Manet @ Royal Academy

Manet. One of the most famous of the impressionists is the subject of a new display at the Royal Academy which focuses on the artist’s portraits for the first time. The show set high expectations, yet I was left a little disappointed.

The Royal Academy begins with a self portrait of Edouard Manet. It is one of only two portraits the artist painted of himself. He has portrayed himself as a stern man, of leisure perhaps, definitely not an artist though. It is clear that the Manet is not so concerned with himself but rather those around him. There are many images of family members, a young Leon Leinhoff who appears in 17 works in Manet’s oeuvre, and many intimate portraits of the artist’s wife Suzanne. These images of Mme Manet are private paintings of experimentation. She is depicted in various different materials, under many guises, with a cat, in a conservatory and playing the piano. She never seems to be looking at her husband yet he is admiring her. These images I found to be the most impressive amongst the display which started off strong and then left something to be desired.

Amongst various famous sitters are the female artists Eva Gonzales and Berthe Morisot. We are also shown other contemporary artists as embodiments of the leisured bourgeoisie. It is in this style that family portraits of Giuseppe de Nittis and Monet are presented. In each image the artist is depicted outdoors in the garden with their wives and children. However the artist, who is dressed in dark clothes in each painting, is placed and blends into the background while their wives and children sit in the foreground dressed in white. This unusual presentation of his contemporaries leads me to question whether he has presented his rivals in such a way on purpose, while other public figures who are not painters such as George Moore, Theodore Duret and Emile Zola are shown in a much more favourable light. Zola is painted as reading a book open to an article about the artist, with a copy of Olympia on the wall, thus showing him as a well valued friend and supporter. The subject of Olympia, Victorine Meurent is also shown under many guises towards the end of the show.

The Royal Academy have included photographs of the sitters in the portraits within the show. This is an interesting idea and had they been displayed correctly could have made an understanding of Manet’s work more apparent. However these images are placed away from the paintings themselves, often in a small empty corner of each gallery and serve little purpose at all in this way, had they been shown alongside each painting then we would have gained much more.

At one point, the gallery seemed to not know what to do with the space it seemed. Music in the Tuileries Gardens of 1862 is hung alone in the most gargantuan of rooms. Why, I don’t understand. Yes as a group portrait it is interesting but why should it be singled out amongst the rest of the exhibition. By doing this, a ridiculous number of people ended up crowding around one painting under the false pretence that it is any more significant than any of the other paintings in the exhibition. The room which followed also seemed like ‘unnecessary filler.’ Entitled ‘Manet’s World’, a biography of the artist, as though the gallery could not get enough work to display, while it may have seemed useful to some, I see know reason why visitors could not read the guide. The inclusion of this room right in the middle of the exhibition created an uneasy flow and a break which wasn’t required.

While this exhibition was interesting and had the potential to be great, its organisation and curation had plenty of room for improvement. However, I would not discourage those with an interest in either Manet or impressionism from going.

Manet: Portraying Life is on display at the Royal Academy until 14 April

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Lizzy Vartanian Collier aka Gallery Girl is a writer and curator based in London. Her work has been featured in publications including Dazed, Hyperallergic and Vogue Arabia. She was curator of Perpetual Movement during AWAN Festival 2018 and in 2019 had a residency at the Lab at Darat Al Funun in Amman, Jordan. She has also worked with Armenia Art Fair for its inaugural edition and previously worked as an editor at I.B.Tauris Publishers. In 2019 she co-founded Arsheef, Yemen’s first contemporary art gallery. She has given workshops at Manara Culture in Amman, Jordan and Victoria and Albert Museum in London, UK. As of 2020 she is currently in law school, with the ambition of greater understanding the intersection between art and the law.

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