Saturday, 20 July 2013

Manet: Return to Venice

Of all the exhibitions we visited in our six days looking at art in Venice, the most stunning was the Manet show at the Palazzo Ducale. When we visited on a Monday morning in July, it was sparsely attended, and we walked in between huge long lines for San Marco and substantial lines for the Palazzo itself. I had missed the reviews of the exhibition before we went, although I had made a note of it. Only when I read in Un Ospite in Venezia that Manet’s Olympia was there with Titian’s Venus of Urbino did I realize that this was not just a little show of a few minor paintings, but a significant and serious exploration of Manet's time in Italy and the influence of the Renaissance on his painting. The introductory label, and booklet state: “The exhibition studies, highlights and demonstrates the importance of the Italian Renaissance masters in the formation of his poetics: Manet studied, quoted, interpreted and distorted works by artists such as Titian, Raphael, Andrea del Sarto and Tintoretto.” Other suggested influences in the exhibition are Carpaccio, Antonello da Messina and Lorenzo Lotto.
Manet made two trips to Venice. Having been in Venice for several days, we identified much more strongly with Manet's experience there than we could have if we’d seen the exhibition anywhere else. The exhibition opens with a very helpful triple timeline of events in Manet’s life, other contemporary arts events, and historical happenings. In the same space are some documents of the Venice Manet would have visited. A newspaper of 1853 notes Mr. Manet’s arrival and the hotel where he would stay for a month, lucky guy. While the exhibition only alluded to political events, many of the objects, and Manet's own activities, confirm his commitment to liberation movements in Europe and the elsewhere during his lifetime.
The next room displays a relatively small group selected from about 140 drawings and paintings after Italian Renaissance paintings that Manet made on that first trip to Italy, including a Tintoretto self-portrait, Sarto’s frescoes in Santissima Annunziata in Florence, Luca della Robbia’s Cantoria from Florence Cathedral. Here an oil sketch version of his Déjeuner sur l’Herbe appropriately makes the familiar comparisons with Giorgione/Titian’s Fête Champêtre and the Marcantonio Raimondi print of the Judgment of Paris that is an even more specific source for the composition. Sarto's frescoes seem to have provided sources for compositions throughout Manet's lifetime, which I found very satisfying, having been an admirer of that cycle of frescoes for decades. Here are a couple of the frescoes from Wikipedia.
Viaggio dei Magi
Natività della Vergine
So I’m going along thinking this is a pretty interesting scholarly demonstration of Manet’s engagement with Italy when I enter the next room and am blasted back by the two large paintings of nudes, almost exactly the same size, hanging side by side on one gallery wall. At the same time the power and beauty of both paintings almost brought me to tears, I thought of how the National Gallery in London had not allowed us to see the two paintings of the Madonna of the Rocks attributed to Leonardo side by side in that historic exhibition a year or so ago. You can easily do the art historical comparison of the two works from photographs, although the startled black cat in Manet’s Olympia almost disappears in the darkness, while Venus’s faithful little dog is quite visible. But the lush beauty of the flesh of Titian’s Venus, the shimmering light and luminous Venetian color, the sense of calm, safe and happy everyday warmth are tactile, personal, enveloping in person.  Manet converts the Renaissance Venus, turning warmth into coldness, curves into angles, invitation into challenge, and hominess into business, at the same time he paints the shawl under Olympia with gorgeous texture and color that make his work equally impossible to leave.  The mere size of the works in a relatively small room is stunning. It occurred to me that both works must be in good state of conservation and that the lighting was particularly effective for them against the dark wall color.
Portrait of Monsieur and Madame Auguste Manet - Edouard Manet
A touching portrait of Manet’s parents, with a sensitive description of how Manet underplayed his father’s dementia, is an indication of the sensitivity of the labels, despite the fact that in several instances the titles of works intended for comparison are omitted in the Engligh translations. Subsequent galleries demonstrate other aspects of the Italian influence, not always completely convincingly, but the objects are wonderful to see. A wonderful still life of a lemon may or may not have anything to do with Italian baroque still life. Later galleries reiterate the Spanish influences on images of Spanish dancers, the Fifer, and The Balcony, which is also suggested to be conceptually related to the fragment by Carpaccio of Two Venetian Ladies in that the figures all look into the distance in different directions.
A hugely significant part of this exhibition consists of loans from the Musee d’Orsay, and I suspect that some of the exhibition is devised to take advantage of them, so the later sections have somewhat less specific connections to the Italian Renaissance. It was wonderful to see the fantastic portrait of Emile Zola and the somewhat more fluid portrait of Stephane Mallarmé, calling attention to the wealth of associations that enriched Manet's environment.  Stephane Mallarme  - Edouard Manet
I did not find the comparison of the Zola portrait to a Lorenzo Lotto as convincing as I might have, but remain assured that Manet was infused with Renaissance compositions and concepts. Mallarmé's translation of Edgar Allen Poe's The Raven, which Manet illustrated, was a fascinating diversion.
The later paintings by Manet, still wonderfully executed, seem somewhat lighter in content, although the labels suggested his continued political commitments. The one image of Venice, The Grand Canal, of 1874, from a private collection, captures the light, the water, and the surroundings in a way that reminded me of Sargent.
The Grand Canal - Edouard Manet
The exhibition has intelligent and inspiring labels in Italian and English. It is accompanied by a significant scholarly catalogue and a very helpful Short Guide with enough photographs and texts to provide a memory jogger for non-specialists. I also loved that the exhibition is in the rooms of the Palazzo Ducale, with bits of pastel stucco work and ducal portrait paintings and sculptures peeking out above the temporary walls.

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