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May 27, 2013 | by  | in Arts Visual Arts |
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More Manet More Problems

Manet: Portraying Life has recently been showing throughout Wellington cinemas, bringing with it an interesting concept—an art exhibition brought to the viewer through the movie screen. While still a relatively new concept, exhibitions on film can’t be called unexpected; with TV, radio, print, photography, tweets, and blogs, we are currently consuming information in more forms than ever before. The film-exhibition succeeds as a documentation of Manet and his art, but as a format to replace the experience of seeing paintings first-hand it does not.

The film guides the viewer through both the behind-the-scenes of the exhibition itself as well as the paintings and painter. Some of the film’s focus on the exhibition’s location and setup at London’s Royal Academy is a bit dry. While the behind-the-scenes access to preparing the paintings attempts to transport the viewer right inside the gallery, it comes across more ‘class trip’ than genuine.

On the whole however, the rest of the film succeeds in holding the viewer’s attention. I went into the cinema unsure of how the works would be shown—an hour of close-up pans of the paintings? Even the most ardent devotee of Manet’s would be bored. Instead, I was pleasantly introduced to Manet himself, with some excellent on-location filming in the Parisian apartment where he was born. The paintings are given backstories, and aspects are interestingly highlighted to the viewer. While not a full hour, the camera does allow for generous screen time of the paintings themselves, and to see them in glorious HD on a cinema screen is perhaps the biggest advantage of an exhibition film over the real thing.

The selection of Manet’s paintings themselves is quite noteworthy. While some of his best-known paintings such as Olympia were missing from the real exhibition at the Royal Academy, they were still discussed in the film, which created a bit of inconsistency—if you were at the real exhibition, Olympia would not have just materialised in the room. However, a pleasant surprise in the painting collection was the unexpected number of portraits. While Manet is best known for his paintings of candid scenes of human life, the film explains his lesser-known beginnings as a portraitist and his continuation of painting portraits until the very end of his career. The link between these lesser- and better-known paintings is also explained—Manet would use the real people he painted in his portraits later as actors and actresses in his imagined scenes, creating hybrid paintings of a real yet unreal tone.

Perhaps the biggest gripe I have with the film is not the film itself, but the concept of film-exhibition overall. Even though it was great to be able to view artwork on the scale of a movie screen in the comfort of a cinema sofa, I was told by a narrator beforehand what to focus on, whether that be a figure’s hat or a certain shade of blue. While true that some of these snippets of art trivia are interesting, it does removes the joy of looking at a painting purely with your mind and letting it wander over to your own points of interest. Also, although being seated while viewing the paintings was at first immersive, it soon began to feel a bit boring with the lack of walking around that real galleries offer and the tangible break between paintings it provides.

Manet: Portraying Life is an excellent film for anyone even slightly interested in Manet’s work—a comprehensive biography of himself is vibrantly told, and a good selection of his paintings are shown. However, do not expect to leave the cinema with the same sense of renewal that you may feel when leaving a gallery. Exhibitions through films can be informative, but hardly contemplative.


Manet: Portraying Life can still be caught for a few more weeks throughout Lighthouse and Penthouse cinemas in Wellington.

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