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Manet? C'est magnifique, mais...

Manet? C'est magnifique, mais...
13 April 2011 posted by John Wyver

The past week has seen several exceptionally thoughtful reviews of the new exhibition Manet -- the Man who Invented Modern Art at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris (until 3 July). Laura Cumming for the Observer is very good on the show, as is Jackie Wullschlager for the FT and the Telegraph's Richard Dorment. As their pieces suggest, it's a glorious exhibition full of wondrous things. But what their articles do not give you any sense of is just how miserable is the ordinary punter's experience. Why should they, of course, since I'm sure the press view was a delight? I'm certain too that it's exceptionally hard to organise a blockbuster when tout le monde wants to see it. But does it have to be this hideous? So, yes, this is another of those posts about how, at such exhibitions, hell is indeed other people.

My adventure began when I went online to book a timed ticket. This was a process that the official site made relatively painless -- until I came to collect the ticket in Paris. Several e-mails informed me that it was impossible to pick it up at the Musée d'Orsay. Rather, I needed to go to one of  number of locations across Paris. All of which turned out to be Virgin shops. Go figure.

Clare and I hared off to the one nearest to us -- at the Gare d'Est -- before catching the metro across town to the museum. At least now that we had out ticket it all would be well, not least because that said we could enter trhough door C. But at the Musée d'Orsay the queue to go in via door C was nearly as long as the queue to enter by the main door.

We inched forward for more than 35 minutes. My least favourite queue jumpers -- and there were many to chose from -- were a seemingly elderly Scandinavian couple who managed to appear so charmingly dotty and bemused that people ahead of us tolerated them wandering into the line. As we approached the first door, numerous others came to the head of the queue and were ushered in by the official seemingly if (a) they were stunningly pretty, or (b) if they flashed some kind of official card.

As the entrance time on our tickets approached and then passed, we watched the army guys with semi-automatic weapons patrol the lines. Presumably their fingers cocked into trigger guards were meant to make us feel safer, although I can't say it made me feel much better. I was, after all, just waiting to see a show of late nineteenth century painting.

Through the door, and now we were faced with a security check that managed to slow down the line and be at best perfunctory. Never mind, we've made it, and we're only twenty minutes or so past our time slot. Except that, when we got to the entrance of the exhibition there was another queue, and another ten minutes and to wait on line.

Finally, finally, we got to look at paintings -- or at least at the backs of the heads of other people looking at paintings. To be fair, the rooms were not as crowded as those that I suffered at the Royal Academy's Van Gogh show last year. And with determination you could secure a place before a canvas long enough to take in something of its beauties and complexities. If, that is, you were prepared to shake off with a 'bouff' and a shoulder shrug the poked entreaties of French ladies of a certain age who wanted their moment (and it was invariably only a moment) before a picture.

You had also to tolerate the multitudes who, having struggled to Manet through the multitudes, now seemed to need to talk loudly on their mobiles to tell their friends just this. Did the guards care? In my dreams. And then there were the visitors equipped with electric wheelchairs and, apparently, carte blanche to bump into everyone else, nip at their heels and push them out of the way.

Lastly, the wall panels for each section were helpfully provided in French, Spanish and a language that at times approximated English. But the sections in which you could most certainly spot the occasional English word were written so pretentiously and (presumably) translated so poorly that they too were more irritating than they were useful.

Is the exhibition worth the grief? Mais oui. But why is it that Tate and the RA can organise blockbusters so much more successfully and, for all the crowds, leave the visitor with a feeling of pleasure and enlightenment rather than simple grumpiness?

Also, given that Paris is, thanks to the Euro exchange rate, eye-wateringly expensive for us Brits at present, you might do just as well to stay home. Why not read a book about Manet -- or watch our Art Lives DVD about Manet (available for purchase here). Better still, why not visit in peace and calm one or two of master's great paintings that haven't made it across the channel. There's the beguiling and mysterious A Bar at the Folies-Bergère at the Courtauld Gallery, for example, and the National Gallery's powerful The Execution of Maximilian, 1867-68. Both will stand your scrutiny for an hour or more, and for neither will you need to queue.

PS. While I'm here, why does the Musée d'Orsay have such an aggressive 'no photography' policy throughout all its galleries? There are more -- and more irritatingly intrusive -- signs warning you against taking photos than there are about anything else in the museum.

I understand that visitors should not use flash, for reasons of conservation and to avoid distracting others,. I recognise, albeit a little reluctantly, that institutions loaning their artworks may prohibit photography in special exhibitions. But there seems to be no good reason (beyond the institution's desire to sell its over-priced postcards) for visitors not to appreciate and appropriate a trace of a publicly owned image or object that is long out of copyright.

The Pompidou is happy for people to photograph its permanent collection (and many of its artworks are in copyright), as is the Musée du quai Branly (see my forthcoming post). That the Musée d'Orsay is so inappropriately 'protective' only adds to my despair about being a visitor there.


nadja romain

15 April 2011 09:26

Dear John, I leave between Paris, London and NYC, I'm french and I could not agree more. Why can't we here organised those exhibition in a way that is not pain. I don't bother anymore to go and visit those exhbiitons in PAris unless I have an invitaiton for a private view, though this is also crowed and you have to socialise, so not good neither to see the works.And yes it's better to read a book and go and see two paintings but well than to see 60 poorly.

John Wyver

16 April 2011 06:12

I was interested to see that Rachel Campbell-Johnston in 'The blockbuster show does art lovers no favours', The Times, 15 April, makes a parallel argument (thanks to Linda for pointing this out). It's behind the paywall, of course, so here are a couple of extracts: "The blockbuster is a victim of its success. With crowd-pulling temporary exhibitions, the true purpose of a gallery is lost. "Art is cool. That, since at least the late 1980s, has been the word on the street ? which would be all very well if it didn?t make our galleries quite so hot: and quite literally. As Tate Modern opens its big summer exhibition, the first major survey of the perennially popular MirĂ³ to come to this country for some 50 years, tills will be chinging and turnstiles will be spinning and temperatures in the galleries will be rising apace as hoards of enthusiasts sharpen their elbows, preparing to scrum with perspiring multitudes. We grab at brief glimpses of the greatest masters between a balding pate and a tufted ear lobe. MirĂ³ may have said that he had come to assassinate art, but I?m not sure that this is quite what he had planned. " could be really daring and give the blockbuster a miss. There are plenty of other places. The V&A has spots so deserted that you could pitch your tent without anyone noticing until the smoke from your camp fire set off the alarms. The National Gallery?s Sainsbury wing has a collection of early Renaissance wonders to match any outside Italy. Tate Britain can grow so quiet that you can hear your heartbeat. It is only in peace that you can start truly to appreciate a painting. "A glimpse of some celebrity loan on its rock-band style tour of the globe may bring the same blood rush of sudden recognition as the sight of Lady Gaga staggering down your street. But what then? In the long run, we all need close friends and not distant idols. The works in our permanent collections are not passing strangers. They are faithful companions. And aren?t galleries meant to engage, not enrage?"

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