French painter Edouard Manet was an odd mix of the self-assured and the insecure. He was known as Paris’ most elegant and ironic man about town, but in the studio, according to his poet-friend Stephane Mallarme, “He unleashed his fury against the blank canvas, bewildered, as if he had never painted before.”
It was this self-doubting Manet who made a pilgrimage to Madrid’s Prado museum in 1865. At the annual Paris Salon he had just exhibited “Olympia,” his reclining nude with black maid and black cat, which provoked the critics’ bile. Reviewers called her obscene, a “rubber gorilla,” even corpse-like. Madrid would offer a respite from the scandal at home, but also, Manet hoped, artistic reaffirmation. In a letter written just before his abrupt departure he spoke of going “to master [Diego] Velazquez for advice.”
This fall, the very museum Manet journeyed to see has mounted “Manet at the Prado,” the first large-scale retrospective of his work anywhere in a generation. Displayed chronologically in 11 rooms, the show represents Manet’s every period and subject. And in a tidy reversal, the Prado’s grand central gallery is filled with Manet’s paintings; the Spanish masters, including Velazquez, play supporting roles on the side walls.
Curator Manuela Mena, herself a drawing specialist, has integrated Manet’s sketches with his paintings. “In copying a Renaissance work,” she says, “he selects a single figure for its expressivity, capturing what’s original and new.” Further, the dead-on accuracy in these drawings underscores the purposefulness of his later distortions.
The installation points out Manet’s other dialogues with the past too. His “Portrait of Zola,” for example, wittily recalls two Velazquez paintings, the dwarf “El Primo” and “Los Borrachos.” All three paintings hang in proximity. Displaying Manet’s 1867 work “Execution of Maximilian” together with the picture that inspired it, Goya’s 1808 “Third of May,” lays out critical steps in the evolution of painting from romantic to modern. The tone goes from operatic to ironic, from hot to cool.
Paris in Manet’s day went mad for everything Spanish. The Iberian craze influenced all the arts: from Victor Hugo’s play “Hernani” and Prosper Merimee’s “Carmen” to the Spanish dancers Manet repeatedly painted. “Spanish” signified colorful, exotic, a little racy. (In his studio Manet kept Spanish costumes that appear in multiple paintings in the show.)
That suited Manet’s realist artistic agenda. He once complained to a model who struck a classical pose, “Can’t you behave naturally? Do you stand like that when you buy a bunch of radishes at your greengrocer’s?” Such realism he found aplenty when he got to the Prado, like Ribera’s sagging bodies with dirty toenails.
Manet was likewise drawn to the Spanish use of unmixed colors and strong black-white contrasts, so different from the “brown sauces” of French academic art. He was attracted in particular to the 17th century Spanish court painter Velazquez, whose work he’d even copied as a student. His first Salon hit was the “Spanish Singer,” and one critic declared him “the Velazquez of the boulevards.”
He wasn’t let down when he arrived in Madrid. After viewing genuine Velazquez canvases in profusion at the Prado, Manet declared him the greatest artist who ever lived and alone worth the journey. Over time, the Spaniard’s paint handling would influence Manet’s later work. Vindication for “Olympia” would come too; eventually it would be regarded as his masterpiece and the very emblem of modern art.
Manet’s return to Madrid comes amid another artistic upheaval and more scandal. Some 18 months ago Edouard Serra, former Spanish defense minister who chairs the Prado’s governing board, brusquely fired the museum’s director. Serra replaced him with 37-year-old Miguel Zugaza -- the sixth director installed in 11 years.
The Prado, which has space to display only about 10% of its collection, was also in crisis because of a controversial $56-million expansion. Architect Rafael Moneo’s plan to build a cube-like extension on the former site of the 17th century Cloister of the Jeronimos sparked protests and lawsuits from neighbors and preservationists. (Moneo is also the architect of downtown L.A.'s Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.)
While the previous director chose to lay low, Zugaza brilliantly and unexpectedly decided to call the world’s attention to his museum. With breathtaking speed Zugaza mounted three blockbuster shows in 2003: “Vermeer and the Dutch Interior,” “Titian” and now “Manet in the Prado.” As curator Mena put it: “He jumped like a tiger.”
The Manet retrospective depended on the dovetailing of two chance events. First, building renovation required moving the Velazquezes from their usual galleries. Second, the Musee D’Orsay in Paris and the Metropolitan Museum in New York sent the Prado 18 key Manets in recognition of the Prado’s generous loans for their recent exhibition “Manet / Velazquez: The French Taste for Spanish Painting.”
But “Manet at the Prado” by no means rehashes that show. It is vastly more comprehensive, gathering 110 pieces, including 58 paintings. And ironically, by virtue of its retrospective character, it is unshackled from the need to concentrate on the painter’s Spanish side.
On the occasion of a self-produced retrospective in 1867, Manet remarked, “I want to remain intact.” The Prado honors that desire. Most essential works are here, from the early portrait of Manet’s dour-looking bourgeois parents to the “Bar at the Folies-Bergere” with its misplaced mirror image of the customer, done the year before his death. The paintings come from museums off the beaten path: Lyon, France; Lisbon; Norfolk, Va.; Buenos Aires; Budapest, Hungary; and Oslo.
Gabriele Finaldi, the Prado’s new chief curator, says the exhibition shows Manet emerging naturally from Renaissance art and then formulating a modernist style that inspired future generations. “We wanted a spectacular display,” Finaldi says, and indeed, the Prado pulled out all the stops. Visitors to the Prado can stand before the same masterworks Manet studied -- by Caravaggio, Rubens, Van Dyke, Ribera -- and see how he reworked those traditions.
Before and after the trip
By dividing Manet’s career at his visit to Madrid, the exhibition lays out a fascinating question about influence. Was the Spain that Manet imagined pre-1865, perhaps, more influential than the Spain he visited?
Finaldi proposes that Manet’s image of Spain before his voyage is picturesque or fantasmatic. In his Paris studio Manet kept a collection of Spanish costumes, which visitors can spot migrating from one painting to another.
An etching of mantillaed women might seem to be from his trip in 1865, but he actually created it two years earlier in Paris.
After the 1865 visit, the curator observes, such Spanish themes mostly fall away, while what Manet learned stylistically from Velazquez got deeply absorbed.
A Manet retrospective would be a world-class cultural event in any city, but Madrid makes special sense. There is the sentimental justice of the French artist’s triumphal return. And the roots of the Prado itself are French: It was founded by Napoleon I’s brother Joseph.
But ultimately it’s the Prado’s vast collections, used here to frame Manet’s career, that clarify better than ever before his place as both an old master and a modern. By turning to the past, Manet opened the way to the future.
Arden Reed is professor of English at Pomona College and author of “Manet, Flaubert, and the Emergence of Modernism” (Cambridge, 2003).