The curators of Manet: Return to Venice, on view at the Palazzo Ducale throughout the summer, struck an impressive balance of precision and openness, confidence and unpreciousness. The show comprised nine themed rooms, which were sequenced broadly chronologically, and did the important job of articulating the impact of Venetian painting on Manet’s development, an influence that is most often eclipsed by the more dramatic shadow cast by Spanish painting on his formation. What might have become a rather pedantic exercise in Venetian self-assertion, however, instead opened up a splendid set of formal, aesthetic and thematic conversations, which revealed Manet at his richest and most enigmatic.
The galleries were punctuated by some extraordinary juxtapositions of Venetian masterpieces with major paintings by Manet. The most feted of these, arriving in Room 2, saw Manet’s Olympia (1863) finally hang next to its most explicit point of art historical reference, Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538). When Olympia was first exhibited, at the Paris Salon in 1865, it precipitated a notoriously violent public reaction; since being acquired by the French state in 1890 it had not left Paris, so its presence in Venice was a major coup. The comparison of Olympia with Titian’s Venus has long been fundamental to the teaching of Art History, and the prospect of seeing the two paintings side by side was exhilarating. All of Manet’s most celebrated interruptions and subversions were of course in evidence: the direct but inscrutable gaze replacing the enticements of Titian’s Venus; Olympia’s famous left hand, transformed from autoeroticism into a sign of self-possession, disbarring access; the startled cat substituting for Titian’s sleepy symbol of fidelity; the black maidservant’s presentation of a client’s gift of flowers, casting Olympia as a modern prostitute and upending the meaning of the Titian’s marriage chest.
With the actual paintings before you, however, other less familiar details become newly visible: the slight increase in scale of Manet’s painting, and his distancing of the figure from the picture plane; the luminous pink of the black maidservant’s dress, rendering Olympia’s flesh flatter and greener by comparison; the studied way in which Olympia’s hair is a slightly redder brown than the background panel, indicating that she wears it down, which brings with it associations of female sensuality; and the way in which the pink toes of her right foot poke out from behind the left, an odd and almost caricatural detail.
Olympia was one of Manet’s most aggressive moves, and the one that had the most dramatic contemporary impact. The precision with which he both evoked and cancelled key aspects of Titian’s iconic portrayal of an available, desirable femininity revealed by precise interruptions the sexualized economy of viewing in the 19th century Parisian Salon. The magnificence of Titian’s painting, while undeniable, is re-cast by Manet’s move, and is not in a position to provide answers to this particular kind of interrogation (not that Titian is under attack here; it is rather the endless parade of 19th century academic nudes at the Salon that Manet’s painting exposes).
Other juxtapositions were less familiar, however, and all the more energizing for their suggestiveness and originality. For me, the most compelling of these was found in Room 7, where Manet’s Portrait of Emile Zola (1868) was placed next to Lorenzo Lotto’s extraordinary Portrait of a Young Gentleman in his Study (c.1530). The latter normally hangs in the Accademia in Venice, and we can assume that Manet had seen it on at least one of his three visits to the city (in 1853, 1857 and 1874). If Titian provided a paragon to be subverted, Lotto’s less famous and more enigmatic painting offered instead a kind of aesthetic and conceptual companion, and the juxtaposition reminds us of the wealth of conventions on which Manet could draw for the depiction of the male intellectual. Zola’s recently published pamphlet on Manet’s art was displayed together with some other contemporary publications in a cabinet nearby, an example of the discrete but precise way in which historical connections were drawn by the curators. (Manet’s exquisite diminutive portrait of Stéphane Mallarmé  was also brilliantly placed close by, on a wall adjacent to the Zola).
The relationship of Manet’s Zola to Lotto’s painting is more oblique and glancing, usefully suggesting that Manet’s absorption of art history operated by way of allusive assimilation as much as by direct quotation. The comparison seemed precisely aimed, though, however speculative a claim for specific lines of influence might be. The comparison rendered certain details strangely resonant: the brightly lit foreheads in each case, a sign of a capacious intelligence; the way in which Lotto’s window, opening onto a landscape beyond, is replaced in the Manet by a Japanese screen which also represents a landscape; and, in particular, the extraordinary chromatic rhymes across both canvases, of the most subtle powder blues, sweeping from the bottom right to top left of Lotto’s painting, returning in the pictures and pamphlets in the top right of the Manet, and again in the border of the Japanese screen to Zola’s left.
This way in which the precise calibration of formal and aesthetic elements (and their relationships) functions to establish painting’s particular form of intelligence – an intelligence from which sensuous moments have not been expelled – was also demonstrated by Manet’s stunning Le Balcon (1868- 69). Although the juxtaposition with Carpaccio, while intriguing, was not perhaps as compelling a comparison as those already discussed (the prime importance of Goya’s The Majas at the Balcony is hard to displace here), Manet’s painting was beautifully integrated into the exhibition more broadly. Again, chromatic repetitions are striking: in the unreal intensity of the emerald green describing the balcony, the shutters, the parasol and Berthe Morisot’s neck ribbon. One particularly resonant detail when face to face with the painting was the relationship between the three main characters’ facial expressions and their by-turns tense and truant hands. The right hand of the central figure as he clutches his lapel; the oddly taut fingers of Morisot’s left hand; and, especially, the involuntary burrowings and fumblings of the gloved hands of the woman on the right, rendered by Manet in an extraordinary salmon pink. These details, brought out by Manet’s painterly facture, augment the sense of dislocation here: not only are the figures lost to each other, but they somehow feel internally dissociated, the body absently engaged while the mind is elsewhere.
These exceptional moments were joined by others: a room of spare and lovely still life paintings, a powerfully grouped set of works relating to the last ordeals of Christ, and a room acknowledging the profound influence of Spain (dominated by the striking Fifer of 1866). But Manet was not always great, and this exhibition was nicely unprecious in its inclusion of weaker moments, moments when we feel the artist less invested, less concentrated, less innovative and stringent.
The show begins and ends rather modestly, for example: Rooms 1, 8 and 9 did not deliver the kind of riveting encounters available in the other rooms (Room 9, entitled ‘The Boundless Sea’, for example, was really only an occasion to present Manet’s one great painting of Venice itself, The Grand Canal, Venice ). But in a way this measure of inconsistency seemed to suit the presentation rather than detract from it: Manet’s lack of aesthetic preciousness and consistency felt experimental, inviting, invigorating.
It is perhaps true that Manet: Return to Venice benefitted from what was a rather underwhelming Biennale this year. Such foils not withstanding, however, Manet’s oeuvre continues to prove able to yield fresh insights and unexpected encounters. The Palazzo Ducale show was particularly original and effective in this respect, and made the Royal Academy’s Manet: Portraying Life, staged in London earlier this year, seem unfocused and even a little opportunistic by comparison. In the current show Manet’s extraordinary combination of disruptive criticality, aesthetic richness, conceptual sophistication, historical acumen and technical bravura were amply and inspiringly demonstrated.
Manet: Return to Venice was organized in collaboration with the Museé d’Orsay and the Fondazione Civici Musei di Venezia, and was on view 24 April – 1 September 2013. Ed Krčma is Lecturer in History of Art at University College Cork, and co-editor of Enclave Review.