A visit to the Royal Academy, London

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REGENT STREET FROM PICCADILY CIRCUS

Hearing of an exhibition on English landscape photography entitled The Making of Landscape and featuring the work of Constable, Gainsborough and Turner, I decided to visit it largely because as a photographer, I am interested in landscape and the aura that surrounds this particular form of artistic representation.

On arrival at the gallery, I was asked to join a long queue which was a result of the Manet exhibition that was showing; when I reached the end of this queue, I found it was only for Manet! A gallery employee apologised and directed me to a desk on the other side of the entrance hall where I was able to purchase a ticket.

It was not a major exhibition and hence there was no catalogue other than a slim booklet that one received on buying the ticket; this gives out the information that is written on the walls of the gallery to support the pictures along with other information and references. It certainly helps to digest the exhibition not just when one is walking around but later such as now as I write this blog.

Much of the exhibition is taken up with engravings which are composed of light and dark without a trace of colour; these show how landscape developed from a “lesser” art to an art in it’s own right. The gallery guide states about work by Richard Wilson, an eighteenth century painter …

His fusion of grand landscape and mythical tragedy chimed with the fashion for the “Sublime” – the expression in art or literature of noble or awe-inspiring ideas – and established his claim to have created a new, more serious style of landscape painting.

The guide continues to put this into a more contemporary context …

” … the Sublime was contrasted with the gentler characteristics of the Beautiful, which engages the “passions of generation”, that is, of love and an admiration for the soft and feminine, in opposition to the passions of awe and terror invoked by the Sublime.”

(the quoted text above is written by Andrew Wilton and based on Edmund Burke’s Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) )

This exhibition although billed as being “Constable, Gainsborough, Turner” does not show much of their work, there being only a small collection of paintings; much of it is composed of engravings, a number of which are of originals by these artists. Certainly there are a few large and striking paintings particularly by John Constable and it is good to see these originals and notice the way the paint has been laid on the canvas and, for instance, the places where an alteration has been made.

After seeing this exhibition, I had decided to visit the Barbican but it was getting dark and time was short owing to my late train and having to queue unnecessarily. Since there was a Manet evening and there were a few returns, I took a ticket for the talk and the exhibition, soon finding myself in a hall where three people sat at the front, all experts in their subjects. The topic was Manet and the Opera.

It struck me that this might be quite interesting and it was but as soon as I learnt that Baudelaire was a friend and staunch supporter of Manet, I thought perhaps I had made a mistake in coming. Charles Baudelaire was one of photography’s fiercest critics it it’s early days, writing that is should be a hand maiden to the arts and not be considered more that that. There are still people who hold to that kind of view since photography struggles to find a coherent identity. It was nevertheless a good talk and I could not help but be intrigued and amused by the distinguished female speaker who exclaimed … “Of course Manet and all his group died of syphilis!”

Indeed this seems to have been the reason why Manet died at the relatively young age of about 50.

It was possible to hire an audio-guide for the Manet exhibition; this helped to guide me around the various rooms it was situated in. There were a lot of paintings mostly of family and friends and I struggled a bit to see what made them so great since one could often see the brush strokes and what might have been taken as shoddy craftsmanship. Indeed, the Salon refused recognition of Manet for a long time as influential people gathered around to give him support. Eventually, the Paris Salon did accept one of his paintings which did strike me as quite remarkable since the character portrayed did not look entirely happy with himself – another syphilitic sufferer perhaps.

It was the words of Mallarme, a poet and friend of Manet, who really sums up the genius of Manet by saying that the painting is not the thing itself but the effect it produces and at more length …

Each time he begins a picture … he lunges headlong into it … each work should be a new creation of the mind … the eye should forget all else it has seen and learn anew from the lesson before it. It should not abstract itself from memory seeing only that which it looks upon, and that as for the first time.”

I was interested in the photographs that were found in most of the rooms, portraits of the people Manet had also painted. Early evidence of the use of photographs by artists in making their work.

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