Thursday, January 24, 2013

Exhibition Review: Manet - Portraying Life at the RA

Édouard Manet's painting of Berthe Morisot
on the Banner for the Manet - Portraying Life Exhibition
on the front of Burlington House, home of the Royal Academy of Arts
This is the headline short version of my review of Manet - Portrayal of Life - the new exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts - which is the first major exhibition of Édouard Manet.  That's because I forgot to take my pill that makes me mobile and I'm in agony and can hardly move after the Friends Private View this afternoon!

I usually like to sleep on it before writing a review as it's always interesting to see what you remember the next day.  In this instance I don't think my views will change much

This is:

Visit the Exhibition if you live in London and are interested in painting and portraiture. If you live outside I couldn't justify the expense of making the journey to London just to see this exhibition.  But an interesting exhibition if you've got other reasons bringing you to London. (Plus remember you can come to London any time and see these paintings at the National Gallery for free!)

Initial Impression

There's not a lot of paintings (59?) and they're utterly swamped by being in the big main galleries of the RA (the ones used for the Summer Exhibition).  Some stunning paintings - and some which I personally don't think deserve to be in an exhibition.

This would have been a much better exhibition with certain paintings culled (not good enough) and transferred to the Sackler Galleries upstairs which would have suited both the size of the exhibition and the size of many of the paintings much better.

  • some wonderful portraits which I'd not seen before - most notably those paintings of his wife which he kept at home.  I loved 'Mme Manet in the Conservatory', 1879 (the second picture in the slideshow - see link above) which the couple had hanging in their bedroom at home.
Madame Manet in conservatory by Manet
oil on canvas, 86.3 x 100 cm
National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, OsloImage: Wikipaintings
  • some of the paintings (such as Madame Manet in the Conservatory) in this exhibition won me round.  I've never been a fan of Manet - but I'm now warming to him.
  • a couple of great pastel paintings - which made me realise I'd never really thought of him as a pastel painter before
  • The Audio Guide is good and interesting and easy to use.  Which was a god send as I could hardly read most of the narrative captions for the paintings (see below)
‘I do what I see and not what others are pleased to see; I do what is and not what is not.’ Edouard Manet, as reported by Antonin Proust in 1897
  • A pretty gloomy atmosphere - The walls are all painted a really dark charcoal grey colour which made the exhibition feel very dark and pretty depressing - but then I react to colours and other people don't
  • One huge entire gallery given over to ONE painting!  Music in the Tuileries is not that big and   I predict this approach to hanging a work is going to cause major traffic management issues and a lot of complaints.  
  • Another gallery given over to a time line and a map of specific locations in Paris.  Interesting - but it felt like padding.  It was also a great pity that I couldn't read any of the text because it was too low and/or you had to find a particular angle to even look at the photographs as otherwise the lighting "whited" it out or was obscured by my shadow as I bent over to read it given it was about knee level or lower!
  • The Luncheon on the Grass (Le déjeuner sur l'herbe) is the Courtauld smaller copy not the original
  • There's a fairly long list of significant portraits / figure paintings which are NOT in the exhibition.  Granted not all exhibitions can always attract all the good paintings - even if held at the RA.  However given the track record of past exhibitions at the RA I was expecting a few more.  I agree with Adrian Searle - this is certainly NOT a landmark exhibition.
  • Huge discrepancies in style between paintings and in the quality of the paintings in the exhibition.  They're treated as if they're all equally good - and they're not.  Not much critical appreciation evident in the textual narratives (but then I had trouble reading these so only sampled a few!)
  • Not enough attention paid to the needs of those with impaired vision. My vision's not great at the moment which means I notice all the aspects which are significant weaknesses for all those with less than 20/20 vision.  To my mind, there's little evidence that those lighting and hanging the exhibition are thinking about those whose vision is less than perfect.  White on a dark colour is not easy to read in good light at the best of times.  It's even more difficult where lighting is subdued and you have to try and read it from a significant distance (ie from behind the wire).  Opting for the large print guides is not an option if there are no large print guides in the boxes and/or they are all in use and/or they're in the wrong boxes and nobody is returning them to the right ones.  
If you want an in-depth review read:
Manet hated the thought that his paintings would be seen jammed together. Here the hanging could not be more generous; a cynic might say stretched out.
The Exhibition opens on Saturday to the public and continues until 14 April in the Main Galleries at the Royal Academy of Arts in Piccadilly, London.

'Manet: Portraying Life' has been organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London, in collaboration with the Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio. The exhibition has been curated by MaryAnne Stevens, Director of Academic Affairs, Royal Academy of Arts and Dr Larry Nichols, Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio.

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  1. I sure like that painting of Manet's wife...It is always interesting to read your reviews of such events as these. I think I'd like the gray walls since they let each painting shine but them I to react to colors and I tend to like the subdued colors.

    1. There's subdued and then there's downright gloomy!

      I think they were responding to the fact Manet is the man of black (paint). However a coloured grey (which he also does) would have been so much less oppressive. I kept thinking I was in some sort of cave!

    2. we're talking charcoal as in

  2. Manet has always been one of my favorites so my initial thought was I would like to see his 'lesser' polished or finished works. We often hear that drawings, sketches and studies are more telling of the artist than finished works, revealing far more about the artist and how they work and in the case of Manet this could have been true based on how he worked as quoted in the Brian Sewell review:

    "...the insiders objecting to his alla prima technique (that is painting directly on the canvas without preliminary studies, the composition adjusted and edited in progress, the brushwork free and fluent and perspective left to chance), the outsiders bemused and angrily disturbed by subjects in which Manet broke all the technical rules and ignored the traditional hierarchies that made, for example, a history painting mightily superior to a still life.

    I don't mind at all seeing the less than monumental works by the masters. I think we can too often hold our art hero's TOO HIGH, forgetting that they are as human as the rest of us, thus making any hope of our own art reaching that level seemingly unattainable.

    Unfortunately reviews of this exhibition make it sound like a failure or a missed opportunity even if that was/is the curators intention.
    If the wall color, meager hanging of the show, dilution of too many 'lesser' works and other problems are the focus then I can't be disappointed for missing it.

    1. Is it an "alla prima" painting when it keeps being wiped down and started again - as Manet was apt to do?

      I find his work both underworked and overworked at times.

      That said the real issue of this show for me is the balance between the excellent, the interesting and works which are much less good - and by that I do NOT mean those which are obvious alla prima studies

    2. On the "alla prima" issue, I personally would say yes it is an "alla prima".
      I have always gone by the definition of "a painting done in one sitting and without any (allowed to dry first) underpainting, italian for "at the first". I consider wiping out part of the process, others may not. A purist definition might say additive only painting, point A to B.

      I know others who subscribe to different versions of an "alla prima" definition. Many plein air painters for example insist it must be done from life, we are all different.

      All this is a side note to the exhibition, quality or lack of.
      And I would agree, based on what I can see and read online, the balance of excellent, interesting, less good is out of whack.

    3. But is it "alla prima" to paint all day, wipe it all out at the end of the day and then start again the next day - as Manet used to do. I just call that an unsuccessful day of painting - apart from any learning achieved about what not to do along the way!

      The essence of "alla prima" is to get it down in one go. It means " at first attempt". I have no problem with those who wipe down as they're painting - so long as it's all done in one sitting.

    4. I would agree with that.
      Wiping out or not, the painting should be completed in one sitting to be "alla prima", not continued the next day.


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