18/02/2013

Visiting the Manet exhibit at the Royal Academy

When I heard the Royal Academy was organising an exhibition of Manet portraits, I was jumping for joy... In fact I was so excited I booked tickets for the family long before it was due to open. 

A couple of Sundays ago, Monsieur Baby, Hubby Dearest and I braced the heavy rain and were quite glad of my planning ahead strategy when we caught a glimpse of the endless queue of people who were trying to purchase tickets. Sadly, our visit was a bit anticlimatic, and I almost felt like walking over to the waiting crowd and tell people not to bother... 

Before you condemn me for undue harshness, hear me out: I adore French Impressionism (however Manet is not a real Impressionist, I know I know...) and though I prefer Monet to Manet I always admired the latter's irreverence and unconventional portrayal of French society of his time. Alas, this exhibition, with just a  few paintings stretched out in dark poorly-lit rooms, does him no justice whatsoever. 


The selection of the paintings is a bit random, some portraits like Berthe Morisot's having featured in countless exhibitions before and thoroughly deserving their place, others, however, made me wonder if Manet's work really deserved all the praise I'd been reading all these years. So many portraits fell, frankly, flat. And, if you're going to feature "Le déjeuner sur l'herbe", at least get the final, full-size version, the small Courtauld version looks totally lost on the great big brown wall. There are however some beautiful works, such as the St Lazare portrait, which is lovely. 

Even if I wanted to understand the logic of such a haphazard grouping of works, I was totally unable to read any of the description commentaries, for the galleries were so crowded that it was impossible to get too close. That, in my opinion, is a problem of many big exhibitions in London: the number of tickets per time slot doesn't seem to be restricted, ending in a congested space where you can hardly appreciate the quality of the work, let alone enjoy your visit. I came out rather frustrated for not having been able to view any of the works up close and in detail, but, on a positive note, Monsieur Baby came out delighted for the opportunity to walk (and sometimes run) from one gallery room to the next, he definitely relished in the new space. 

Finally, this is a tiny tiny exhibition, there are maybe 50 portraits, maybe a bit more, but most of them are average and really don't justify the price of the ticket. And, did I mention, they are interspersed with some strange pictures of the period, along with a whole gallery room dedicated to Paris, with a huge map and a couple of chairs (supposedly to create a café ambiance?)... Random, I tell you. All it did for me is remind me why I much prefer Monet's take on light and Degas' work on movement and emotion to any of Manet's paintings. 

In summary, bad lighting, too many people, and too little good quality portraits, it's an exhibition we should have given a miss. Thankfully it's right next door to the Burlington Arcade which meant our Sunday outing was not all for nothing.

If you still want to visit, here are the details: 
Manet, Portraying Life, at the Royal Academy. Until April 14th

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