Apr 2013 Journal
A portraitist during the era of Realism, an artist who pre-figured Impressionism, Edouard Manet was born on the cusp of photography and in the Royal Academy’s first major UK portrait exhibition, Manet: Portraying Life (until 14 April), you can sense his tentative steps in both directions.
His Realism taught him the formalism of dark colours, when painting subjects like Antonin Proust or the two faces of Berthe Morisot, first in the charm of youth and later in the widowhood which ravaged her. Yet it feels as though the advent of photography almost cramped his style. The serious men in top hats, or seated bookishly like Emile Zola, are a nod to the Old Masters of a century earlier. Was the artist afraid to experiment? Manet’s much loved Bar at the Folies-Bergère in the neighbouring Courtauld Institute would have been a welcome addition to the show ....
But Manet is master of mystery. In The Railway, painted in 1873, a woman in a hat with a book and a tiny puppy sits facing us against the figure of a child in a white dress and a big blue sash, with her back to us, staring out at the steam from an invisible passing train. The painting prompted Jacques de Biez to comment in 1884 ‘Where the devil is the railway in this picture of a railway?’
In fact, the Gare Saint-Lazare, which captivated Paris with the coming of industrialisation, was only two blocks away from the artist’s studio, but of course its message is the story of a world about to change, far from the experience of the elegant woman and child. Manet tells us that he too must embrace change and perhaps the Impressionists would power his artistic transformation - even though he refused to exhibit with them.
There are hints of Impressionism in Music in the Tuileries Gardens, where a large crowd gathers to discuss Wagner. The composition is oddly bisected by a tree, perhaps an allusion to Wotan in his Ring cycle, who breaks off the world ash tree’s holiest branch to make his divine spear.
Manet painted his two brothers, Eugène and Gustave, but even in Boy Blowing Bubbles there is no sense of playfulness at all. Often in his narrative works featuring two or more people, there is no relationship between them. In The Luncheon only the bearded artist Auguste Rousselin, barely glimpsed in the background, sits at the table, while the main character, Léon, in a cream boater and black jacket, stands staring dreamily into space, the maid behind him with a jug. In this oddly disturbing piece he uses the symbol of the black cat in homage to the dead poet Baudelaire yet, if this suggests the past, many of the works verge on Modernism, even though Manet himself had few artistic pretensions. He seems to have flooded only one painting with colour - a lavish study of Emilie Ambre as Carmen, with a red rose and white mantilla.
But in The Street Singer, a woman holds a bunch of grapes to her lips in guilty shock. Has she stolen them? Has someone accosted her? The mystery of Manet again.