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Édouard Manet, Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets
(1872, Musée d’Orsay)
©RMN(Museé d’Orsay)/Hervé Lewandwski/disutoributed by DNPartcom
The “Manet et le Paris moderne” exhibition commemorates the grand opening of the Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum on April 6. Museum Director Akiya Takahashi discusses the exhibition’s highlights.
“Founder of Modern Art” and “Father of Impressionism” are two of the many accolades bestowed upon Édouard Manet. He is widely recognized as a major figure who carved an important niche in art history, and many people have surely seen his work. According to Takahashi, however, “Manet’s name may be familiar, but little is actually known about him,” as an artist. How can this be? He explains it as follows, drawing a comparison with Monet, whose name sounds very similar.
the director of the Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum,
“Japanese artists began going en masse to Europe in the 1880s. Although Manet was already considered a giant by then, the impressionist generation were the trendsetters; hence, the Japanese came to the world of Western avant-garde art initially through the likes of Monet and the sculptor Rodin. From then on they were hard-pressed to keep up with the dizzying changes of the times, with no leeway to turn their attention to pre-Monet figures such as Manet.”
Mind you, this tendency to afford Manet less appraisal than Monet was not limited to the Japanese. “I believe this is largely due to the number and nature of works they produced. Though Manet died at 51, Monet lived a long life and produced far more paintings. Monet also painted series such as the Water Lilies, for example, completing each painting within a continuous context. For Manet, however, each painting was an independent expression and complete in its own right; thus, the weight of each individual work was completely different.”
Because of their scarcity, Manet’s paintings are treated like crown jewels and centerpieces in the museums that own them. Inevitably, it’s extremely difficult to organize an exhibition. In 1983, there was a major retrospective in Paris and New York observing the centennial of Manet’s death, but apart from that, there have been few exhibitions. All the more reason not to miss this one, which has assembled some 80 of Manet’s works, and provides an opportunity to survey the whole gamut of his artistic accomplishments.”
Édouard Manet, The Dead Toreador (Around 1864, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.)
©Widener Collection,Image courtesy of the Board of Trustees,National Gallery of Art,Washington
“Monet and the impressionists, Cézanne, Gauguin and the postimpressionists, the list of 20th century masters headed by Picasso, post-war pop art and nouveau realism, and even post-modern artists could not have existed without Manet’s artistic achievements.” (Akiya Takahashi, Motto shiritai Manet: Shogai to sakuhin [More about Manet: his life and works], published by Tokyo Bijutsu)
Why is Manet known as the “Father of Modern Painting”? It is because he flexibly melded various artistic trends of the times into his work while maintaining a respect for classical painting, and because he opened up daring new artistic ground by actively looking to Japan and Spain. His methods and perspective were tremendously fresh and novel.
On that subject, two paintings that will be among those shown for the first time in Japan, Lola de Valence and The Dead Toreador, are both strongly colored by the Spanish flavor that so fascinated Manet.
The standards of beauty Manet aimed for, and the new techniques he continually tried out—these were never incompatible with the static values of the Salon de Paris, which represented the status quo and powers that be in the art world at the time. Often labeled a “scandalous artist,” Manet kept producing paintings in which he himself could believe.
Take female nudes, for example. Hitherto, it had been the norm to confine paintings of nude women to mythological subjects such as Venus. Manet, however, put nude women into ordinary everyday settings, and used prostitutes as models. He was not interested in historical or mythological figures, but in women living in the present. He wanted to paint whatever he perceived as beautiful, just as he saw it. That was the extent of it.
Takahashi has this to say in praise of the masterpiece of modern portraiture that is one of Manet’s most famous works, Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets, which is in the exhibition: “Simple hues of black and grey; time condensed into an instant. Through a passing expression on one woman’s face captured against the light, Manet has brilliantly reconstructed the tradition of portrait painting since Renaissance times as represented by Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.” (ibid.)
In the 19th century, exponents of realist art such as Coubert and Millet, and romanticists such as Delacroix, joined others in seeking new directions for painting. Taking that bold point of view and using innovative techniques, Manet determined the future of modern art.
Another notable aspect of this exhibition is that it depicts the times in which Manet lived: in other words, the culture and life of 19th-century Paris. At that time, the city was constantly buffeted by revolution and war. Swinging repeatedly between republicanism and the monarchy, the people would rise up to take power into their own hands and be beaten back. Against this background, Paris was reborn following major renovations instigated by Napoleon III and continued to evolve, carried by the tides of the times. Manet loved Paris and never shifted his gaze away from its inhabitants. He lived in Paris, captured the spirit of Paris on canvas, and died in Paris. He caught animated snippets of life—scenes of people in theatres, music halls, cafes and brasseries— that are a text of the life and culture of the times. He also calls our attention to the latest fashions of those Parisians, which is its own delight.
“In Japan, we are currently experiencing a Sakamoto Ryoma boom,“ said Takahashi, “and Manet and Ryoma were only four years apart in age. They were in different countries, but both lived during times of upheaval when the old order was being replaced by the new. To me, their characters seem similar in that they both forged their own paths through trial and error.”
Manet was a Parisian through and through. He was elegant beyond compare in both dress and behavior, gentle and sociable: people naturally gravitated toward him. Now, for the first time perhaps, we can come close to the true face of this charming painter who was so endeared by men and loved by women.
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