Exhibition: Manet: Portraying Life

I was pretty damn hungover when I popped along on Friday evening. Kinda overdid the wine the previous night and had one of those hangovers that just. won't. budge. So I'm not sure whether my view was clouded by the haze of a thousand wines; or whether that room really was as crowded as I imagined. Either way, popular exhibition - and rightly so. I'd advise holding off a few weeks so you can really enjoy the view. Try half way through the exhibition (beginning of March) and, if you're not a 9-5er, on a Tuesday afternoon. They're nice and quiet.

Anywho, to the exhibition itself. I've spent the past week or two avoiding the reviews to make sure my reception is completely my own. I'm in the happy position of never having studied Manet so, to use a relevant yet totally corny phrase, I am a blank canvas in my opinion of the artist. This also means I could be speaking rubbish, but I'm willing to take that chance!

One of the first paintings that really stood out to me was The Luncheon, 1868:

It looks a bit like a photograph, no? Well it's not painted in the hyperreal style, like the portrait of Kate Middleton, for example; but its composition is very photo-like. The focus of the figure in the foreground compared to the soft-focus of those in the background is photo-like; the fact that the man-boy is about to up and leave is photo-like in its instantness.

This was something the Impressionists did quite a lot. By relaxing the boundary between subject and background, their paintings often looked like they'd just been snapped. They really focussed on the moment, as well, like in Monet's Haystacks, where he is looking at what a subject looks like at a particular time of day. It was a trend down to techno-social progressions - photography was becoming more common as cameras were becoming more portable (this would reach a head in 1925 with the invention of the hand held Leica camera).

As I went through the rooms at the RA, something else became clear: Manet was not a painter of single style. Look at these two:

They kinda look like they were painted by different artists. And Manet didn't restrict this to separate canvases; check out this one. See the difference in style between her face and her hands...

I really enjoyed the RA, but I'll have to go back again in a few weeks once the crowds have died down. No matter how great the art, a gallery just ain't a gallery when you're craning your neck to see the works. Or collapsed in room seven because your hangover got the better of you.


  1. The first one also seems quite photo-like because it looks to me like one of those compositions that isn't quite perfectly balanced, which you often have to settle for in photography, but which you don't have to if you're creating the whole scene from nothing. If I was shooting it as a photo, I would have taken a step to the left to separate the woman and man more, and bring the figure on the right fully into the frame (or perhaps crop him out).

    1. Yes you're right - it looks like the Impressionists were particularly interested in the obstacles faced by the new medium of photography. Funnily enough, they saw 'limitations' in photography as an opportunity in painting - it gave them something new to explore!

      In 2010, Tate Modern had a very interesting (and shocking, in some parts) exhibition on the ways photography was explored in its infancy, and I think the impressions these experiments made on other artforms were huge: http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/exposed/exposed-voyeurism-surveillance-and-camera-exhibition-guide


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