Wednesday 13 February 2013

A deeper realism

Manet: Portraying Life, Royal Academy, London

All political careers are said to end in failure but strictly speaking this isn’t true. The final error of a politician is something from which future generations can, if they wish, learn, so transforming that failed career into a sort of success, albeit one enjoyed by others. Does art, too, have its apparent career failures that have the potential for success? The subject-matter of this exhibition - the first major one in the UK to showcase Edouard Manet’s portraiture - gives us a chance to test this theory out. But before we consider his work in the light of failure and success, let’s see what’s on offer here.

The exhibition is divided into categories based on Manet’s family, his artistic, literary, and theatrical friends, his models, and status portraits (the last of these being intended to show the power, wealth, position and breeding of the sitters). Born in Paris in 1832 to middle-class parents (Manet’s father was a senior civil servant in the Ministry of Justice and his mother was a diplomat’s daughter), in 1849 he entered the studio of the successful salon artist Thomas Couture. Manet spent the next six years training within and beyond Couture’s tutelage. The Paris Salon and independent exhibitions showed the novice artist other approaches to painting. The style which Manet experimented with was Realism, a movement which aimed to give a precise rendering of the external world and so attemptingvisually what novelists such as Zola were trying to do via the written word.

So Manet shows us a France which, after the upheavals of the Revolution and Napoleonic rule, was trying to come to terms with industrialisation and the rise of a middle-class which, while attempting to follow Prime Minister Francois Guizot’s injunction to become rich, was unsure of itself and probably subconsciously aware of the political tensions running under the surface of society (although probably trying not to think about them) — tensions which would burst into action with the cataclysm of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 and its aftermath. ‘Music in the Tuileries Garden’ (1862) shows people who seem torn between a desire for relaxation and a fear of somehow breaking the rules of an unclear etiquette. In ‘The Railway’ (1873) a small girl looks through railings at the top of a railway embankment at the cloud of smoke from a passing train, while a young woman - a sister? a governess? (although she’s arguably too well-dressed to be the latter) — looks at us directly with a slightly-bemused expression. ls she mildly contemptuous of childish interest in a passing train or is she trying to put a brave face on a sense of confusion engendered by the shape of society’s mechanical future?

A status portrait which seems, at first glance, to be an exercise in visual spin-doctoring is the ‘Portrait of M. Antonin Proust’ (1880). A politician (and no relation to the novelist) he seems both magisterially and jovially self-satisfied, yet his eyes betray a sense of sadness, as if telling us that power doesn’t remove its holders from the constraints of mortality. Meanwhile, the ‘Portrait of Georges Clemenceau’ (1879-80) shows the young radical and future war leader as dully-dressed, with an face of seeming meekness, but a closer look shows a hint of political fierceness playing underneath the politician’s expression. Meanwhile the portrait of ‘Stéphane Mallarmé’ (1876) shows the poet, cigar in hand, with a wistful, faraway, almost careworn expression: is his mind pondering the permutations of a poem or is he simply taking time out from the creative process?

In his paintings of women, Manet takes us from domesticity through, arguably, to concerns about the rise of feminism. ‘Street Singer’ (c.1862) gives us a grey, windswept female figure whilst his ‘Mme Manet in the Conservatory’ (1879) shows the painter’s wife as she looks at flowers with a mixture of wonder and regret. But ‘The Amazon’ (c. 1882) shows the up-and-coming fashionable figure of a young, black-clad horsewoman. A slight doubtfulness plays about her features — is it the uncertainty of a woman experimenting with a new, assertive lifestyle, or is Manet playing a transference game, using her face as a vehicle to express wider (conservative) concerns about the rise of middle-class women and its implications?

So Manet gives us a realism which contains deeper meanings over and above surface depiction, but is its spirit unique? He was perhaps continuing to excavate the new ground dug by Goya, especially with the latter’s series of etchings, The Disasters of War, which recorded the horrors resulting from Napoleon’s invasion of Spain. Indeed, we can go back further, to Hans Holbein the Younger and his portrait of Henry VIII which is realistic yet shows its subject as a man radiating both power and disappointment. In questioning the spirit of Manet’s work, we get near to seeing why he didn’t get the fame or position he deserved during his career.

For Manet, while trying to break away from what was perceived to be a dead, academic painterly style, wasn’t avant-garde enough for many critics because of his style and subject-matter having a lingering feel of the traditional approach hanging over it. At the same time, while Manet was interested in the work of the Impressionists, he refused to exhibit with them in the eight Impressionist exhibitions (1874-1886). Indeed, it can be said that he was too honest to allow himself to follow the easy career option of hitching his wagon to lmpressionism’s rising star. He was on the horns of a dilemma not of his own making. He fell victim to the need for some of art’s observers to classify, put artistic styles into neat boxes, link them up with artistic schools — in other words, to form the cultural equivalent of glorified playground gangs. He was too traditional for the supporters of Impressionism, too experimental for the traditionalists.

The irony here is that Impressionism itself can be seen as the art which falls between two stools: it’s avant-garde enough for people who don’t want to seem stuffily conservative in their tastes but who wish to avoid upsetting everybody else with something that is confusing or disturbing. Impressionism is not so obscure as to cause confusion (as in the case of, say, Abstract Impressionism), and it’s not explicit enough to be only too clear about what’s going on (as for instance, in Emin’s sexual drawings). However, Manet was fortunate in that, while he had a wide circle of friends, admirers and supporters from the artistic, literary and musical communities, all of whom supported the more radical movements of the time, they defended his art and sat for his portraits. Had he lacked those essential supports - which remained with him until his death in 1883 - he might well have been relegated to the footnotes of art history.

From this exhibition, we can see what Manet did was to help breathe some fresh air into academic painting by combining realism with reflection. Had his career not been sabotaged by critical small-mindedness, he might have gone on to renew traditional art in a more decisive manner and so changed the course of art history. Instead, he fell victim to those who judged painting by category rather than content. His career of apparent failure has a constructive potential, for it gives us two lessons: the way that seemingly-plain reality can convey deeper meanings which make us think, and the need to avoid the pitfalls of simplistic categorisation which close off genuine appreciation.
Till 14 April 2013

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