Royal Academy, London

Visual art review: Manet has to go a little further nowadays


A sparingly hung exhibition of portraits has lumpen duds among the star turns – for comparison, or because that's all the RA could get hold of?

Like many of Manet's paintings – like his work as a whole – The Railway is a game of two halves. To the left of the picture is a woman with one of those pouty French mouths, shaped by generations of going pffffft. She is Victorine Meurent, Manet's favourite model. Next to her, back view, is a child in a white dress and blue sash. She is sometimes identified as the daughter of Manet's friend, Alphonse Hirsch, although, since we cannot see her face, her identity is neither here nor there. She exists as a foil to Victorine.

Mesmerised by the steam of the train beyond the iron railings, the little girl stands for lost innocence. Victorine, modern to the core, turns her back on this marvel – the line running into the Gare Saint-Lazare – fixing us instead with the direct gaze of a shopper at one of the new grands magasins; or, perhaps, of something for sale.

So far, so binary. It isn't just The Railway's composition that is split, but the work's technique. Victorine is painted in a style that mingles Impressionist rapidity with Manet's admiration for the Spanish masters. The little girl, though, is oddly clumsy – out-of-scale, impossibly twisted, her left arm as lifeless as a shop dummy's. Since Manet lets us know, via Victorine, that he can paint like Velazquez when he wants to, we have to assume that this isn't an accident – that he means the child to be clumsy, which is to say childlike.

It's a possibility to carry in your head as you walk around the Royal Academy's new exhibition, Manet: Portraying Life. Among the many wonders of this show are a surprising number of works that are just not very good. The question you might want to ask yourself is: did Manet mean them to be?

Let's start with a wall in Room Four. Here are three portraits of Manet's sister-in-law, the artist Berthe Morisot, and two of his student, the painter Eva Gonzalès. The former are extraordinary. Berthe Morisot in Mourning, made in 1874 after the death of the sitter's father and before her marriage to Manet's brother, Eugène, is among the most radical portraits of the 19th century. Morisot's face is rendered as a mess of painted gashes, its composition on the point of falling apart as, presumably, was Morisot herself. But Gonzalès … can the hand that painted the grieving Morisot so masterfully really be responsible for the two dreadful portraits of her in this show?

Even allowing for Manet's playing 18th-century games, the pastel Portrait of Eva Gonzalès is lumpish, sentimental and cack-handed. His painted portrait of Gonzalès is scarcely better, her overworked head looking like one of those fairground games where visitors poke their faces through holes in images of strongmen or fat ladies. Are Manet's portraits of Gonzalès bad on purpose, like the child in The Railway, or are they just bad? And, if the latter, what are they doing in this show?

There are two answers to this second question. All great painters experiment, and some of their experiments fail. If the curators of Manet: Portraying Life have included duds to make that point, then they deserve our thanks, historically if not aesthetically. Even if we take this optimistic view, though, the balance of good and bad work in the exhibition does Manet no favours. For every fissile Portrait of Georges Clemenceau there is a boardroom one of Antonin Proust, for every flickering Isabelle Lemonnier with a Muff an embarrassing Emilie Ambre as Carmen. Hanging Berthe Morisot and Eva Gonzalès on the same wall makes you wonder if truthfulness can be taken too far.

A less charitable explanation of why the RA's curators have included so many poor Manets in this show is that they had an awful lot of space to fill and took what they could get to fill it. Many of the works are not portraits at all, but those paintings of everyday life prescribed by Manet's friend, Baudelaire. Just because a picture has a figure in it doesn't make it portraiture. If you broaden your definition of the genre to include all figure painting, then you also broaden visitors' expectations of what they're going to see. So where is Olympe, where Maximilian?

And why, if not to fill space, is Manet's first proper Baudelairean work, Music in the Tuileries Gardens, given a vast room to itself? Sit on the distant bench provided and you would need the eyes of Superman to make out the faces in Manet's crowd – his brother Eugène, Jacques Offenbach, the sulphurous Charles Baudelaire. In any case, you can see them for free in the National Gallery.

I know: carp, carp. This show is, after all, full of astonishment and by definition unmissable. But do be prepared to see a different Manet from the one you've known and loved.

To 14 Apr (020-7300 8000)

Critic's Choice

Gerard Byrne's photography and film works come together for a substantial retrospective at London's Whitechapel Gallery – head downstairs for a series of absurdist short films dramatising real conversations between cultural figures, from Surrealist artists to sci-fi writers (till 8 Mar). Last chance to see Barbara Hepworth's The Hospital Drawings at The Hepworth Wakefield. The abstract artist's drawings and paintings of surgeons at work are on view for a final week (till 3 Feb).

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own