Saturday 12 January 2013
Dressing up is the source of much joy and bizarre contrast in Manet. Go back to the incomparable Manet room in the Metropolitan, and look around. The beautiful Mlle V en Costume d'Espada has the face of a
Portraiture, which is the focus of the Royal Academy's show, had become still more hidebound by the advent and influence of photography. As one of the great early photographers, Nadar, remarked in his autobiography, the advent of the carte de visite type of photographic portrait "spelled disaster. Either you had to succumb – that is, follow the trend – or resign." Carol M Armstrong reminds us in the RA catalogue that Manet's friend Baudelaire had been similarly scathing about photography's impact on society in his Salon of 1859, speaking of the moment when "our squalid society rushed, Narcissus to a man, to gaze at its trivial image on a scrap of metal".
Zola was quite right to base his defence of Manet on the painter's perfect eye. It was an eye of great purity, and one that came to an ironic and undermining position after the long years of argumentative apprenticeship in the studio of Manet's master, the salon painter Thomas Couture. (The scholar Beatrice Farwell remarks, surprisingly, that Manet was "the last great French painter to receive a long and academic training".) What the eye saw, however, was not completely unprejudiced. It was the observation of the visual moments that would most offend, most alarm, most bewilder; a face in a street, a line of railings and a suggestion of rising steam, a momentary pattern of dappled light that reveals, of all things, a naked woman sitting with two well-off young men in a forest glade, turning and smiling. What do these things mean? The startled eye closes; turns away; turns to something else, with amusement, but no certain claim to be making any kind of statement about anything but the fall of light.