Museums sanctify but also tame works of art. The primary aim of the National Gallery’s three-year Masterpiece Tour, launched yesterday, is to bring trophy pieces to the regions, but another success of relocation is to defamiliarise, redelivering the shock of the new of a great painting.
Manet’s “The Execution of Maximilian”, among art history’s most sensational and politically charged paintings, is spending the next two months in a small Tudor Revival gallery on Canterbury High Street. The painting depicts the moment in June 1867 when idealistic, naive Austrian Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian, installed as Emperor of Mexico by Napoleon III, faces the firing squad after being captured by Mexican nationalists. Maximilian had been a puppet in Napoleon’s imperial campaign, but French troops quickly fled Mexico when popular support for revolutionary leader Benito Juárez became clear, leaving the Habsburg prince to his fate.
This was hardly a result to which Napoleon wished to draw attention. Reports reaching Paris were contradictory; nevertheless, photographs of the execution, and of Maximilian’s bloodstained clothes – the killing was bungled, and he died agonisingly – soon circulated clandestinely; a photography dealer was jailed for possessing them. Manet probably saw the images; he assumed that his painting too would be censored by provocatively depicting the executors in French army
uniform, and giving the sergeant Napoleon’s features. So the canvas languished in his studio until his death, when his son cut it up. Degas rescued the pieces, and glued them together; the fragmentary look underlines the work’s modernity, and Manet’s idea of history painting as provisional, imaginative reconstruction.
The story resonates with 21st-century global politics – a powerful nation with colonial ambitions and cultural ignorance interfering in a distant country, inevitably meeting resistance and disaster. Canterbury also emphasises the timeless context of political power struggles: here the work is exhibited alongside John Opie’s “Murder of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral”, etchings from Goya’s “The Disasters of War”, which inspired Manet, and Robert Capa’s
Until March 16, canterbury.co.uk/beaney