Royal Academy, London

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

4.00

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
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Arts and Entertainment
John Kearns winner of the Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Award with last years winners: Bridget Christie and Frank Skinner
comedyJohn Kearns becomes the first Free Fringe act to win the top prize
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Sue Vice
booksAcademic says we should not disregard books because they unexpectedly change genre
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Muscato performs as Michael Crawford in Stars in Their Eyes

TV
Arts and Entertainment
‘Game of Thrones’

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
    Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

    What is the appeal of Twitch?

    Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
    Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

    How bosses are making us work harder

    As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
    Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

    Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

    As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
    Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

    A tale of two writers

    Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
    Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

    Should pupils get a lie in?

    Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
    Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

    Prepare for Jewish jokes...

    ... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
    SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

    A dream come true for SJ Watson

    Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
    Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

    Paul Scholes column

    Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
    Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

    Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

    A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
    Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

    The science of herding is cracked

    Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
    Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

    This tyrant doesn’t rule

    It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?