Manet: Portraying Life,
The Royal Academy
26 January – 14 April 2013
Becoming Picasso, Paris 1901
The Courtauld Gallery
14 February – 26 May 2013
Two exciting tales from formidable practitioners have starred on the London stage this season, potentially changing and altering our view of the genius of Manet and Picasso. For such exhibitions are part of an on going critical argument, essays in visual form. And for this spectator at least not only were visiting these shows exhilarating experiences, but they further amplified my appreciation of their singular achievements, and moreover suggested some comparisons between two influential innovators whose presence is still tantalisingly significant and indeed, embedded in our collective visual consciousness.
Edouard Manet (1832-1883) is casting an agreeably ever-longer shadow over the history of nineteenth-century Western painting and the art of Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) is inescapable. The chronological accidents of their lifespans mean that between them in many ways they encapsulate the trajectory of what we mean by modern painting;; the painting as Baudelaire referred to it, of modern life. Both were intensely autobiographical painters, were studio painters, although Manet was to work out doors later in life. Picasso of course lived into his nineties and was certainly one of the most prolific artists in all of art’s history, as well as a polymath: sculptor, painter, ceramicist, draughtsman, printmaker and even, perhaps not too fanciful to say, in the casual yet purposeful profusion of objects strewn about the vast houses he inhabited in later life, an installation artist.
He is probably the most written about and exhibited artist in art’s history: Picasso and war, Picasso and peace, Picasso and portraits, Picasso and the Old Masters, Picasso and still life, Picasso and the studio, Picasso and cubism (the cataclysmic art-changing invention of his, roped together with Braque), Picasso and neo-classicism and of course in France there are no fewer than four museums devoted exclusively to his work. His personal life was complex and as he pointed out himself, his love life – a serial lover, one muse succeeding another – was startlingly visible in his art. Picasso made his fortune through his art;; Manet was cushioned by the comfort of his family fortune, and led in outward mode the life of the haute bourgeoisie. But each painted according to their own lights. It is curious that Manet so passionately craved acceptance, particularly by the Salon, and never exhibited with his fan club, the Impressionists, in the course of their sequence of eight non-Establishment outings.
And another thing in common: a passionate admiration for Velázquez. This was brilliantly outed by modern historians in the masterly series of exhibitions of Manet and his idol in Paris, Madrid and New York in 2002-2003, in the context of the nineteenth-century French admiration for Spanish art from indeed Velázquez to Goya. As a young man Manet visited the great museums of western Europe: Holland, Italy, Germany, Austria;; later he was absorbed by Spain. Picasso was immensely erudite in the images of others, and Republican Spain made him the honorary director of the Prado;; as he famously said about the work of other artists, I don’t borrow I steal. And his inventive, imaginative, teasing variations on Velázquez’s Las Meninas, certainly the most famous painting – and perhaps the most famous painting of an artist’s studio, however fanciful, in art history – give permanent form to his meditations on the master.
Manet lived in Paris, and holidayed at the seaside, the holidays of the upper middle classes in the nineteenth-century, and Picasso of course was himself an émigré to France, yet never lost his national characteristics nor his passion for his native country, and lived for significant portions of his life outside the city.
Manet is evidently now routinely referred to as the father of modern art, seemingly having usurped Cézanne in the paternal stakes, and in the past three decades seminal shows have been devoted to his work. There have been great catalogues and exhibitions: thirty years ago the major retrospective at the Grand Palais, Paris and the Metropolitan, New York;; ten years ago Manet together with Velázquez at the Prado, Madrid;; the Musée d’Orsay, Paris and the Metropolitan, New York; two years ago Manet, subtitled the man who invented modernity, again at the Musée d’Orsay, Paris. There have been endless studies as well, and specialist shows, Manet on flowers, Manet and the sea. Manet is seen as embodying Paris;; as exemplifying the modern age, his paintings of railway stations emblematic. How did this syphilitic flâneur, a dandy of the upper middle classes, his mother the daughter of a diplomat and a goddaughter of a Swedish prince, his father a judge, come to such prominence? Ironically the man who longed to be part of the establishment is now at its heart, his work resonating and reverberating in our contemporary world. His story too has oddities, he married a Dutch piano teacher who had come to teach the family music, and thereby may or may not have become stepfather to his father’s illegitimate son, Leon Koella Leonhoff, who was also his most frequently portrayed model, appearing in over a dozen of his stepfather’s paintings. And he may too have been in love with his sister in law to be, Berthe Morisot, muse, model and fellow painter.
The major show of portraits by Manet at the Royal Academy this season has drawn some grudging reviews, from critics irritated that it is not the retrospective blockbuster some early publicity may have suggested. The compilation does indeed have some work that Manet himself would probably never have expected nor wanted to see publicly exhibited: sketches, unfinished paintings, problematic work. But there is a school of thought, perhaps almost religious in its attitude towards relics, that anything the master may have touched is of aesthetic or intellectual value. And there is a point: failures or near misses can be as fascinating to the spectator, casting light as they do on the creative process and indeed on the sheer craft involved, as the work regarded both by its creator and posterity as near finished as may be. Equally looking at the young Picasso, the ceaseless restless experimentation is beguiling, the failures as fascinating as the successes.
That experimentation, expanding the visual language, is the defining characteristic too of the Manet exhibition. Half of Manet’s work is portraits of real people as themselves. We can identify the ‘real’ people who posed for his best known painting, Déjeuner sur l’herbe;; Manet’s brother is part of the art world’s most controversial picnic and Olympia is the model Victorine Meurent, herself also a well known painter;; indeed she exhibited successfully in the Salon, when Manet was excluded. Even the charming pensive young woman at A Bar at the Folies-Bergère is named. But these are not portraits, more invented genre scenes calling with subtle drama on various genres of art history. Moreover the Musée d’Orsay masterpieces are considered too fragile to travel although some will be on view in the Manet and Venice show in Venice this spring and summer: more importantly they are not part of the argument here, although the National Gallery’s oil sketch, Music in the Tuileries Gardens, is perhaps one of the most familiar and admired of Manet’s paintings. This elaborate effervescent crowd scene is, rather like Courbet’s magnificent The Artist’s Studio, both replete with ‘real’ portraits and an allegory of modern society. Baudelaire suggested modernity was ‘the transient, the fleeting, the contingent’. Certainty had vanished: restlessness was paramount, and at once eternal verities questioned. Social norms were breaking down, unconventional behaviour more public, conventional beauty eschewed for character, for the individual, and stereotypes questioned.
Another thing both of these recent examinations of specific aspects of these artists’ work have in common is that neither compilation is a relentless march of masterpieces. In 1901 Picasso was a restless nineteen year old, precocious, almost supernaturally energetic, emotional, and certainly away from home: poor and yet on the verge of his first great independent critical and commercial success with his exhibition at the seminal and courageous dealer, Ambroise Vollard (1866-1939). It was the start of a long and satisfying relationship, lasting until the dealer’s death. Indeed Vollard was to commission the Vollard Suite from Picasso in the 1930s, a complete set of which was acquired by the British Museum and shown in its entirely in 2012. His self-portrait Yo Picasso, is almost a declaration of intent: watch out world, Picasso is coming.
Art exhibitions are narratives, telling stories through three-dimensional objects, continually arranged and rearranged by art historians and curators. What is so exciting about these two specialist, oblique looks at these household names of art is that familiar as we may feel ourselves to be through hundreds of exhibitions and publications here is something newly illuminating. It reminds us that Manet was an integral part of Paris in its transition to modernity;; and it was Paris that was the catalyst that changed Picasso.
Human beings and human incident are always at the centre of their art. It is Yo Manet, as well as Yo Picasso, in these new examinations of the self in art: here is it not as others see us, but as Picasso and Manet saw – and depicted – the other. Picasso figures very large in his own art, and stars of the current show are indeed his two early self-portraits, bursting with energetic vitality;; he was to go on to show himself time and again as the archetypal artist, solipsistically self absorbed as he absorbed and observed the world around him. Manet, altogether more world weary, rarely painted himself, only a handful of self- portraits are known. But above all both took their very life, their own and others, as their subject. However far they may be now from our own contemporary history, in doing so they illuminate ours.