To Clapham Picturehouse for Manet: Portraying Life, the Royal Academy of Arts exhibition (until 14 April) ‘captured for cinema screens worldwide’. That’s the claim of Exhibition: Great Art on Screen, a new initiative from Seventh Art productions and philgrabskyfilms.com in association with distributors BY Experience. It’s a follow-up to Leonardo Live in 2011 (about which I wrote here), except that it’s not live. It is, however, another element of the rapidly developing bundle of events that cinema owners call ‘alternative content’, along with Met Opera: Live in HD, NT Live and a forthcoming Pompeii Live from the British Museum (on 16 June). Except that this isn’t live. Manet: Portraying Life is a documentary of the kind that is familiar (perhaps over-familiar) from the BBC and Sky Arts. It’s 91 minutes long, it’s on a big screen, it’s thoughtful and finely-shot, but it’s not… well, you get the idea.
I stress the live-or-not question because until a couple of days ago – and certainly when I bought my ticket – I had assumed that there would be a live element to the evening. The promotional material does not promise this, but equally the event is in no sense being being sold as a documentary. So can there possibly be an audience who will part with £15 or so to go out for something that – albeit in a scaled-down form – they would have expected to be provided by public service television? Or indeed from Sky Arts, which in the past three or four years has commissioned numerous such gallery tours hosted by tonight’s team of Tim Marlow and producer Phil Grabsky.
The smartly refurbished Screen 2 in Clapham is perhaps one-third full as we settle down with a multi-choice pub quiz about Manet projected onto the screen as captions. Which isn’t the most auspicious start, and there is another misfire as we are welcomed by always-dependable host Tim Marlow standing outside the Royal Academy. He describes the show as ‘a new exhibition’ and says that he is talking to us ‘with the exhibition about to open’. The idea is that we lucky people are in right at the start of the show, before the public has been granted entry, and indeed we only see a crowd pouring in in the film’s closing shots. But we have grown used to the exhibition, its marketing and its reviews, for the past three months, and this time-shift feels odd.
Once it is underway, Manet: Portraying Life proves to be a well-scripted and well-shot presentation that is engaging but something short of compelling. Sequences of slow tracks through the galleries alternate with sections about Manet’s life and encounters between Tim and guests who enthuse about individual works. There are also a couple of slightly perfunctory behind-the-scenes sequences of the kind that you’ve seen a hundred times on television.
The paintings on which the film focuses, however, are beautifully shot, with slow-paced sequences of full-frame images alternating with close-ups. There is also – hurrah – a minimal use of pans and tilts across the canvases. This is how works of art should be shown on screen, and on a large scale in High Definition they come across – mostly – as richly complex material objects and not simply as illustrative images.
From the montages of tracking shots, we also get a strong sense of virtual presence, of being transported to the galleries, which is of course a large part of what we paid our money for. It’s all driven forward by some fairly relentless Chopin, with a strain also of Schumann, and this is a key difference from being there. As is the unavoidable direction of our eye in space and in time. The camera marshalls our gaze and we have no choice but to submit to the screen.
There are positives to this, because the film forces you to look, for some seconds and in detail, at particular elements of artworks. We appreciate (because we are directed to) the twist of lemon on the edge of a table, the light in a man’s beard. Indeed, because we are in fixed seats, with others in the dark, in front of a large image and surrounded by sound, with no domestic distractions, and with an awareness of having committed time and paid money, the viewing experience is quite distinct from watching television. The cinema creates concentration of a kind that is rare in front of the small screen.
This concentration means that not only do you look at the paintings but you also learn things that Tim Marlow is telling you. Which he does in his usual engaging way, from a script (credited to director Ben Harding, with Phil Grabsky taking a co-writer and co-director credit) that while a touch repetitive sounds like the high end of today’s television, mixed perhaps with a touch of discourse from a first-year art history degree. This is very welcome, and the film is scrupulous in avoiding any trace of talking down to its presumed audience. Bravo.
The guest list is also as you might expect from television: the exhibition’s curators, the Royal Academy of Arts’ Mary Anne-Stevens and Larry Nicholas from the Toledo Museum of Art; art historians Stephen Guegan and Xavier Bray; artists Tom Phillips and Jonathan Yeo; actor and director Fiona Shaw; writer Iain Sinclair; and Manet biographer Kathleen Adler. Nice and truly smart people all. But there is no one to offer any challenge to exhibition’s own story, no critical voice, no sense of debate or dialectic.
What television might have had, in contrast to this, was a certain distance from the show. For my money, for example, as an exhibition Manet: Portraying Life is overblown and over-hyped, sparsely hung and with a handful of wonderful paintings (many of which we get to see on screen) and quite a lot of not-quite-first-rank or unfinished pieces. Here’s what Brian Sewell said of the show in the Evening Standard:
It must be said too that at least a dozen paintings and pastels, most of them in private collections, are not only not of exhibition quality but are bad enough to convince the newcomer that Manet does not merit his reputation as a master; some museum loans are almost as wretched. The masterpieces would have a greater impact and tell a greater truth if they were not diluted by so many saleroom sweepings.
You would not have been able to make any such judgement last night – and in this an exhibition on screen is different from Met Opera: Live in HD or NT Live which both expose you to a fuller experience of the original and permit you to make up your own mind of its worth.
The film concentrates on around eight masterpieces which are considered in depth, including ‘The Luncheon’, ‘Music in the Tuileries Gardens’, ‘Street Singer’, ‘The Tragic Actor’, ‘Portrait of M. Antonin Proust’, ‘The Monet Family in their Garden at Argenteuil’ and ‘The Railway’. But, oddly, not the truly great ‘Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets’, especially since Morisot in this image is the poster-girl for the exhibition.
In another extended sequence, Fiona Shaw and Tim Marlow discuss the later, smaller (and inferior) version of ‘Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe’ (from the Courtauld Gallery, and in the show) as if it is the celebrated original in the Musée d’Orsay (which has stayed in Paris). And there is a similar sleight of hand when Tim speaks at length about ‘A Bar at the Folies-Bergère’ without exactly mentioning that it too is not in the exhibition (but can be seen in the permanent collection of The Courtauld Gallery).
Overall, the event intrigued me more than it involved or engrossed or thrilled me – and performance on the big screen more often than not achieves these far more intense experiences. There are Exhibition: Great Art Screen cinema broadcasts planned from Munch 150 at the National Museum and the Munch Museum in Oslo (27 June) and London’s National Gallery show Vermeer and Music (10 October). If I’m honest, I’m not entirely sure I’ll be shelling out for these – but let’s see.