Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Manet: Portraying Life

I'm really looking forward to seeing the big Manet exhibition at the Royal Academy in London later this week.

Manet: Portraying Life promises to be stuffed full of gorgeous world-class paintings from an Impressionist genius (although not, apparently, the block-busting Olympia or Dejeuner sur l'Herbe, which are staying in Paris).

I'm looking forward to seeing this painting, which I last saw some some years ago in Washington.

 Edouard Manet, 'The Railway', 1873. Oil on canvas.

Manet was a very modern painter, right on the cusp of a palpable new modernity.  Here is a typically enigmatic scene, a portrait of a little girl and one of his favourite sitters, the red-haired Victorine Meurant (read more about her here) outside a railway station.  You can see hints of the tracks and the steam of the trains. 

Victorine's not sitting in a a parlour though, looking prim and proper in her Sunday best with her hair up, sitting for a conventional portrait.  She's out and about, in a rather ambiguous setting, which seems to be sitting on a low wall by the railings of a railway station, the new symbol of freedom of trade and transport, the opening up of the world.  It's like her world has opened up too, liberating her - her hair is free and unbraided, her fan is jammed in the waist band of her dress, she thumbs a book, and she cradles a little sleeping lap-dog.  

She looks up.  She's looking directly at you, like she recognises you.

Was she expecting you?  Has she been waiting long for you?  Are you her lap-dog as well?  It's difficult to tell her expression, and in turn, to tell from that who you might be in relation to her.

The child looks smart, with her ribbons and earrings, and watches the steam of the trains, as if she's looking into her future, but at the same time the railings remind you of prison railings, keeping her in (or out).  We can only see her back, so it's difficult to engage with her.  Maybe her governess (if that's what she is) can't engage with her either.  

The railings are black, and form a very striking visual motif, making strong verticals, black against white, marching rhythmically across the painting and creating a very shallow theatrical space for the two figures to inhabit.   

Is Victorine the girl's mother?  Her governess?  What's the occasion?  Or is it just an everyday occurance?  

Are we, then,  seeing a moment of immense consequence, or of no consequence at all?  Is this painting actually elevating the utterly mundane and ordinary, the inconsequential and fleeting, into a moment of timelessness and permanance?  Nothing happens, and yet everything happens.

It's a portrait of great cleverness, and works on any number of levels.  The more you look at it, the more you wonder.

To whet your appetite for the show, take a look at a short video here.

I'll let you know what the show is like!

Royal Academy website - more information on the show.

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