Modernisms: Three Recent London Art Exhibitions

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Modernisms: Three Recent London Art Exhibitions

"iL FAUT ÊTRE ABSOLUMENT MODERNE." TAKEN FROM the conclusion of Rimbaud's Une Saison en enfer, this comment became the cornerstone for several Modernist movements a century ago. Even though he never summed it up in a phrase, Edouard Manet upheld the ideal of moder- nity for his painting more than a decade before Rimbaud had pub- lished. Being modern for Manet meant transmuting contemporary reality, even when unaesthetic, into memorable and beautiful works of art. He seldom found his subjects in history, literature or exotic locales as, for example, his precursor Delacroix did. Second Empire Paris held all the material his imagination needed; masters from earlier centuries could provide clues as to color and composition (as Titian's Fête champêtre did for Manet's Déjeuner sur l'herbe), but his subjects were resolutely up to date. Equally modern was his method of applying paint, which resembled the generous, flattened impasto of his innovative contemporary Courbet, at least in the latter's landscapes.

Unlike Courbet, though, Manet had little interest in landscape as such. The stated aim of this Royal Academy exhibition, "Manet: Portraying Life," was to concentrate on Manet the portrait painter, an aim fairly redundant, given that almost every painting of his includes a person, though the subject isn't always identified by name. The first important work hanging in it is his Music in the Tuileries Gardens (1862). We are outdoors, certainly, but in Paris's best-known park. Foreground and background are jammed with crowds, indeed, so many faces that portraiture in this context might be considered impossible. Yet in the left foreground stands the painter himself, a slim, bearded man wearing a black coat and tall hat. Seated to his left is his wife Suzanne, who looks toward the viewer. Our sense is that a face in the crowd has singled us out for special attention. Perhaps her eyes met Manet's in much the same way some years earlier, a hypothetical event preceding their liaison and eventual marriage. Other artists can be identified in the crowd as well: Gautier, Baudelaire, Offenbach, Fantin-Latour: a little résumé of Manet's artistic circle. And the prospect of the painting coincides with what the Tuileries orchestra would have seen, which means viewers are being conflated with the music makers entertaining the crowds depicted.

Two writer friends not included in the group portrait are neverthe- less the subject of individual portraits hung side by side in this show. Emile Zola, seated at his cluttered desk, looks not at us but at something outside the frame. A Japanese woodblock print has been pinned to a board above his head, along with black-and-white reproductions of Velazquez's The Triumph of Bacchus and Manet's own Olympia. (The latter painting, which caused a scandal when it was first exhibited, isn't included in the show. This is a serious omission, almost as disappointing as the absence of the Bar at the Folies-Bergère, which, however, you can see by crossing town to Somerset House and visiting the Courtauld Gallery.) As for the second writer friend portrayed, it is Stéphane Mallarmé, in a picture of much smaller dimensions; it's a concentrated effort worthy of a poet who rarely wrote poems longer than a sonnet. Manet's paint was always liquid, allowing for noticeable brushwork, but paint application in this portrait is so atomized and misty as to anticipate Impressionism. Perhaps the portraitist was trying to evoke Mallarmé's signature ambiguity and indeterminacy. Smoke curling up from the gray-haired poet's cigar recalls his poem "Toute l'âme résumée," a sonnet that transforms the fire and ash of a cigar into a symbol of artistic production.

Manet's brother married the painter Berthe Morisot, one result of the union being a series of portraits produced by her new brother-inlaw. The first is among the most striking works in the show. Wearing a beribboned black hat, Morisot stares directly at the viewer, the eyes just slightly larger than her delicate features would lead us to expect. …