The Éduard Manet show at the Art Institute is kind of a bait-and-switch. All the posters and ad copy is about portraits of society women and modernity (whatever the hell that means.) But the best things in it are genre scenes of people drinking and little still-life paintings. There’s not a single “major” painting in the entire show. Yet it’s one of the better exhibitions I’ve ever seen at the museum.
Manet was my first favorite artist. I remember being drawn to his portrait of a young fifer. There was something defiant in the way he met my gaze. That kid gave no fucks. Manet got rid of all the curlicues and needless detail of the salon art which came before him, yet managed to keep the gravity, the weight of people and things. He’s often thought of as the bridge between realism and impressionism, but the impressionists would’ve done better had they studied his work harder. Their wispy, cotton-candy confections where tailor-made for 20th Century motels, while he kept straddling the line between decoration and substance.
The ad copy doesn’t totally lie—there are definitely a fair share of pretty dressed-up girls in the show, but my favorites are the more dashed-off or unfinished ones. There’s one of a young woman in Spanish attire which is like a bridge between Velazquez and Matisse—if that thing took more than three-four hours to paint, I don’t know shit about painting.
There are also some truly shitty commissioned portraits. The worst is an oversized canvas of a mustachioed jackass beaming in front of the lion he’ just killed. It’s one of those embarrassing jobs artists have to take on to keep the lights on. The inclusion of this and several other stillborn images serves to humanize Manet, to chip away at the pedestal we place artists on.
I saw the show on the first day it opened to members. The galleries were filled with old people—the kind that keep places like the Art Institute open. I tried to tune out their inane banter the best I could. The worst part of going to look at great art are the other people who show up. The talk is either ill-informed or totally unrelated to the work on the walls. Still, my first time or two through the rooms was relatively painless.
I decided to take a break and went downstairs for the free coffee in the Members’ Lounge. It was a mob scene. A barely-moving line of fossils fiddled cluelessly with the coffee urns before it was my turn. I zigzagged around them after finally filling my cup and went out to the garden and found an unoccupied table in the shade, away from the unrelenting rays of the sun. The leafy scene resembled some of the cafe scenes from the show. I doodled in my sketchbook a bit until some old duffer insisted on sitting at my table, then left to run through the show one last time.
Now the galleries were glutted with blue-hairs. I darted around them to spend a few minutes in the second-to-last room. There are no portraits of pretty girls or bearded, pipe-smoking gents there; only solitary vases of flowers and humble dishes of fruit. The wall text says something about Manet’s infirmity only allowing him to do these minor pictures in his last years, but, to me, these are the most affecting pictures in the entire show. They’re elegiac and elemental. He’s pared it all down to the essentials. Cut flowers and picked fruit holding on to fleeting vitality.
They’ll wilt and rot before these paintings can dry, but he’s caught that flicker before it’s gone for good.