Manet: Portraying Life

Expect hordes of people – particularly members of the public over the age of sixty – huddling round dimly lit Manet paintings, stubbornly staying put in order to fully ‘appreciate’ the works. This is what one would discover at the Royal Academy of Arts Manet Exhibition, even on a weekday.

Not only does the dim lighting bring a certain gloominess to the space, but the dark green walls and wooden set floors encourage a more blurred – less sharpened – view of the painter’s works. The whole space becomes more a museum than a gallery; an attempt at a National Gallery-esque exhibition that has undoubtedly failed.

The importance and stature attached to Manet’s portraiture (and to his name) has not been echoed within the walls of the Royal Academy’s curatorial practice; in fact the institution has done anything but give Manet and his century old ‘brand’, justice.

Nonetheless, this curatorial criticism actually holds little weight in the overall review of the exhibition, considering that what really lets us down are the paintings themselves.

The puffed up advertising campaigns across London on the tube and on endless numbers of buses, boast a landmark of an exhibition coming to London and the Royal Academy. Bragging to be ‘the first ever retrospective devoted to the portraiture of Edouard Manet’, and exhibiting ‘more than fifty works’, some of which have never been exhibited; which, when you attend the exhibition, becomes clear as to why they have never been shown – because the majority lack substance.

The Bar at the Folies-Bergeres, by Edouard Manet

Most disappointing is Manet’s world famous Le Déjeuner Sur l’Herbe. At first one feels filled with excitement when noticing the painting from across the room; then once closer to the work, uncanny detailing and strange colouring come to light, encouraging a cross examination of the painting; a questioning parallel to the Le Déjeuner Sur l’Herbe seen many times previously in Paris at the Musée d’Orsay. It soon becomes evident that this is not the same painting, but a poor relative of the Parisian original.

And, to top off the disappointment of the exhibition, Bar at the Folies-Bergère – arguably one of Manet’s most celebrated paintings – isn’t even in the show. Just to rub salt in the wound, it resides down the road at the Courtauld Gallery on the Strand.

In spite of my tremendous excitement in the run-up to Manet: Portraying Life, my visit to the exhibition was instead met with tremendous disappointment. The forgotten paintings of Manet were ‘forgotten’ for a reason. This is not an exhibition of distinguished, world famous paintings by French artiste Edouard Manet, but an exhibition of unfinished or abandoned works; studio rejects which every painter hoards for good reason. Manet, I fear, would be appalled to find them lurking on the darkened walls on an outing here.

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