Manet: Portraying Life at the Royal Academy

-The exhibition is now closed-

I visited the Royal Academy exhibition Manet: Portraying Life recently and was impressed by the wealth of work on show in the first major UK exhibition dedicated to the French master painter.

While masterpieces such as Luncheon in the Studio and Music in the Tuileries Gardens are highlights, this is decidedly not an exhibition of Manet’s best-known works; Olympia, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère and Le déjeuner sur l’herbe are notably absent (although there is a small version of the latter). Instead, the exhibition focuses on Manet’s portrait work and often feels like a historical who’s-who of 19th century Paris, with sections dedicated to Manet’s biography and his commissioned status portraits. The result is a fascinating account of the way in which the painter engaged with modernity to create an extraordinary record of his times.

Blending realism with still life, storytelling and status portraiture in a kaleidoscope of different aesthetics, works such as The Railway succeed in not only capturing the mood of Manet’s contemporary Paris but also in inventing a challenging and cryptic narrative about the  shock of the industrial revolution. The conflict between the genteel woman and girl in their finery and the dusty, modern background of the railway is still jarring today. That Manet arranged this composition artificially (the figures were inserted into the scene after posing in Manet’s studio) tells volumes of the artist’s success in painstakingly capturing the birth of modernity in paint.

Visitors looking for a retrospective of Manet’s major works may be disappointed, but fans of French modernism will undoubtedly enjoy the unique historical perspective of this exhibition.

The exhibition runs until 14 April.

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