Exhibition on Screen: Manet – Portraying Life

As part of a programme to provide an art fix for experts and dilletantes alike during lockdown, the Royal Academy of Arts (RA) in London has released another film from their Exhibition on Screen series. This time, it is a behind the scenes look at the curating of their joint 2013 exhibition with the Toledo Museum in Ohio, Manet – Portraying Life.

Hosted by the then director of the RA, Tim Marlow, this excellent 90 minute film offers a fascinating insight into the process of curating an art exhibition and how it “orchestrate[s] the passage of the visitor”. It uses interviews with the curators of each gallery – Mary Ann Stevens for the RA and Lawrence Nicols of Ohio’s Toledo Museum who enlighten with their knowledge of their particular field and especially of the work of Manet. Commentary from the curator of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, Stéphane Guégan, adds further insight to the life of his fellow countryman.

Manet is widely regarded as the ‘father of modern art’. He came from a well to do bourgeois Parisian background and although not bohemian still had the ‘compulsion to create’. His style hits the magic spot between capturing an accurate likeness in a portrait while at the same time remaining absolutely painterly.

Manet was a ‘painter of the studio’ as opposed to the plein air style of the Impressionists, electing never to exhibit with them, though this film points up his strong influence on that group. He recorded contemporary life in the rapidly changing world of 19th century Paris when the era of le flaneur was born. It was during the building of the Paris so readily recognised now – that magnificent example of a modern city radically created by the ideas of Baron Haussmann during the rule of Napoleon III. 

The exhibition’s centrepiece was his Music in the Tuileries Gardens painted in 1862.  Like many of Manet’s works, it is enigmatic as there is no sign of a single musician on the canvas. Instead, as described in the film, we have a ‘cultural self-portrait’ showing a gathering of Manet’s contemporaries, seated and standing in the city’s Tuileries gardens awaiting a concert. Featured in the extensive display are other well-known portraits such as the scandalous Olympia (1865), his friend Emile Zola (1868) as well as his famous and also controversial Déjeuner sur l’Herbe(1863).

One of his celebrated later works, The Railway (1873) was painted near his neighbourhood of Place d’Europe, the area that is home to Gare St Lazare and Irish actor Fiona Shaw gives some commentary here. The much reproduced painting, completed just a year before his death aged only 51, is the striking A Bar at the Folies Bergères that usually hangs in London’s Courtauld Gallery. This superb painting that retains a fascination  serves as a grand finale to this  film that was  originally shown in cinemas to chime with the exhibition Manet – Portraying Life.  

Withsome evocative shots of Paris interspersing the art revelations and accompanying music from works of Chopin and Schumann, the overall pleasure of the viewing goes up several notches. 

This exhibition was the first ever to be dedicated to the portraits of the man described as the painter of the modern world, Edouard Manet. Having made the trip to London see it in 2013, it was a particular pleasure to revisit it by means of this engrossing film.

Irene Brown

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