"Manet/Velazquez" at the Met. (Art)

By Wilkin, Karen | New Criterion, April 2003 | Go to article overview

"Manet/Velazquez" at the Met. (Art)


Wilkin, Karen, New Criterion


Was it happenstance, luck, or careful planning that brought two exhibitions linking French and Spanish masters to New York at just about the same time this winter? Whether it was by chance or design that "Matisse Picasso" at MOMA QNS was scheduled to coincide with "Manet/Velazquez: The French Taste for Spanish Painting" at the Metropolitan,(1) we must be grateful. Individually, each exhibition is, of course, completely self-sufficient and spectacular in its own way. But together, they become an intensive seminar in what could be called "the grand unified theory of art history": a thought-provoking progression from the macrocosm of national and period style, at the Met, to the microcosm of the relationship between two remarkable artists, at MOMA, a journey from the broad and verifiable to the sharply focused but ultimately elusive and speculative. (Let's ignore the various notions of parity and dependence encapsulated by the different punctuation of the two titles.) Together the two shows raise countless questions about the history of taste, about how works of art are perceived, about conscious and unconscious choices, about "the anxiety of influence" and more. What is most exciting, both "Matisse Picasso" and "Manet/Velazquez" address these deeply engaging points not by theorizing, but by presenting a simply staggering array of wonderful pictures. In both shows, discreet wall texts and labels supply essential facts and dates about who might have seen what, where, and when; those at the Met are especially helpful in clarifying the arcana of historical background. For even richer detail, both "Matisse Picasso" and "Manet/Velazquez" are accompanied by catalogues full of thought-provoking essays, and a wealth of information on provenances, exhibition histories, and the like, handsomely presented. Readers should be warned, however, that the catalogue of "Manet/Velazquez" is, to say the least, challenging to navigate, relying as it does on a numerical code system to correlate the plates embedded in the essays with the entries, which are in a separate section divided into alphabetical subsets determined by nationality. (The book's combination of related, but essentially independent essays, copious illustrations, and intertwined facts must have posed extraordinary challenges to organization, but until the code reveals itself--which it doesn't until the entries are tackled--finding specific images is a daunting task.)

While the two overlapping exhibitions complement each other nicely, they are nonetheless very different in conception. "Matisse Picasso" is an intimate show, an opportunity to follow closely the visible manifestations of an oblique, rather private dialogue--sometimes more amicable, sometimes less--between two phenomenally gifted individuals who were near-coevals, colleagues, competitors, and ultimately friends. "Manet/Velazquez" despite the mano a mano implications of the rifle, focuses not on a single pair of painters, but rather offers a sweeping panorama that encompasses several generations of artists, spans several centuries, and transcends the limitations of place. The show is a fascinating, wide-ranging examination of a crucial transformation in taste, a study of how Spanish painting, which was mainly ignored by the French until well into the nineteenth century, became an admired model for French painters, an antidote to the Academy-sanctioned worship of Raphael and his legacy of chilly Neo-Classicism. As one of the show's curators, the Metropolitan's Gary Tinterow, describes it, "Manet/Velazquez" probes a dramatic shift in the paradigm of painting "from Idealism to Realism, from Italy to Spain, from Renaissance to Baroque, from carefully finished, porcelain-like surfaces to ... brushy technique." Since the ramifications of that shift can briefly be summarized as the advent of modernism--think about the Impressionists' cultivation of the appearance of spontaneity in their efforts to evoke modern life or, more to the point, think about Manet as the first modernist--it's not an overstatement to say that a visit to "Manet/Velazquez" is essential preparation for seeing the exhibition at MOMA. …

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