Monday, July 27, 2015

London museum report 5 -- National Gallery / modernism

Close readers of my past museum reports know that while I appreciate the old masters, my blood really starts pulsing when we get to the 20th century and beyond.  I was intrigued to find, among the good old stuff at the National Gallery in London, some pictures that seemed modern beyond their years.

Let's start with Manet, famous from your art history class as one of the very earliest "modern" artists.  And perhaps your art history class talked in detail about this very painting.  It's the second of three versions of the same scene that Manet painted; the moment of total failure for French colonialist ambitions in Mexico.  The French puppet emperor Maximilian was overthrown and offed by Mexican  nationalists (a previous battle with the French, which the Mexicans also won, is remembered today as Cinco de Mayo).

Edouard Manet, The Execution of Maximilian, 1867-8

It's in pieces because Manet couldn't exhibit the work -- too politically explosive -- and it was damaged during years of poor storage in his studio.  Manet's son cut it into four bits, throwing away the bad parts of the canvas, and Edgar Degas rescued the pieces.  That's not even Max in the picture, just his left hand; the guy in the white shirt is one of his generals.

What makes it modern?  First off, a new take on history painting, with no obvious good guys vanquishing obvious bad guys; in fact, the vanquished is the representative of Manet's own government.  Second, the matter-of-fact attitude of the sergeant at right; he's not brandishing his sword but perhaps wondering how long it will be before lunch.  Manet is clearly appalled by the violence and immorality of the French adventure and its consequences, but he expresses it coolly.

The second painting that struck me as modern was very different -- a hyperrealistic depiction of a rearing stallion by George Stubbs, the great British painter of horses.

George Stubbs, Whistlejacket, ~1762

This guy is BIG -- life-size -- and absolutely dominates the room.  His tail almost escapes the frame.  To me, placing him in a blank universe instead of a grassy field or a racetrack seems very modern; there's nothing to distract us from the monumental presence of the horse.  Even the ornate frame seems to recede and let the stallion burst out.

More art from the National Gallery in later posts.  I hope you're enjoying your visit!


  1. I always enjoy your reviews and reports. Have you read "Judgement of Paris"? It's a fascinating look at the life and times of Manet and the now-mostly-forgotten Messonier during the 1860-70's.