A Train, Manet, and…a Burger?

The title of this sounds like a joke in progress, but it’s not. Over Labor Day Weekend Barry and I took the South Shore Line into Chicago to (finally!) catch Manet and Modern Beauty at the Art Institute.

If you’re a listener of our podcast, Writing All the Things, you’ve heard about our trip in Episode 10. (Shameless plug.)

First of all, the train ride to the museum reminded us of when we rode from Rome to Florence backwards. It gives you more time to gaze at something if it catches your eye. We watched quaint towns go by and I (an urban decay aficionado) paid close attention to the rusting steel mills. It was a short enough ride from where we got on not to be tiresomely long.

Since I have recently fallen for vintage South Shore posters, much to my wallet’s chagrin, it was exciting to ride it for the first time.

We actually arrived early in Chicago, so we stopped for a quick breakfast before getting in line at the museum. “Getting in line” is code for talking with everyone around us about the exhibit, about previous exhibits, and about other museums we had all been to. Visitors were there from Japan and New Zealand, for starters.

Once we had our tickets we raced directly to the exhibit. Inside it, we decided to start at the end and come forwards. This was because, predictably, the area was packed with the early crowd.

Forgive me for this mild rant: it’s eerie to be in an exciting exhibit and hear near silence, to see audio guides glued to faces. That’s fine for those who like it, I suppose, but I “art” aloud. I like to discuss my discoveries, share with wide hand gestures the inevitably beautiful lines. (I’m a line person!) When I see a gorgeous color, I feel obligated to point it out. I don’t think this means I respect art any less. Hubby is much the same.

True, art has sometimes reduced me to silence. It has caused me to weep. This exhibit, however, felt like a visit with a friend. I’ve been studying Manet’s work for several years, and I could likely have been a guide myself.

Because the show was of his later works, Victorine (of my forthcoming novel of the same name; she was his favorite model and a painter herself), was only present in a photo from Manet’s album.

All of the works were worth seeing, though some stood out more than others. In the Conservatory was there. Barry and I last saw it with a dear friend in Berlin, where it lives. It was wonderful to see it again and discover the cigar anew.

Plum Brandy’s colors are hard to match, as is the sad sack expression on the model’s face. The model was actually an actor of the time, and her face would have been familiar. What does that say about acting of the time that he depicted her as so glum? Or was he merely painting what he observed?

Also to note: the banquette the woman is seated at (she’s supposed to be in a cafe or some such drinking establishment) is repeated in another of his paintings, clearly giving away that the painting was created in his studio. And, did you know they actually put a whole plum in the brandy? I haven’t researched this, but that’s what’s in her glass. Go figure. Ah, but those shades of rose and pink, the way the colors race around the canvas…

Manet was a master of still life. His brioche (complete with Zuzu, his wife’s cat, in the background, and a rose sticking out of the baked good) looks flaky and tasty. His white asparagus (besides looking phallic, naturally — the man has a juvenile’s sense of humor sometimes) are lifelike. There were two paintings of them there. One, alone, and a bunch of them as well.

His irregular, faintly bruised peaches also bear testament to his still life abilities. One likes them better for their imperfections.

Barry and I probably spent the most time in front of Boating. The colors in person are dazzling! Those gradations of blue! The shimmering water!

The figure placement is, predictably, pleasingly unusual. The passenger in the small boat, a woman in a dress that looks ungodly hot, complete with a belt, a hat, and veil, leans on her elbows. We see her profile. Her companion, the rower, is in basically a white undershirt, white pants, and a small straw hat. I’m angry that he gets to dress cooler than she does. He looks kinda irritated — because it’s hot and he’s rowing? How warm must she be!

In any case, the couple seems disconnected, for all that they’re in this tiny space. Her pose is relaxed but her body is not. They’re turned about as far away from one another as they can be.

He has the expression of someone who sees he’s about to have his picture taken and doesn’t like it. But since he’s posed for this painting, we have to attribute his features to conveying what Manet wants him to.

Is the rower too hot? Hearing bad news? Tired? The writer in me is still spinning scenarios.

Ah, but I promised you a burger. So because we didn’t have much time after we finished at the museum to have dinner, we shared an Impossible “burger” at Burger King. You know, the veggie burger that’s supposed to be indistinguishable from a real burger? Spoiler alert: it’s not. But nice try, BK.

If you missed the show, I’m sorry to hear it. It was special in so many ways. We talked about it from the museum back to the dunes and pretty much all the way home the next day. I still feel excitement fluttering in me just thinking of it.

What’s your favorite exhibit you’ve ever seen? Or is there one you wanted to make it to but didn’t? Let me know.

Manet and Modern Beauty

See the source image

Manet and Modern Beauty: The Artist’s Last Years, edited by Scott Allan, Emily A. Beeny, and Gloria Groom, is the catalogue for the eponymous exhibit of Édouard Manet’s later works. Filled with lush color representations of the paintings and ephemera on display, the expansive book also delights with authoritative, informative essays for those who might not be as familiar with Manet’s life and painting, or for those eager to learn current theories about the painter.

Later in life Manet gravitated toward unabashedly painting fashion, flowers, and fruit. Unlike his political and hierarchical-upsetting earlier works, he seemed pleased to focus on painting what simply appealed to his eyes during his later years when he was unwell and had limited mobility.

Two notable works in the collection are Jeanne (Spring) and Autumn (Méry Laurent), the only two of a planned set of four to represent the seasons that Manet completed.

The Conservatory, Plum Brandy, Waitress Serving Beer, and the CaféConcert are some of the other paintings depicting modern life and fashion that preoccupied Manet in the second half of his career. No one paints a good mug of beer like Manet. It’s as if he’s anticipating drinking it as he creates it. Equally, no one uses color quite in the same way, either. If you don’t know his paintings by the hands, you’ll know them by the way he places colors adjacent to one another. He evidences his joy in flowers by the care he takes in drawing them. His palette makes flowers look even more beautiful than they do in real life. It’s the work of someone who knows he’s dying and wants to gather to himself all of the beauty and color he will have to leave behind.

The editors of the book thank Juliet Wilson-Bureau, and with good reason: her extensive Manet scholarship is deeply felt in the exhibit. Essay authors and contributors to the collection include Carol Armstrong, Helen Burnham, Leah Lehmbeck, Devi Ormond, Douglas MacLennan, Nathan Daly, Catherine Schmidt Patterson, Bridget Alsdorf, Jamie Kwan, and Samuel Rodary. They write on topics as varied as Manet and the Salon to the materials he used, a fascinatingly deep dive. His “little nothings” are the subject of Armstrong’s essay, lending weight to something Manet himself pretended to dismiss.

The essays are engaging and necessary reading for the exhibit goer (preferably devoured before attending the show and again after), and perhaps even more necessary for those who cannot attend. For Manet aficionados, this book will both whet your appetite to see the paintings and to study him more in-depth than ever before. What the authors spark is a hunger for examining the paintings for oneself.

See the source image

Plum Brandy

This volume will satisfy the curiosity of the most avid fan. It delves into the provenance of every painting. It depicts his “scribbles” on envelopes and his attempts at painting tambourine skins. It reprints correspondence to and from Manet about his paintings. As a souvenir, an exhibit guidebook, and a textbook, Manet and Modern Beauty is one for the art lover’s library.

An important note for would-be viewers: a few of the paintings are not going to be shown at both the Art Institute in Chicago and the J. Paul Getty Museum in L.A., (the two museums which will host the show), so consult the book to know if your favorite will be at the museum where you will attend the show.