Art Chronicles: Manet at the RA

What did the chap in the Guardian say, reviewing the Manet: Portraying Life show currently at the Royal Academy? Paraphrasing slightly, great artist, not a great show.

On the button.

Compared the exhibition I was fortunate enough to see at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris in 2011 – Manet: The Man who Invented Modernity – what’s on offer at the RA is pretty small beer. Two or three marvellous and significant works aside, there’s too much that’s second rate, too many works that went unseen in the artist’s lifetime (often with good reason) and simply too much missing.

There is the 1868 painting, The Luncheon, in which, as my friend Irving put it (and I hope I’m paraphrasing him correctly) the young man at the centre of the picture seems to on his way out of the canvas, stepping forward with well-defined assurance into the newly forming modern world, leaving pale shadows of the past in his wake.


And, matching if not surpassing it, there’s The Railway from 1873, steam and smoke from this new invention with the capacity to take people away, away, away to other cities, other countries, other worlds, and there are the two female figures, separated from it by railings, excluded, the mother looking away, consoling herself, perhaps, with the puppy in her lap, the novel she is reading; the daughter holding on to (shaking?) the railings, interested, eager, impatient. What a fine time my youngest daughter, who has just finished reading The Woman’s Room, would have decoding all this!


Also of interest and worth lingering over is Manet’s 1869 portrait of his friend, the novelist Emile Zola, the man surrounded by some of the various signs and signifiers that cemented their relationship, including a reproduction of Olympia, perhaps Manet’s most famous painting, the one that ‘shocked a nation’.


Of the other portraits on show, there are two of the painter, Berthe Morisot, whom Manet painted no fewer than 11 times between 1868 and 1874; of these, the picture of her with  bouquet of violets is the best known – and beautifully achieved –  the most interesting is the later Berthe Morisot in a Veil, adventurous and forward-looking in its scumbled, partly unfinished state, as if the speed and surface of the canvas were a metaphor for her state of mourning.

But whether this relatively small number of pieces represents good value for money at £15 a throw (£14 for old gimmers like me) is a matter for your taste and pocket.