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).

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Cryer and Ashton Kutcher in the eleventh season of Two and a Half Men

Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
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
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.

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
    Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

    Honesty box hotels

    Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

    Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

    The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it