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
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
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.

    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

    Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

    The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
    Why the league system no longer measures up

    League system no longer measures up

    Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
    Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

    Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

    Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
    Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness