Manet of the moment

Monet or Manet; heart or head; impressions or ideas: this is a battlefield that every generation revisits. In epochs when painterliness holds sway, Monet, as he dissolved into abstraction, seems to define the path to modernity. When a more intellectual art is fashionable, Manet is our contemporary: complex, fraught, engaged in games of artifice and distance, concentrating on the human situation rather than his own visual sensations.

This is certainly the emphasis at the Musée d’Orsay’s retrospective Manet, inventeur du Moderne, which opened this week and is best understood as an answer to last autumn’s blockbuster Claude Monet at the Grand Palais. Until then, neither artist had been shown at a stretch in Paris for nearly 30 years – though Manet, especially, cannot be displayed comprehensively anywhere else. Monet worked in diverse locations but Manet, in choice of motif and outlook, was the most Parisian artist who ever lived, rarely leaving the city and even, as a committed Republican, joining the artillery to defend it in 1870-71.

He was also, unlike Monet, a devotee of the Louvre. “Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe” and “Olympia”, the twin masterpieces that changed the course of modern art, delivered their shock by being scandalously prosaic, essentially urban – Parisian – reprises of classical subjects. In the first, a nude sits brazenly among metropolitan dandies in the park, a subversion of Titian’s “Concert champêtre” at the Louvre. In the second, an everyday courtesan posed as a reclining Venus reworked from Titian’s “Venus of Urbino” glares back at the viewer – a rebuke to centuries of the controlling male gaze. Critics called her “a gorilla” with “a body the livid tint of a cadaver”.

“Le Déjeuner” and “Olympia” (both 1863) are Orsay trophy pieces and do not travel, and the first triumph here is to surround them with a group of loaned works from 1862 showing how Manet built up to so daring an approach. “Baudelaire’s Mistress”, a little-known portrait from Budapest of a dark, cunning seductress in sparkling white dress, foreshadows the flatness and erotic mood of “Olympia”, while “The Negress”, from Gianni Agnelli’s collection, anticipates the vivid contrasts and exotic flavour provided by that painting’s provocative black servant.

But it is in a pair of loans from Boston depicting the artist’s new 18-year-old model, “Portrait of Victorine Meurent” and “The Street Singer”, that Manet breaks through to painting daily life as fleeting and alienated, in brittle surfaces that have at once the spontaneity of photography and the depth of classical painting. Victorine proved her worth when Manet one evening glimpsed a weary chanteuse, clutching her guitar, disappear around the corner of a boulevard; he tried to persuade the singer to pose and, when she refused, recast the scene starring his auburn-haired model.

Victorine, with her streetwise look, laconic, unyielding, suggested a new 19th-century type – the independent urban woman, the visual equivalent of Balzac’s or Zola’s heroines. Her complicity, malleable on canvas but psychologically resistant, gives “Olympia” and “Le Déjeuner” particular force; uniting so many stagey-yet-natural Victorines, this exhibition emphasises the acknowledged artificiality of Manet’s entire project. This was painting about painting, in a way no artist had considered it since Velázquez.

The Spaniard was Manet’s favourite Old Master, and when he was devastated and flailing after the outcry over “Olympia”, he took off to Madrid “to go to Maître Velázquez for advice”. Zola noted the “blend of sobriety and energy” that resulted: in “The Fife Player”, for instance, flat as a playing card, the subject detached from an empty background in a style recalling Velázquez’s “Jester Pablo de Valladolid” and pointing straight to Picasso. The harsh, dramatic “Dead Matador” achieves a similar cut-out, fragmented effect – Manet chopped up a larger canvas to intensify the emotional power – while “The Balcony”, inspired by Goya’s “Majas on the Balcony”, poses three unconnected figures, framed by shutters and bright green railings, in a brilliant drama of light and shade resembling a theatre scene.

“Such a clever painter of still life that all his characters look as if they had risen from their grave,” sniped a contemporary. Two of the figures do have blank expressions, yet despite the stiffness and silence, the third is a psychologically penetrating portrait – of 28-year-old Berthe Morisot, then anxiously embarking on a career as a painter and aware of how she was isolating herself from traditional feminine milieux.

Smaller depictions of Morisot are as striking – dressed in black in “Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets”, she stands out against a neutral background; the deep black, rendered in fluid, supple strokes, subtly offset by touches of blue, underlines her poetic, troubled character, caught between desire and frustration. Many female portraits here, such as “Woman with Fans”, in which black-robed saloniste Nina de Callias casts a cynical eye at her audience, and “Irma Brunner”, a vibrant silky contrast of pink dress and black hat, exhibit Manet’s delight in painting fashionable society – and go some way to compensating for the absence of “Masked Ball at the Opera” and “Music at the Tuileries Gardens” – but those of Morisot are highlights for their acute compassion.

Morisot, who married Manet’s brother in 1874, introduced him to the circle of impressionists. Although he did not exhibit with them, the connection explains the lightening of his palette. The elegant Parisians promenading on the white sands in sharp afternoon sunlight in the elongated “Beach at Boulogne”, and “At the Beach”, portraying his wife and brother, show that his focus remained people, though in his marine paintings – as a teenager he had joined the navy – he brought a unique mix of naturalism and theatrical provocation, notably in “The Battle of the Kearsage and the Alabama”, a cool, off-balance re-imagining of an American civil war encounter.

When he was dying of syphilis in 1881, Manet returned to paint the sea. “The Escape of Rochefort”, his final work here (the show’s other serious omission is the late “Bar at the Folies Bergère”), celebrates the escape of communard Henri de Rochefort from a prison colony. Every detail – billowing creamy waves, translucent sky – is simplified in this depiction of a recalcitrant hero rowing furiously, engulfed by an immense sea, with a sail just visible on the horizon. A painting of loneliness and withdrawal, or of hope and rescue? A personal or a political work? Manet can never be pinned down, which is why he continues to involve us, embodying Baudelaire’s ideal of “the painter of modern life” above all for his ambivalence and dead-pan neutrality.

‘Manet, inventeur du Moderne’, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, to July 3

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