In the Oscars of the art world, Manet would prove an ideal nominee for Artist in a Leading Role. Like many Hollywood hotshots, he led a theatrical private life fuelled by outlandish affairs. His colleagues admired him but they were envious of his public success. He was rebellious and rejected long before he was accepted. He was well groomed, well known and savvy, while always remaining something of an enigma.
Manet is widely described as the father of the Impressionists, yet he obstinately kept his distance from his classmates, Renoir, Sisley, Monet and Degas. He refused to exhibit with them in order to pursue his own move towards modernity.
Now he is getting an even bigger credit: the Musée d’Orsay’s forthcoming show, his first big one in France since 1983, is called “Manet, the Man who Invented Modern Art”. It is more than a formulaic retrospective. Lately our understanding of French painting from 1840 to 1880 has come on leaps and bounds. It has been refined and liberated and a new image of Manet and his peers has emerged. This show is structured around a set of historical themes. It focuses on the teaching of Thomas Couture, the influence and support of Baudelaire and Manet’s relationships with Berthe Morisot and Eva Gonzalès.
Impressionism stripped painting back to its roots, restoring the emphasis on pure form and pure colour. The Impressionists had a sense of freedom, which, through loose brushwork and a bold palette, introduced spontaneity and subjectivity. “I paint what I see,” Manet once said, “and not what it pleases others to see.” Evidently, what Manet did see were naked women, as shown by two of the most distinctive paintings of the 19th century, “Olympia” and “Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe”, both scandalous in their time—in the latter case, because the picnicking men with the clothes-free companions were in modern dress.
This exhibition promises not just to celebrate the work of an important artist, but to pin down an elusive figure. With its bankable leading man and fresh material, it may well land the award for the show of the spring.
~ OLIVIA WEINBERG
Manet, the Man who Invented Modern Art Musée d’Orsay, Paris, April 5th to July 3rd