The Intimacy of Manet and Modern Beauty

Jeanne (Spring). Édouard Manet, 1881. Wikimedia Commons.

I finally made my way, last weekend, to the Art Institute’s Manet and Modern Beauty. (There’s an exhibition catalogue, too, for those who want to see it again.) It’s an incredibly special exhibition, a loving (and lovely) tribute to an artist gone far too soon whose mark continues to reverberate down the generations. The exhibition is such a treasure that it deserves a little more than the 147 words I’ve given it, and so I’ll give it a little more here.

Édouard Manet and I go way back—or perhaps it’s better to say that I’ve passionately loved Berthe Morisot’s work for many years, and Morisot and Manet go together, for more reasons than that of being in-laws. (Like, they’re-actually-an-item levels of together.) It’s quite possible, if you’ve spent any amount of time here, that you’ve seen some of the results of this love/obsession, in the Impressionist half of the grad school project that launched this blog (and also my realization that I could, indeed, talk into the void). It made seeing the works highlighted in Manet and Modern Beauty, nearly all from the last few years of Èdouard’s life, especially bittersweet: the beauty hints, if one knows the man’s story, at the end to come.

Manet and Modern Beauty is small, intimate, loving, all of them in the best ways possible. The exhibition halls are painted and arranged to look like a salon of Manet’s era, a place in which Édouard, dying but still set on life, might have visited, or even lived. The intimacy of the setting, each room feeling like a space in someone’s elegant home, sets off the artwork to its advantage, for these pieces from the end of Manet’s life are, all of them, small, intimate pieces. Even those we all know, like Jeanne (it’s the header here), are intimate: a tight focus, on a person or a place, held there just long enough for the paint to set. This is, of course, part of Manet’s genius: he was a studio artist, and none of these are as fleeting as they feel. They were planned and carefully executed, fleeting moments from hours of plans.

Around the exhibition’s midpoint is a wall of photos: family, friends, fellow artists and musicians and writers. They are from Manet’s personal collections, all people who, at the least, moved in his sphere. It was, I think, my mother’s single favorite part of the entire exhibition, because it was the perfect illustration of one of the great focal points of her teaching. In order to perform well, and to fully understand a piece, she tells her students, they must learn about the period in which it was composed: the politics, the literature, the theater and opera. The time, the place, the people. It’s one of the things I’ve always loved about art history: one cannot study the history of art without also knowing the history of the people. We are all of us connected, and have always been, and there’s no way to escape that truth in the arts, where connections are perhaps a bit more intimate than they might be elsewhere. (This is, of course, true in several of intimacy’s varied meanings.)

I was startled by the intimacy, the smallness, of even the more famous works in the exhibition, like Jeanne or Boating or In the Conservatory or Woman Reading. This intimacy is highlighted by, in the exhibition’s last rooms, what can best be called private art: examples of Manet’s sketches, the art with which he adorned his letters, and more. It’s tiny, delicate, and intimate: chamber art, as it were, fit to go with chamber music. Still lives seem to hint at his own impending death; Jeanne’s parasol and gloves and hat await us. (Someone complained that they all have feathers! Terrible! and I managed, just barely, not to tell them to STFU.) It feels almost fleeting, almost ephemeral. Driving the point home is the fact that this is, we’re told, the first major exhibition to draw together a varied assortment of Manet’s works since the exhibition his son/brother and several friends mounted after his death: the first time these works, many of which remain in private collections, have been together in years, if not ever. It’s a powerful thing, to contemplate.

The exhibition is a marvel, intimate and lovely. The discussions and video and staging are all really good…and I felt like they were also all rather bowdlerized. Don’t get me wrong: Édouard Manet was remarkable, as a man in the 19th century and as an artist. He’s left us a tremendous legacy. But he was a randy fellow, our Édouard; he loved and lived on a grand scale, even as he was dying. (And he was dying for much of his life: his entire oeuvre is middle fingers up at death.) The exhibition tells us he was from Good Family, a father in the legal field, a well-connected mother. It doesn’t mention that his father in the legal field was a walking sleazeball; nor does it mention that Édouard’s relationship with Berthe Morisot sidled over into an emotional affair, nor that he likely encouraged the jealousy between Morisot and his student Eva Gonzalès. I suppose it makes sense to leave out the sketchier sides of Manet’s life, to celebrate his legacy more than his pettiness: and yet I wish that we could acknowledge both, even if only briefly.

Manet and Modern Beauty is a jewel of an exhibition, an unparalleled chamber piece, intimate and beautiful in setting and selection. Manet’s genius, his refusal to give up in the face of encroaching death, is on display in every room, a tribute to a life lived to the fullest despite a lingering death from syphilis. It will be at the Art Institute for a few more days, staying through September 8, and it is ever so worth a visit.