noted works, but there is enough here to showcase how important and innovative a figure Manet was. Truth be told, I left the press day disappointed, but wasn’t sure whether it was the canvasses or the exhibition space that was at fault. After a few days stewing I went back for seconds and realised it is the venue - or the lighting to be specific. The Burlington galleries are awash with natural light and last year used this to brilliant effect on David Hockney’s Bigger Picture exhibition. It is a great shame that (due to fragility of some) these works can only be seen under artificial light – it detracts from what is a very interesting show. 

Curator MaryAnn Stevens has brought together a collection of 50 paintings spanning the career of the 19th century artist. The theme running throughout is portraiture and how Manet's studies moved away from conservative composition and painting styles; employing instead his favoured 'alla prima' technique and settings of modern Parisian life. 

Mme Manet in the ConservatoryThere remains great vibrancy to many of these works particularly the rich deep blacks of the enigmatic Bertha Morisot portrait and the intensity of purpose and brush in Mme Manet in the Conservatory. Equally impressive is The Amazon (the second instalment of a four part commission tracking the seasons), a beautifully executed society portrait blazing a new modern vision of an unnamed young woman: stunningly attractive, confident and independent. 

The Luncheon, in which the artist's stepson, Leon Leenhoff, makes one of his many appearances in a Manet work, is an excellent example of everything that antagonised the Paris Salon – this non genre based painting has an awkward cockiness in its positioning of the adolescent Leenhoff as its central character. Compositionally it is all over the place and spacially it is flat in spite of the background narrative.  Throw into the mix an extraneous Greco Roman still life and it becomes a work of great fun: the ambivalence of the two male subjects is complemented by the 'how bored am I' look offered by the serving maid. Unorthodox but brilliant.

The LuncheonManet was determined to plough a lone furrow and express himself truthfully through his work but among his contradictions was his craving of acceptance of the upper echelons of the Paris Salon – something that was denied him until after his death.

I have to admit that previously Manet was never my cup of tea, I had always seen him as an artist of no relevance to where art is now. But having had time to digest this collection I am won over, there is so much to admire.

Art for the masses seems to be the Royal Academy’s new mantra as it invites paying punters into Burlington House until 11pm on Fridays and Saturdays. The blockbuster descriptions by reviewers have certainly brought the crowds and you might want to plan a late visit if you want the time and peace to enjoy these works.

Manet: Portraying Life runs to 14 April 2013 at the Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly. For ticket details visit royalacademy.org.uk or call 020 7300 8000 

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