The Mystery of a Masterpiece

Manet: The Execution of Maximilian, Paintings, Politics and Censorship

by Juliet Wilson-Bareau, with essays by John House, by Douglas Johnson
National Gallery Publications, London/Princeton University Press, 128 pp., $35.00

How long do we spend with a good painting? Ten seconds, thirty? Two whole minutes? Then how long with each good painting in the sort of three-hundred-item show that is the current way of displaying a major artist? Two minutes with each exhibit adds up to ten hours. Hands up those who spent ten hours at the Matisse, the Magritte, the Degas. I know I didn’t. Of course we pick-‘n’-mix, the eye pre-selecting what appeals (or what it knows); but even a spectator with nifty gallery skills, who understands the correlation between personal blood-sugar levels and aesthetic delight, who can work the open spaces and is unafraid to follow a painter’s chronology backward, who declines to waste eye-time on catalogs and title-craning, who is tall enough to gain an unimpeded view and muscular enough to ward off the shoulder-charges of art fans lassooed to their headsets—even such a spectator can come to the end of a big show with a truculent feeling of what might have been.

It’s better, of course, in some vaguely ideal way, for as many people as possible to see as many pictures as possible, but the all-you-need-to-know visual compendium has major drawbacks. The bigger the show, the bigger the crowds have to be, which means busing them in with the promise that the event is not just aesthetic but also social (and being social, it has its class structure: those on the inside track get private viewing while the masses pant outside). In time, and with luck, this elephantiasis of exhibitions will cease: perhaps some megashow will explode like the fat man in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, and we shall go back to smaller displays, smaller crowds, the partial showing of an artist’s work, and the chance of more complete pleasure for the spectator.

Two of the most satisfying shows I saw last year, both at London’s National Gallery, were deliberately small. One was minimalist: the placing of Vermeer’s Street in Delft alongside Pieter de Hooch’s The Courtyard of a House in Delft, with three or four supporting items: the ethereal set alongside the grounded, but not competitively. The other was a six-room exhibition devoted to Manet’s The Execution of Maximilian. Themed and purposeful, it brought together for the first time since Manet’s death in 1883 his three accounts of the Execution: the loose-brushed, gloomy-hued, sombrero-filled first version from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston; the fragmentary one (salvaged by Degas after Manet’s death) from the National Gallery’s own collection; and the best-known, final image from Mannheim. To see these three canvases all in the same room (but wisely not side by side—you had to turn your body to make the comparison, a physical reminder that time and reflection lay between each image) made for a direct, thrilling, intimidating challenge to the spectator: Why did Manet do this, junk that, adjust the other? By what process …

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