Manet was knocked out by Spanish art, but his attempts to emulate it are all too often lifeless, says Waldemar Januszczak
Eugénie was enticing. Beautiful. A fashion plate. But what counts here is her genius for connecting with the public above the head of her husband. Eugénie married Napoleon’s nephew in 1853, and when the city of Paris raised 600,000 francs as a wedding gift to their new empress, she used the offering to found Paris’s first women’s college. It was a brilliant manoeuvre. Men liked her because she was delectable, women because she was a sister. And business liked her because she kept starting trends. Eugénie famously put Biarritz on the map. Her favourite perfume, like Lady Di’s, was Creed. But her key attribute, the reason it’s worth remembering her here, is that she was Spanish: Eugénie Marie de Montijo, a countess from Granada. When the French people fell for Eugénie, they fell for Spanishness. Big time.
Men wore tighter trousers. Bizet wrote Carmen. Women at the opera began fluttering their fans enigmatically and peeping out from behind them. Eugénie brought a new colour to the French palette: her signature hue, magenta red. Flamenco became all the rage in Montmartre’s taverns. And the French artistic imagination discovered the darkness within.
Manet/Velázquez is subtitled The Spanish Manner in the 19th Century. This is one of those plentiful occasions on which a subtitle seems more truthful than a title. There are eight or nine Velázquez paintings here, and many, many Manets. But the show is not a face-off in the striking fashion of Matisse Picasso (now opened in Paris, if you missed it in London). On this occasion, Velázquez and Manet are never in the same room together. At every stage of their putative confrontation, plenty of other painters are allowed to involve themselves: Goya, Zurbarán and Murillo on the peninsula side; Delacroix, Moreau and Courbet among the Gallics.
What we are actually watching is a one-sided colonisation of the French imagination by the altogether darker, more intense, more virile, more psychologically charged Spanish imagination. While Eugénie was noted for her regal extravagance, the art fashion that flooded Paris in her wake was, perversely, distinguished by its quotidian gloominess. It’s as if someone has suddenly pushed French joie de vivre into an alms-house and blown out the candle. Pinks and blues have been banned. Blacks, greys and the family of browns are the only colours allowed. Various French artists developed a taste for this Spanish gloominess. But it was Manet who did so most wholeheartedly, and for the longest. Two roomfuls of Manets, including many of his best-known paintings, supply irrefutable proof of the entry into his system of the dark and dramatic Spanish virus.
The way the show is set up, with all the Velázquez portraits loaded at the front, setting the tone, suggests that Spanish art’s chief gift to French art was a pungent dose of realism. When Velázquez painted a beggar, or Zurbarán painted St Francis of Assisi on his knees, praying, with a skull clutched to his midriff and scuff marks on his habit, these supreme painters made a particular effort to record the roughness of the fabrics, the simplicity of the setting, the directness of the occasion. It’s you and the sitter. And that’s it.
Thus, a Velázquez dwarf called El Primo sits there in his black velvet finery, fiddling with a giant book. Why did Velázquez find dwarfs so interesting? Not out of kindness, that’s certain. El Primo, caught in the full glare of the painter’s undivided attention, looks as uncomfortable as a specimen in a cage. The big book is obviously too large for him. His flamboyant velvet costume seems somehow inappropriate. The chair he sits on is too high. These contrasts between finery and frailty are what the painter is seeking to emphasise. He does so, I reckon, to remind his core audience, able-bodied, God-fearing Spanish sinners, of the fickleness of their existence, its brevity and fragility.
That’s certainly the message of the fantastically melodramatic painting called The Dead Soldier, which was attributed to Velázquez in Manet’s time, but isn’t any more. It shows a pale corpse lying on a barren battlefield, surrounded by ostentatious symbols of mortality. There’s a skull at his feet. The swaying oil lamp above his body has just gone out. And if you peer carefully into the wet battleground, you see that ludicrous bubbles have formed in the ooze. Bubbles go pop. They, too, are traditional symbols of the brevity of human life.
It’s all very unsubtle. I know I am right about the meaning of The Dead Soldier. But even if I am wrong in assigning similar motives to Velázquez, who is always subtle, and to his magnificently heartless portrayal of El Primo, that I should feel moved to do so is what is significant. Spanish art preys on your imagination. It offers a stripped-down reality because such a reality leaves the most room for your additions.
The show’s striking Spanish beginning is superb. What follows is less reliably impressive.
French art was only intermittently successful when it attempted the Spanish manner. Millet, painting a levitating holy virgin in the style of Zurbarán, seems to be painting in a foreign language. Manet, inspired directly by The Dead Soldier, believing it to be a Velázquez, paints a Dead Toreador in the same pose, but leaves you feeling you are observing a costume re-creation rather than the real thing. It’s a common shortcoming of Manet’s overtly Spanish subjects. The costumes feel imported.
Manet certainly learnt from Velázquez how to have his sitters stare out at you, Spanish-style, straight between the eyes, a locking of gazes that yanks you over to their side of the pictorial divide. He learnt how to paint beggars and actors because these peripheral characters offer a truer picture of society. And he had a go at bullfights, without obvious success.
On this evidence, his deliberate Spanish quotations are nowhere near as fruitful as those pictures in which the Spanish influences are invisible: absorbed rather than quoted. Le Balcon, transcribed directly from Goya, is set in contemporary dress, so the swapped gazes of the couples on the balcony have a convincing intensity. Olympia, Manet’s great 1860s Maya, isn’t in the show (it’s just downstairs in the museum), but there, too, the transfer of a fierce Spanish gaze to a modern French prostitute works spectacularly well: it turns you into her client.
I doubt that Manet/Velázquez set out to prove that Manet was at his best when the crucial Spanish influences working on him were least obvious. But that’s what it does.