This spring I was fortunate enough to lead an art history study abroad program to Europe, where I had many amazing, even life-changing, experiences with art. In fact, I had so many of them that I became overwhelmed about blogging and wrote nothing but the occasional Facebook post. But I knew that I needed to start blogging again and that I should probably start with Manet.
I, like almost every modernist art historian I know, adore Manet. And I kind of hate that I love him, given that everyone else does, but I can’t help it. Now over the years, I’ve had lots of artist crushes: in fourth grade, it was Leonardo; in tenth grade, it was Van Gogh; my senior year in high school, it was Monet. But it was in the art history survey class I took as a sophomore in college where I was introduced to Manet in all of his glorious sophistication . . . and I was smitten.
Manet introduced me to the extraordinary world of modern Paris and inspired a passion for nineteenth-century literature: it was Manet who made me want to read Zola and Flaubert and Baudelaire and even Proust, thus taking me into literary spaces that continue to fuel my creative fires (I keep toying around with an idea for a paper on Manet’s Olympia and Zola’s Nana and Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance). Manet also helped me to look again at Old Masters that I had dismissed as tired and boring–think Titian, Rubens, and Velázquez–and to discover their conceptual genius and marvelous handling of paint. My interest in earlier nineteenth-century painters such as Goya and Ingres grew sharper because I knew that Manet had prized their work and saw himself as their descendant.
As a first-year doctoral student, Manet was my go-to guy, my good-luck charm, my security blanket. In my theory class, I chose to review a book on Berthe Morisot, in part because I knew of the artist’s close associations with Manet. When I had to pick a paper topic for my Velázquez seminar, I immediately noted the similarities between Manet’s work and the seventeenth-century painter and wrote a Michael Fried-esque paper on theatricality in the philosopher portraits of Veláquez and Manet (and later that year, I presented this paper at my first professional conference). And I breathed a huge sigh of relief when I had to translate Baudelaire’s The Painter of Modern Life for my French qualifying exam–because I had read it before in English while writing a paper on Manet as an undergrad. Looking back, I’m a bit abashed of how tightly I clung to the artist.
And still cling to the artist. My students know how I feel about Manet: how I admire his sophisticated nods to art of the past while recognizing the demands of the contemporary art market; how I relate to Manet’s desire to be both accepted by the Académie and viewed as the leader of the avant-garde in modern French art; and how I respect the complexities of his representations of women. It would be fair to say that I don’t just teach Manet–I preach Manet.
This is a long-winded prologue to my review of the Manet retrospective at the Musée d’Orsay. I saw the show twice: once with students and once with colleagues. The first time I saw it, I was disappointed. The second time I saw it, I was devastated. Not because Manet’s art didn’t amaze, impress, inspire–because it did. Manet’s métier is astounding: his virtuosity in terms of color, of spatial constructs, of light and dark, of form, and of finish are almost unparalleled (but I’ll write about Giotto, Rembrandt, Goya, and Delacroix later). The psychological tension of his works are so much more palpable in person than in an illustration.
In terms of the works that were there, it was astoundingly comprehensive. There were the expected masterpieces of Olympia and Luncheon on the Grass and Bar at the Folies-Bergère. And there were relatively unknown works, such as his An Amazon, or Summer from the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, along with a number of rarely-shown religious pieces by this alleged secularist, such as his Saint Francis. And then there were my favorite paintings–those inspired by his love affair with Spanish art. In my opinion, Manet is at his best when he is looking to Velázquez and Goya, and it was thrilling to see his Dead Toreador and Carmen and Lola de Valence and The Balcony displayed side by side.
So Manet’s art was magnificent, but the exhibition of his works wasn’t just flat–it was ugly. The show aimlessly wandered about the artist’s oeuvre, throwing in a few contemporaries’ paintings for variety (although it must have been utterly confusing to the novice as to why one would suddenly see a Morisot or Degas in the mix, as their presence was never explained). With both visits, I found myself moving in and out of rooms, looping back to the beginning and skipping from room to room trying to find some thematic thread that held the show together. All I could come up with was chronology. Seriously, this was the best the organizers could do?
To a Manet lover, this was heartbreaking. I’ve started worrying about the possible ramifications of this failed exhibition: Will future generations look to this exhibition (and its accompanying catalogue, which offers the blandest art history possible), and dismiss Manet as one of those overrated masters? Will he become a has-been as future modernist historians look increasingly to the twentieth century and art of the now? In other words, is Cézanne the new Manet? Will Manet only be of interest in terms of how the likes of Picasso and Murakami appropriated his art? Is Manet now the poster child of the Establishment? And if he is . . . am I, by virtue of my love for him?
Conversation topic: Talk to me about Manet. What does Manet mean to you? Do you like his art? Is he overrated? Am I overly obsessed?