Manet was a die-hard, out-and-out, all guns blazing artistic rebel. Hard to believe when you look at the familiar chocolate-box paintings of middle class Paris scenes and pretty dappled landscapes that gave rise to the birth of Impressionism. But believe it or not, Manet dropped more jaws and drew more outraged cries than Tracey Emin’s bed when he first started exhibiting in 19th Century Paris (he set up his own exhibitions because he was banned from the Paris salons).
What on earth could have been so offensive? The latest blockbuster exhibition at the RCA: Manet: Portraying Life aims to uncover the stories behind the famous paintings. The infamous Dejeuner sur l’Herbe is there in all its baldly unapologetic nakedness, the scandalous depiction of a naked woman in a real, contemporary setting made all the more abrasive thanks to her partners in picnic crime, two gentlemen fully clothed.
Also present are portraits of Manet’s haute bourgeoisie contemporaries: the writer Emile Zola perusing his own work; the poet Baudelaire and the composer Offenbach both represented in his large-scale Music at the Tuileries. Some of the artist’s more famous works are sadly omitted – we don’t get to see the scandalous Olympia, depicting a modern day courtesan, for example, but there’s plenty of insight into 19th century fashionable Paris via the 54 paintings that are present.
We love this exhibition because it strips down our previously held notions of Manet as ‘Father of Impressionism’ and gentile portraitist, and instead reveals him as a radical innovator and scribe of his times. If you’re in London or heading here soon, be sure to book so you don’t miss out.