The deepest-felt pleasure of the Exhibition at the Met, Manet/Velazquez: The French Taste for Spanish Painting, is seeing so many glorious works from different parts of the world in one place -- not only Velazquez and Manet but also Zurbarán, Ribera, long-neglected Murillo, Goya, and Sargent among others.
The title of the show is misleading. I am more inclined to call it The French Appropriation of Spanish Painting. The French taste for Spanish art did not germinate on its own. It came about as a result of the mass plunder of Spanish paintings under Napoleon to which French artists were suddenly exposed more by default than by design; and the Spanish art brought to France represent a wide range of styles, not only Velazquez and his kind of art. The notion that Velazquez replaced Raphael as the ideal oversimplifies the French response. Murillo's altarpieces and some of Zurbarán's are unmistakably Raphaelesque in heritage, and the 19th century French painters did not reject them.
The wall text, especially the introductory statement which emphasizes the shift of the 19th century French artists "from idealism to realism, from Italy to Spain, from Renaissance to Baroque," leads the audience awry. The term realism is the culprit. I insist that we set apart the realism in the subject matter and the realism in the representational style. There is no question that Spanish painting introduced the interest in low subjects -- peasants, beggars, tramps, and cripples -- as worthy of pictorial representation. Whereas French artists may have developed a fresh view of these subjects in their encounter with Spanish paintings, they were widespread among Baroque artist in general, including Le Nain brothers and Jacques Callot.
When it comes to realism of in the representational style, Manet's debt to Velazquez is unmistakable. But what the paintings in juxtaposition makes absolutely clear (and the wall text obfuscates) is that Manet saw and took from the Spanish master was not realism in the sense of representing the forms in the visual world in their full, substantial existence. Velazquez gave Manet the magic of flatness, of flat forms and of flat space. This is no news; but in the context of the exhibition, it should be firmly kept in mind. The black of the black robe flattens the figure, and this was new both in the 17th century and in the 19th century. It was Velazquez, in particular, who obliterated the ground line in full portraits, the receding floor and the upright wall behind merge into a single contiguous surface, though Zurbarán did that, too. Manet's The Dead Toreador (1864) and The Fifer (1866) are the textbook demonstration of his flat painting, in which spatial depth is indicated but pictorially negated. To call this kind of art realistic is confusing. Velazquez painted portraits as a visual phenomenon; this, in turn, explains how by seeing kings and dwarfs alike in this way he dignified the latter. He leveled the subject as he did the space and form; he did not painted form in space but form and space together, as a continuum. Manet captured this magic immediately; others followed Manet in this regard if, on their own, they were readily adopting Spanish subjects: bullfighters and dancers.
So, I would insist that Manet liberated painting from the shackles of Western realism and laid the foundation for Modern Painting, and this exhibition amply and convincingly demonstrates this obvious yet important fact.
To insist on this thesis too much is to miss the wonders of the Spanish paintings which are neither black nor flat -- works of Baroque splendor, especially of Murillo.
T. Kaori Kitao, 03.20.03