Manet: The Man Who Invented Modernity

February 7, 2010By Heidi EllisonArchive
manet, musee d’orsay, paris

Manet’s “Au Père Lathuille” (1879). © Collection du Musée des Beaux- Arts de Tournai, Belgium

“Manet: The Man Who Invented Modernity,” the new exhibition on Edouard Manet (1832-83) at the Musée d’Orsay, does not make much

manet, musee d’orsay, paris

Manet’s “Au Père Lathuille” (1879). © Collection du Musée des Beaux- Arts de Tournai, Belgium

“Manet: The Man Who Invented Modernity,” the new exhibition on Edouard Manet at the Musée d’Orsay, does not make much of an effort to defend its thesis. The show is arranged by subject, beginning with works by Manet’s teacher, Thomas Couture, but the wall text (poorly translated into English) never really explains the relevance of the works in each section to the theme of Manet as the inventor of modernity, a claim that can and has been made for a number of other 19thcentury artists, among them Gustave Courbet and Paul Cézanne.

The show is most effective, however, in demonstrating just how versatile Manet was and how diverse his output, in both subject matter and style. There are portraits, Hispanic themes like bullfighting, still lifes (I would have liked to have seen more of them – “Asparagus,” just a single spear that almost dissolves into the similarly colored table it sits on – is marvelous), political subjects like the Goyaesque “Civil War”; biblical scenes, some of which caused scandal because they depicted Christ in unorthodox ways; and café and cabaret scenes (see the wonderful “Au Père Lathuille” pictured above).

Naturally, the two most iconic Manet paintings of all, both owned by the Musée d’Orsay, are included: “Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe,” which contributed to the artist’s reputation as a painter en plein air even though it was actually painted in the studio, and “Olympia,” the famed portrait of a courtesan reclining decorously in the nude and looking languidly out at the viewer. These two bold works help support the claim for Manet as the father of modernity, as do other strong pieces like “Le Balcon,” which shows two seated women in white dresses and a man in black behind them on a balcony, all of them looking in different directions, and with a mysterious, barely seen figure in the dark apartment behind them adding to the picture’s air of mystery and alienation. Powerful works like “The Dead Man (The Dead Matador)” and “The Fife Player,” both of which depict their subject in isolation against a plain background, also have a thoroughly modern appeal in the way they strip down the subject to the essentials. It is left up to the visitor to make these deductions, however, with no help from the labels or wall text.

Manet is often called an Impressionist, and while some of the works in this show are painted in that style, most are not. Curiously, the artist had a great talent for bringing scenes and people to life – witness animated portraits like those of Berthe Morisot and Stéphane Mallarme, for example, and the horse-racing scenes – yet in many of his paintings, the figures look stiff and lifeless. Other works are sketchy to an extreme –the portrait of Claude Monet and his wife in this show is one example, and I once saw many others like it at the Barnes Foundation in Pennsylvania – making you wonder if they were unfinished paintings that were never meant to be shown.

The impression I carried away from the exhibition was that Manet was an enormously talented yet erratic artist. The show left me with many questions and the feeling that I was not getting the whole picture, just a selection of sometimes wonderful paintings of various styles, subjects and quality. Can Manet be credited with inventing modernity? I still don’t know.

Heidi Ellison

Musée d’Orsay: 1, rue de la Légion d’Honneur, 75007 Paris. Métro: Solferino. RER: Musée d’Orsay. Tel.: 01 40 49 48 14. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m., until 9:45 p.m. on Thursday. Admission: €9.50. Through July 17.

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Miró’s “Jeune Fille S’évadant” (1968). © Successió Miró/Adagp, Paris 2011. Photo: Claude Germain

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