Painting from Life

15 Mar

12 • April 2013 NCPA
masterstroke
As the NCPA gets ready to screen Manet: Portraying Life this month, the first in the
Exhibition series, Georgina Maddox looks at how Edouard Manet, one of the earliest
artists to reflect the Parisian underbelly, still creates ripples.Image

In this day and age, it is perhaps difficult to understand why painting a black
lady-in-waiting next to a European mistress would cause a furore. However, it was 1863 when Edoaurd Manet, a Parisian bourgeois, painted Olympia, a painting of a female nude and her coloured attendant. In hindsight, art historians reason that Manet must have known that this painting would spark off controversy. Not only did the artwork depict a black woman
in the unconventional settings of a Parisian bordello, but his protagonist was a highclass
call girl looking disdainfully away from the flowers her ‘suitor’ sent her. Olympia was only one of many controversial works of Manet that challenged and redefined the boundaries of art in the 19th century.
He played a pivotal part in engendering the transition from Realism to Impressionism,
and the birth of modern art. The NCPA brings a rare chance to delve into the chequered life and times of Manet through Manet: Portraying Life from the Royal Academy of Arts in the UK, in a one-of-a-kind screening. “This is part of an ongoing series brought to India through By Experience, a New York-based initiative that showcases the arts through the medium of cinema. We have screenings of theatre, opera, dance and the visual arts from the world’s greatest masters,” says Deepa Gahlot, head of the Theatre department at the NCPA. “NT Live and Met
Live are very well attended and we are hoping for the same enthusiasm for the Great Artist
series,” says Gahlot. The art screening will also feature a film on Manet’s life with behind-the scenes footage of creating the exhibition and interviews with art experts.
Challenging Norms: Manet was born in 1832 into an affluent, well-connected family: His father Auguste Manet, was a magistrate and judge and his mother Eugénie-Desirée Fournier was a woman of refinement, the goddaughter of Charles Bernadotte, Crown
Prince of Sweden. However, young Manet had no interest in the family business or
in academia. Instead, he was excited by outings to the Louvre with his maternal uncle Charles Fournier and later visits to the underbelly of Paris – the pubs, cafes and bordellos. After unsuccessful attempts by his father to enroll him in the merchant navy,Manet studied under the academic painter Thomas Couture. However it was the art of revolutionary painter Francisco José de Goya that gripped him most.
Much like Indian modern master M.F. Husain, many of Manet’s paintings were condemned by the public at the time. Even his childhood friend and Minister of Fine Arts Antonin Proust called Olympia ‘vulgar and immoral’. Olympia was followed by another controversial work, Luncheon
on the Grass (Le Dejeuner sur L’Herbe, 1863) where a casually nude woman sits among
fully clothed gentlemen in the relaxed setting of a picnic; her nudity appears incidental and the men beside her chat amiably. Le Dejeuner was dropped by the Salon; however, his artwork was praised by critic Emile Zola as a masterpiece and shown at the Salon De Refuse.
Olympia shot Manet to fame but also garnered considerable controversy

Viva Olympia
But it is Olympia, Manet’s most famous and controversial painting, that brought
him into the spotlight of the Salon in Paris in 1865. The painting has several elements
that even the average bohemian Parisian of the time found objectionable. For
starters, it was not a demure nude ‘Venus’, as most Great Masters before him painted
when they wanted to represent a nude woman, but a contemporary woman called Olympia, a name often used for sex workers in 1860s’ Paris. Olympia wore a black ribbon round her
neck, contrasting her pale alabaster skin, an orchid in her hair, a slipper half falling
from her feet and a bejewelled bracelet – a setting designed to lend the air of
decadence that the painter was driving at. What was worse, she looked right at the
viewer rather unapologetically. The black attendant was seen as the final straw. It
shook the foundations of the Salon and they had to have the painting hung high
up near in the ceiling in a remote gallery, so it would not be subject to violence
from viewers. Currently, the painting hangs in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and is
one of the jewels of their collection. 
“As an art student in Baroda’s Faculty of Fine Arts at MS U, we studied the Realists and Impressionists to learn their techniques and enjoy the energy, lightness and freedom of their brush strokes,” says artist Nirali Thakkar, currently based in California. “However Manet’s Olympia bothered me then and bothers me much more now, because the focus is on the
white woman while her black attendant merges with the background, admiring her mistress; the black woman is invisible. Her own beauty, femininity and appeal is of no consequence,” says Thakkar.
Clearly, Manet is a point of discussion and creating controversy even now. In fact, it was these paintings and not the sober Spanish Singer (1862) that placed Manet in the limelight. He became one of the first artists of his time to paint the underdog of society: The common
man, the ‘low woman’, the sad waitress at the café and the derelict alcoholic all dominated the themes of his canvas. It is said that Manet cleared the way for many of his contemporaries like Edward Degas and Edward Monet (with whom he is often confused). While Monet chose
to paint picturesque and idyllic work – poppy fields, water-lilies and church
towers at noon and dusk – Manet was contemporary, gritty and provoking and
continues to be, even today. 

Art on the Big Screen

In June 2011, the NCPA took a giant leap of faith by joining hands with the UK’s
National Theatre to bring to Mumbai audiences theatre like they had never
experienced before – by way of high-quality screenings of productions recorded
live at the prestigious venue where they were hosted.
The resounding success of this initiative, and the tremendous response and
receptiveness of the audience to this new, innovative format encouraged the
NCPA to usher in a season of breath-taking opera from the Metropolitan Opera
in New York and, later, this month, stunning ballets by the renowned Bolshoi
Ballet. In addition to branching out beyond its standard repertoire, the NCPA
also holds the distinction of being the only performing arts centre of its calibre
in the country to host such screenings.
This April, the NCPA has yet another treat in store for the city’s art lovers.
Embracing the concept of globally local, the NCPA will, in association with
By Experience (New York) present some of the world’s foremost upcoming art
exhibitions, captured exclusively for the big screen with the help of high-tech
digital cinema technology. Once restricted to local audiences, these exhibitions
will now be broadcast to more than 200,000 art enthusiasts around the world.
Hosted by art historian Tim Marlow, each Event Film will also include exclusive
behind-the-scenes footage, where the host along with expert guests will seek to
answer questions such as: what does this particular collection reveal about the
artist or the particular history period? What lies behind the event creatively and
technically? Through these answers, the audience will be presented an expert,
superbly detailed insight into the life and works of the artists.
The films comprise footage that has been shot both at the exhibition and on
location by the award-winning Philgrabsky Films.com/Seventh Art Productions.
The Many Facets of Manet
2013 will open with an exciting trio of films, the first of which features the
Manet: Portraying Life exhibition from the Royal Academy of Arts. The UK’s
first major exhibition to the dedicated exclusively to the enigmatic Edouard
Manet, it will feature more than 50 works, including the masterpieces Music
in the Tuileries, Olympia, Luncheon on the Grass and The Railway. Manet’s
forward-thinking, modern approach to portraiture are also depicted through
portraits of his most frequent sitter, his wife Suzanne Leenhoff, as also those of
luminaries of the period such as Antonin Proust. Interestingly enough, Manet’s
engagement with portraiture has never before been explored in exhibition form,
despite it forming around half of his artistic output.
This screening will be followed by Event Films of the ‘once-in-a-lifetime’
exhibition of the greatest number of works by Edvard Munch, co-hosted by
the National Museum and the Munch Museum in Oslo, and an exhibition of
masterpieces by Johannes Vermeer at London’s National Gallery, later this year.
Manet’s The Railway was a snapshot of modernity coming to 1800s’ Paris.

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One Response to “Painting from Life”

  1. Sonali Naidu March 15, 2013 at 1:25 pm #

    Its simply beautiful the way words can put life in an artists depiction. Yes, the painting is beautiful but parallely also provokes a response of the senses when you actually observe each and every detail of it.

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