Tuesday, 5 March 2013

three exhibitions

Today I went to the Royal Academy.  I booked myself a ticket for Manet's portraits some time ago, since the show was reviewing well and I wanted to be sure of getting one.  As the weather forecast for this week firmed up, and Tuesday looked like being the brightest day of the week, I felt a certain regret that I was committed to going to London, but there it was.  And as a friend pointed out, walking around London is nicer when other people are not skewering you with their umbrellas.

My ticket was for 2.00 pm entry, chosen to avoid panic in the case of the trains being delayed, and to allow time to look at something else first assuming they weren't.  Everything ran to time, so I set my sights on the National Gallery and hopped on board a number 23 bus, where I bagged one of the upstairs seats at the front.  Even the London traffic was running freely, and the City looked beautiful in the pale sunshine, St Paul's having finally emerged from its shrouds of scaffolding.  There is now a great hole in the ground opposite my former office, and for the life of me I can't remember what used to be there.  Presumably something immediately post-war and utterly unmemorable.

Barocci: Brilliance and Grace at the National Gallery is a delight.  He was an Italian painter from Urbino who worked at the cusp between the Renaissance and the Baroque.  He went to Rome once, somebody tried to poison him, he came home to Urbino, and stayed there for the rest of his life, largely working on altar pieces and devotional subjects.  Some of these are too large and fragile to travel to London, but the National Gallery has assembled enough to give you a fair idea, plus a good number of sketches and preparatory works.  The paintings are very soft and warm, and the accompanying drawings and sketches give a fascinating view of how Barocci developed and worked up his compositions.

It is tantalising, though, to view Barocci's work as a northern European from a post-Protestant culture.  The captions to the pictures describe how some of his original patrons spent hours in religious contemplation before them, and I was rather aware as I walked around that while I could admire the skill of his draughtsmanship and the sheer prettiness of his palette, I wasn't able to see the paintings in the same way as a devout Catholic of the late fifteen hundreds would have perceived them.  Even though I knew most of the biblical stories in a narrative sense, I didn't share their convictions.

Another friend commented to me that Manet: Portraying Life was rather an odd exhibition, and now I've been to it I see what they meant.  It has garnered some rave reviews in the broadsheets, and much has been said about how many of the portraits straddle the line between genre painting and straight portraiture, and how good Manet was at painting black.  They do, he was.  Now I've been to the exhibition I still I have no idea why his family group at luncheon includes a military helmet perched on a chair in the foreground, or why a woman and child in expensive clothes are apparently sitting on a wall next to a railway track, where their outfits will get covered in smuts.

It is a big exhibition, though not quite big enough to fill the whole main suite of rooms at the Royal Academy, so one crowd scene gets an entire room to itself, and another room is taken up with displays of a time-line and reproductions of Manet's photo albums.  Some of the paintings are very, very good.  I stared for a long time at his portrait of Berthe Morisot, and went back to it again when I finally reached the end, and was rather disconcerted to see it afterwards reproduced on a tote bag in the inevitable exit-through-the -shop.  Berthe Morisot's face breathes a wary energy, strong sideways light strikes her nose dramatically, her black hat is a marvel.  I loved that portrait.  I should like to steal it and look at it every day.  Some of the other pictures were rather suspect, with one particularly dodgy horse, and in the middle section I did begin to get slightly bored of men with serious expressions, big beards and top hats.

It seems terribly frivolous to judge an artist by how much you like their palette, since that is to reduce their work to the status of interior decoration, but Manet's can be on the muddy side, which gets somewhat depressing after rooms and rooms of it.  My overall conclusion would be that the show is good, it's interesting, it's worth going, I'm glad I went (even on a sunny day), but I didn't find it uplifting in the way that I would spending an hour and a half looking at Van Gogh, or Rothko, or Rembrandt.

After all the Manet I wondered whether my brain was full, but it seemed a waste to go home at only four o'clock, what with the price of railway tickets and given that I'd taken a day off from the garden, so I had a cup of tea to restore myself and then went to see the Man Ray Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery.  I knew virtually nothing about Man Ray, other than the fact that I'd heard of him, but I like photographic portraits and the portrait gallery is always good.  Indeed, I can't think when I've been to a duff exhibition there, and this one has reviewed well.  It turned out that Man Ray spent much of the 1920s in Paris with the Surrealists, where he photographed artists of the day.  Braque, who painted the small view of the white ship in Antwerp docks currently on loan to the Courtauld which is one of my favourite pictures in London, turned out to be a burly man in braces and a collarless shirt.  Jean Cocteau was quite ravishingly good-looking, while Stravinsky was a tiny, fey man, his receding chin and head flung back giving him the look of a startled hare.  Matisse looked just like a respectable country doctor in good tweed, with a neat beard and wire-rimmed spectacles.  Satie had beaming eyes under dark brows and a great domed forehead, and a warm if knowing smile.  James Joyce looked as though he had a headache.

Then Man Ray went back to the States, and I hadn't heard of most of his subjects, but they were very photogenic people, or it was Man Ray's talent to make them appear so.  I know nothing of photographic techniques, and I expect anyone who did would see much more in this exhibition than I was equipped to, but I enjoyed it thoroughly anyway.

They are all on for weeks yet, since for once I haven't left it until the closing days to go in a panic.  All are worth seeing and quite different to each other, though if you try to cram all three into one day your brain will be suffering from overload afterwards.

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