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Manet: Portraying Life

Nigel Halliday


Royal Academy, until April 14

ou can't really go wrong with a Manet exhibition. He is one of the world's great users of paint, up there with Velazquez, Frans Hals, and his other heroes. He is also one of the most intriguing, multi-layered artists of the modern era, and his career is credited as the birth of 'modern art'.

He was ambitious to be recognised as a great painter in the tradition of Western art and frequently borrowed ideas from Old Masters. At the same time, following Baudelaire's call for 'the painter of modern life', he wanted art to deal with modernity and not be locked into the historical and mythological scenes that dominated the art of the day.

As this exhibition underlines, his art is all about Realism, representing the world as it is. But, like any artist, Manet wanted an integrity between what he painted and how he painted it. And in a twist that makes him so complex, he seemed to determine that truthfulness in art must mean not only that he paint the world as it is, but that he paint it without illusionism. He therefore began to whittle away at clues that would create too strong a sense of three-dimensional space, and played up the artifice that is involved in picture-making.

Thus, taking his lead from Velazquez, he often removed background detail, and even obscured or omitted the horizon line. This has a dual effect. It is honest in the sense of emphasising the artifice of the painting. On the other hand, it can give a sharper sense of reality, as the subject is forced up to the surface of the painting and a direct engagement with the viewer. Manet sometimes increases the drama of that confrontation by including a mirror behind the sitter, thus implying a world behind the viewer that pushes you towards the subject.

Perhaps also, influenced by the arrival of photography and the fad for Japanese prints, he decided to highlight the fact that reality does not present itself to you ready composed for the frame. Some of his paintings seem either deliberately unposed, or overtly staged as artificial arrangements.

Many of Manet's works remained incomplete and, as this exhibition points out, it is hard to tell in some cases whether he regarded them as finished or not. But if we get away from the notion that every work by a master must be a masterpiece, we can see many of these works as experiments, some of which work better than others.

So The Luncheon (1868, above) is a compelling image, and yet seems strangely incoherent.  The young man at the front commands attention but the woman with the jug seems to be more like a backdrop. Meanwhile the pot plant, which logically is behind her, seems to leap into the foreground. The portrait of the painter Eva Gonzal├Ęs (1870) is very strange: she seems to be working on a painting that is already finished and framed, while wearing a formal dress quite inappropriate to the studio, and not even looking at where her brush is pointing.

There are seeds in Manet of the reductionism that was already inherent in the 'art for art's sake' movement and that would afflict modern art. Living within the materialist worldview of post-Enlightenment France they reasoned that, if reality is was just the stuff of our senses, then art would simply reflect that reality - devoid of morality, narrative, or meaning. And if art is part of the material world then its own aesthetic qualities become an end in themselves.

But it takes a while for the consequences of our ideas to work themselves out. And being early on in the process, Manet's work, like that of his contemporaries such as Whistler and Degas, manifests a deep humanity. He takes a genuine interest in the character and quality of his sitters, and seems to warm to their humanity.

Above all, Manet comes across as a complete artist: technically brilliant, intelligent, and hard working; willing to follow the logic of his ideas; yearning for success but refusing simply to please the crowd. And, despite the disappointments and public derision that he periodically suffered, he by all accounts remained pleasantly urbane, hospitable, encouraging of others, and financially generous to younger artists like Monet when they were struggling. A model artist. Nigel Halliday