New York: Hot on the heels of its blockbuster Van Gogh (Cypresses) exhibition, the Met has trotted out two of the big four “Impressionists” to draw more crowds and open their wallets. (I put “Impressionists” in quotes because neither Manet nor Degas would have accepted the classification, and their styles differ significantly from the light-infused, broken-color painting by the archetypal Impressionist, Claude Monet.) What is the curatorial excuse for traveling so many valuable artworks? I haven’t read the catalogue, but to my museum-goer eye, all I saw was “compare and contrast.” On the other hand, and this was also a disappointment, for a loan exhibition there weren’t that many distant loans. The bulk of the huge show–it took me 90 minutes to navigate, with only cursory label glances–was drawn from the collections of the Met and Musee d’Orsay, the exhibition’s co-presenter. The other major loans were familiar works from Washington, Boston and Philadelphia.
Which is not to say the Manet/Degas exhibition is not worth the time. If nothing else, it’s closer and easier than a trip to Paris, and spending time with Manet’s “Olympia” and Degas’s “The Belleli Family” is a treat. Going to the other hand again, though, it was hardly private time. The exhibition, as these things are, was so crowded that you had to manuever for position, which is a subtly different viewing experience than museums normally offer. For that you could go, as I did on another visit, to see the five Manets and eleven Degas’s (not counting his room of sculptures) that remained on display in the Met’s regular galleries.
As for the compare and contrast, the Manets were solid, centered, volumetric, bold, featuring black, either dominant or as an accent. The best Degas’s were off-center, flat and pastelly in color. They also suggested a psychological edge absent in Manet. So far as I could tell, the show’s organizing principle was, find a subject or genre they both addressed and show examples thereof. It was only tangentially chronological, so there was no sense of stylistic development or artistic influence. Perhaps my favorite juxtaposition, my favorite wall, was a hang of three full-length male portraits, Manets of Antonin Proust and Marcellin Desboutin flanking a Degas of Diego Martelli. Both Manet gentlemen stand firmly in the middle of the frame and are clothed in luscious black suits and black top hats. In the Degas, by contrast, the subject is seated with crossed arms, looking down and away in the left half of the composition while his blue couch and desk occupy more of the space. The colors are soft grey, brown, ochre, pink and the aforementioned blue. An overturned chair, a pair of slippers and a messy desk add uncertainty and Martelli has a slightly distracted, troubled expression that makes you wonder, what is he thinking? And as an extra treat, all three works come from unfamiliar collections: Toledo, Scotland, Sao Paulo.
Other highlights for me included two portraits of Berthe Morisot: a small half-life in black and white from Paris and an old friend from the RISD Museum in Providence, lounging on a mauve couch in a white dress. Another old friend in the Degas camp was his New Orleans Cotton Merchants, which was a target of our visit to Pau in the French Pyrenees many years ago. The reliance on the d’Orsay and Met resulted in some lowlights as well: one wall was devoted to Manet’s Dead Christ, a clumsy picture, and similar space to Degas’s Semiramis, of historical interest only. Then, because of evidence that they went to the track together once, there was a gallery of not good horse and race track paintings, notably missing the great Degas of the subject from the BMFA.  The famous Degas’s of ballerinas and dance classes were absent, presumably because Manet stayed away from the subject. And Degas’s lack of interest in still life meant that we were deprived of those by Manet. Etc.
If I complain about the cheap reliance on big name artists to draw the crowds, let me acknowledge that this is worth it if it facilitates less popular but more enlightening shows like Tree and Serpent , which was playing to individual visitors, not crowds, in the adjoining temporary exhibition space. It presented sculptural objects largely from regional museums in southern India that had never before traveled to America (or probably anywhere) with an easily graspable educational theme: how representations of the Buddha on stupas went from metaphors–an empty throne, a protective serpent, an elephant, a footprint–to an iconic figure. Only a museum with the resources of the Met, financial, political and academic, could pull off such an exhibition.

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