Manet: Portraying Life

Lauded as an exhibition that produces a ‘blast of fresh air’, making the public ‘sit up and pay attention’, the Royal Academy exhibition has been causing quite a stir in the art world. reviews

Venue: Royal Academy of Arts, London
Date: 26 January–14 April 2013


Lauded as an exhibition that produces a ‘blast of fresh air’, making the public ‘sit up and pay attention’, Manet: Portraying Life at the Royal Academy has been causing quite a stir in the art world. Devoting a whole exhibition to the works of Edouard Manet, the Royal Academy explores his portraiture work, and the various themes within it. Comprised of an introduction, eight rooms, and a conclusion, the visitor is taken on a journey through the works of the Father of Impressionism and Modernity, seeing the people of 19th century Paris through Manet’s eyes.

With rooms dedicated to The Artist and his Family, along with Manet’s Cultural Circle, the exhibition’s arrangement is highly interesting. Combined with the dark setting and spot lighting, the overall experience allows for a deep contemplation of the artwork.

Containing just over 50 artworks, the Royal Academy could have offered visitors a wider range, as the lack of Manet material undermines the exhibition’s blockbuster label. Nevertheless it is interesting to be offered many personal portraiture pieces of Manet’s that have never been displayed before, such as ‘Mme Manet in the Conservatory’ (1879), which were kept in Manet’s home.

When thinking about Manet one cannot escape such iconic pieces as ‘A Bar at the Folie-Bergère’ (1882), ‘Olympia’ (1863), The Railway’ (1873) and ‘Berthe Morisot With a Bouquet’ (1872). However, a newcomer experiencing Manet’s work may be underwhelmed at the number of unknown and unfinished pieces of artwork.

Borrowed from the National Gallery, ‘Music in the Tuileries’ normally resides next to other paintings. However, in Manet: Portraying Life, the curators have given the painting a room of its own. This curation has stirred up debate about the exhibition, as the size of the painting is small relative to the vast space it occupies. With a group-portrait containing the artist himself, Baudelaire, and fellow painter Ignace Fantin-Latour, this space allows a crowd to engage more easily with the painting. Regardless, the way in which a whole room is dedicated to a painting that normally shares an exhibition space with numerous other artworks seems at the very least unorthodox. Call me cynical, but this is perhaps a way for the Royal Academy to enlarge and pad out Manet: Portraying Life.

Moving away from the artwork, Manet: Portraying Life provides the viewer with a brief historical interlude. In Room three the exhibition changes focus in an effort to contextualise the work of Manet, offering a huge map of Paris during the 19th century. The inclusion of tables where the visitor can take time to sit and read through the exhibition catalogues containing Manet’s work seemed slightly surreal. Taking the viewer away from the original work of Manet to the copied works within the medium of book was unusual and somewhat pointless. Although the map of Paris describes happenings of the 19th Century, such as Haussmannisation, as well as showing the various places where Manet painted, this room is unnecessary and only really serves to pad out the exhibition further.

After queuing for over 20 minutes to see this exhibition, I was a little disappointed. Displaying some of Manet’s best, and not-so good works of art, Manet: Portraying Life offers an interesting insight into the portraiture work of Manet. Even though the exhibition seems limited in terms of quantity, it is still enough to offer the viewer a glimpse into the world of Manet, allowing for a deeper appreciation of his lesser known work and the sheer variety of his portraiture.

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