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Posts tagged ‘Royal Academy of Arts’

Manet: Not exhibited in his lifetime

Glancing through the current Manet retrospective, Manet: Portraying Life, at the Royal Academy, there is one consistent feature which is perhaps even more noticeable that the works themselves: How many of the paintings are labelled “Not displayed in his lifetime”. Why the Royal Academy is so insistent on spelling this out with such apparent alacrity is unclear. But what it demonstrates is that the majority of works comprising this so called “first ever retrospective devoted to the portraiture of Edouard Manet” are what I call “filler works” – paintings which are either unfinished or merely preparations for other works, and none of which the artist had ever intended to be exhibited for public consumption.

It is therefore with some unease that I looked upon these works, which the Royal Academy tries to pass off as paintings worthy of the not insignificant £15 entry-price, the cynic inside me recognising that what we have here is merely a means by which a show that, fundamentally, consists of one room’s worth of finished and accomplished works, is padded out to fill a much bigger space. And even that space is not filled particularly well.

Music in the Tuleries Gardens (1862)

Music in the Tuleries Gardens (1862)

In the second large gallery, for example, the Royal Academy make the slightly unfathomable decision to present Music in the Tuleries all on its own, spotlight upon it, surrounded only by blank walls. I could understand this kind of hang for a masterpiece such as Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe, which almost single handedly changed the history of art (and sadly lacking from this show), but for this painting? Sure enough, it’s a skilled group painting, giving us a very realistic snapshot of modern day life one sunny afternoon, lacking in the previous contrived composition of the grand historical paintings which were favoured in the time Manet painted it. But the Royal Academy do not succeed in making any significant point worthy of this solo hang. And what’s worse, this painting belongs to London’s National Gallery, so visitors can normally walk up and see the painting whenever they like, without the crowds attracted to the RA, and for free.

But this was not the worse of it. The following gallery was hung, not with paintings, but with a chronology of Manet’s life, and a desk on which copies of the exhibition catalogue could be surveyed – why exactly I’m not sure: after all, isn’t it better to look at the paintings themselves when you have them in front of you?

Unfinished: Portrait of Carolus Duran (1876)

Unfinished: Portrait of Carolus Duran (1876)

But asides from the unpalatable cheek with which the RA filled it’s space and passed off the show as a great survey of Manet’s career, I also felt a deep sense of unease, not as a punter, but as an artist – because so many of these works are so clearly unfinished, unprepared for public consumption. I can imagine Manet now, turning in his grave, horrified at the prospect of these unfinished preparations being gazed at and criticised as though they were finished works. And all for the sake of a buck or too.

Portrait of M. Antonin Proust (1880)

Portrait of M. Antonin Proust (1880)

The Luncheon (1868)

The Luncheon (1868)

Madame Manet in the Conservatory (1879)

Madame Manet in the Conservatory (1879)

Emile Zola (1868)

Emile Zola (1868)

All that said, the finished works which are on show are masterful Manet’s, apt demonstrations of the artist’s skill at capturing real life, real characters and a sense of the time in which he painted. You get the portrait of M. Antonin Proust (not to be confused with the acclaimed author) – a dandy about town, a man proud and professional in his polished appearance; then there’s Suzanne Leenhoff (later Madame Manet), sat, happily contented in the garden of Manet’s home, her cheeks rosy and her gaze tranquil.

300px-Edouard_Manet_088Then of course there’s Manet’s most infamous sitter of all: Victorine Meurent, who gets a whole gallery to herself in this show. While sadly, and very obviously lacking the two great masterpieces of Manet’s oeuvre in which she features (Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe (although the Courtaulds inferior and much smaller copy is here) and Olympia), the paintings which are on show present the model with the confidence and audacity which must have attracted the artist to her – the wiley stare, straight out of the canvas, almost judging, daring the viewer to respond. Then there’s Victorine dressed as a street-seller, an accomplished character portrait in which the cherries held to her mouth appear almost as a provocation, a subliminal message inviting us to read a story into her steely gaze,  as well as the wonderful Railway portrait, in which the railings adjoining the railway appear to take centre stage, and the air of noisy, smoky, modern industry appears oddly juxtaposed with the apparent calm and tranquillity of Victorine and her sleeping puppy.

Street Singer (1862)

Street Singer (1862)

The Railway (1883)

The Railway (1883)

As a Manet lover (need I remind you of my Norm version of both Manet’s Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe and my juxtaposed Manet character Norms sat in Cappuccino Grand Café ?) I was of course familiar with many of the few finished works on show. But one thing that I took out of the show which I had not fully appreciated before was just how influenced Manet had been by Spanish art. Taking a trip to Spain, organised by Zacharie Astruc who’s portrait is also on display, Manet was very quickly inspired by Velazquez, who he saw as a master of painting black in all its surprising variety of shades, as well as other greats such as Goya and Ribera. Following on from this, one can really start to see the Spanish influence infiltrating into Manet’s work. Take the portrait of Rouviere as Hamlet for example, and look how it compares to this portrait by Velazquez. Then of course there’s the portrait of Victorine in the costume of an Espada, again sadly not included in the exhibition, an a portrait of Emilie Ambre as Spain’s favourite operatic diva, Carmen. As an artist much inspired by the Spanish golden age of art, I am well able to understand the effect that Spanish art must have had on Manet, helping him to surge forward as the revolutionary artist he was, in a claustrophobic French art scene which had yet to be struck by the poignancy of Spanish art.

Portrait of Zacharie Astruc (1866)

Portrait of Zacharie Astruc (1866)

Diego Velazquez, The Jester Pablo de Valladoid (1635)

Diego Velazquez, The Jester Pablo de Valladoid (1635)

The Tragic Actor (Rouviere as Hamlet) 1865

The Tragic Actor (Rouviere as Hamlet) 1865

Victorine Meurent in the costume of an Espada (1862)

Victorine Meurent in the costume of an Espada (1862)

Spanish influence: Emilie Ambre as Carmen (1880)

Spanish influence: Emilie Ambre as Carmen (1880)

Of course it is difficult for us, well informed of the contemporary art which followed, to understand just how revolutionary Manet was as an artist, painting in the age when grand history paintings and allegorical images were all the rage. His paintings were so real, so unpretentious a snapshot of the life and the world around him, that many gallery goers took to attacking his paintings with umbrellas. Yet still Manet ploughed on, forging the path which impressionists and expressionists and the whole world of modern art pursued in his wake. This exhibition does not make any statement half so bold as the mighty oeuvre of Manet in itself, but putting asides the unfinished sketches, and concentrating on the completed masterpieces, those works of Manet which are on show are easily strong enough to make an impression all by themselves.

Manet: Portraying Life is on at the Royal Academy until 14 April 2013.

David Hockney at the RA – A stroll through the countryside without any defining moments

The dials of the huge London PR machine have been whirring noisily in anticipation of the David Hockney blockbuster show at the Royal Academy of Arts. Suddenly the charismatic British artist, complete with broad Yorkshire accent, white beret and a cigarette rebelliously hanging out of his mouth, has been on the front of every paper and magazine. For a new show of his work, simplistically titled “A Bigger Picture” has come to town, hailed as a key event of the Olympic year, as the living artist is practically unique in having the whole mass of the Royal Academy’s huge main galleries turned over solely to him. And the incontrovertible fact is, yes, these new paintings are very, very big. But as the wise (or just disappointed) often remind themselves…size isn’t everything. For poor old Hockney, stuck in the frenzied efforts of an ageing artist faced with the Herculean task of filling the RA space with largely new works created in only a handfull of years, this much-lauded artist has fallen foul of yet another well known adage: quality, not quantity.

The Road across the Wolds (Hockney, 1997)

Salts Mill, Saltaire, Yorkshire (Hockney, 1997)

Garrowby Hill (Hockney, 1998)

The exhibition started well. Once we had passed fairly swiftly through a gallery containing four landscapes of the same three trees in Thixendale, each painted in the four respective seasons, we entered a gallery paying retrospective homage to Hockney’s pre-2000 landscapes, starting with his magnificent burning orange rocky illustration of the Grand Canyon, and moving on to his Yorkshire landscapes completed when he moved back to the area from a long spell in LA (see above). I really enjoyed these works. With their bold but reflective colour scheme and rolling hills (which reminded me of my own Tuscany painting) they were pleasing on the eye and original in their composition. From there, we moved into the first of a long line of huge galleries all of which, as it turned out, contained pretty much the same image repeated countless times during different seasonal changes and from slightly altered viewpoints. The first wall was like a tapestry of small oil paintings which, as a set, worked well. They were pleasant to look at – like seeing a slideshow of countryside views all at once. However on closer observation of any specific canvas, it was clear that the works lacked in painterly technique – despite being painted outside, from observation, and at speed, Hockney does not capture the light or the complexity of the landscape in the sensational way that that other great outside painter, Claude Monet, did. In fact, for the most part, Hockney’s brushwork looked decidedly lackluster, even childish.

Three Trees near Tixendale, Spring (Hockney, 2008)

Thereafter we were met with a strange sensation of déjà vu as we walked form painting to painting, from one room to another. They are all paintings of trees. Lots and lots of trees. He hasn’t just painted forests, but with wall to wall forest views he’s managed to create a 3D forest in each of the galleries… perhaps that was the intention. Trees on single canvases, trees on multiple canvases stapled together, trees on film, trees on his iPad. Trees. That is not to say they weren’t pleasant, and scenic, and all the other niceties one can throw at them – but there was nothing striking, nothing remarkable. It was like bring on a stroll or a drive through the countryside. You look around you and think: the scenery is beautiful. And as you move on, you continue to be impressed by the subtle changes in the landscape all around you. But nothing really stands out. It just makes for pleasant surroundings. That was this exhibition – pleasant, samey and oh so repetitive.

Woldgate Woods 21, 23 and 29 November 2006

There was one distinguishing feature of course – but it’s nothing new for Hockney. It’s his fragmentation of all his big paintings into lots and lots of little canvases. In a way it probably makes them easier to paint in smaller spaces, more economical to travel, and more practical when the size of the walls available at the RA demands huge canvases to fill the space. But on so many occasions, Hockney was painting at a scale when a complete one-piece canvas would have done the job. But still he would insist on painting the scene across several canvases, even though they would then be stapled and framed together (thus obviating the benefits of smaller canvases considered above). The effect of this fragmentation of the canvas space was, for me, distracting, not least when Hockney had not even lined up the image over the canvases properly, so one tree trunk would start somewhere else in the adjacent canvas. To me, all these harsh deep edges, grid-like across the painting, felt a little violent as they jarred with the organic, living and breathing landscapes captured in the painting.

The Big Hawthorn (Hockney, 2008)

Nonetheless, the biggest distraction of all had less to do with Hockney’s compositions and much much more to do with the vast multitudes of people all around us. The place was packed – and this was a Friends’ preview day. Overcrowding has been the cause of much grumbling amongst the RA Friends, who after all pay a rather hefty annual subscription for these rare privileges of private views and the odd discount. In an attempt to alleviate the squash, the RA has started allocating Friends entrance times (causing further grumbles) but despite this, the RA clearly over-allocates for the space available, and as a result not only was every room packed tight but there was a vast queue to even enter the show. This cram did not dissipate at any stage, right up until the shop at the end, where people where fighting over postcards, swiping catalogues within an inch of another customer’s nose and losing all semblance of social etiquette in aggressively pushing their way to the till.

The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate (Hockney on his ipad, 2011)

This crush meant that the very point of the exhibition was a flop. For big paintings require a wide berth to be given before each painting so that one can stand back and consider the work from afar. But no such luck for us, pushed almost with our faces against the canvas, so what was visible more than anything was Hockney’s rather coarse brush strokes, rather than the intended over all effect of the whole. This was not, at least, a problem with the much talked about iPad pictures of which there were some 60 or so. These were blown up (and printed) quite substantially, but lost none of their precision in being so inflated – this was great news for the audience who could appreciate the iPad image from both close up and from a distance, all without pixilation disturbing the effect. However, disappointingly, because the works weren’t shown on iPad themselves, the whole point of this new digital medium was lost, since the images lacked the background luminescence which they would have boasted when created in their original form.

The final part of the exhibition did at least introduce some diversity. Hockney’s relentless study of Claude’s Sermon on the Mount resulted in a series of parodies. These made for a refreshing change – like finding a well lit path again after trawling through a dense forest. The biggest reproduction was particularly impressive. Having said that, Hockney has not added much to his reimagining of Claude’s work, only making it a bit lighter and more colourful. It’s a far cry from Picasso’s reworking of Velazquez’s Las Meninas for example, where he not only poked fun at the original, but brought so much of his own original style into the frame.

The Sermon on the Mount II (after Claude) (Hockney, 2010)

The Sermon on the Mount (Claude)

Hockney concludes the exhibition with a series of films of, yes, you’ve guessed it, trees (amongst other things) captured concurrently using 9 or 18 cameras. Such was the cram in the cinema-laid out room where they were being shown that I could get nowhere close, so in fairness to Hockney, I will comment no further.

The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate (Hockney, 2011)

In conclusion then, this show is like a refreshing stroll through the countryside on one of those days when the sun is out, and the first signs of Spring are breaking through after a frosty winter. But like all walks, you get tired quite soon, and the beauty of your surroundings quickly fade as your attention is swallowed up by the aching in your feet and the realisation that upon walking so far, you have the same distance to cover in order to get home again. There’s too many trees and too many people. Moreover, there is an overall feeling that the works have all been a bit rushed  in anticipation and realisation of the scale of the show. Size isn’t everything, but clear away the crowds and you may just be able to appreciate the quality of the wood from the quantity of the trees.

All the images contained on this post are the copyright of David Hockney.

Written content is the copyright of Nicholas de Lacy-Brown © 2012.