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Inspired in Spain

French painter Manet visited Madrid in 1865; the Prado museum there honors him.

November 30, 2003|Arden Reed | Special to The Times

Madrid — Madrid

French painter Edouard Manet was an odd mix of the self-assured and the insecure. He was known as Paris' most elegant and ironic man about town, but in the studio, according to his poet-friend Stephane Mallarme, "He unleashed his fury against the blank canvas, bewildered, as if he had never painted before."

It was this self-doubting Manet who made a pilgrimage to Madrid's Prado museum in 1865. At the annual Paris Salon he had just exhibited "Olympia," his reclining nude with black maid and black cat, which provoked the critics' bile. Reviewers called her obscene, a "rubber gorilla," even corpse-like. Madrid would offer a respite from the scandal at home, but also, Manet hoped, artistic reaffirmation. In a letter written just before his abrupt departure he spoke of going "to master [Diego] Velazquez for advice."

This fall, the very museum Manet journeyed to see has mounted "Manet at the Prado," the first large-scale retrospective of his work anywhere in a generation. Displayed chronologically in 11 rooms, the show represents Manet's every period and subject. And in a tidy reversal, the Prado's grand central gallery is filled with Manet's paintings; the Spanish masters, including Velazquez, play supporting roles on the side walls.

Curator Manuela Mena, herself a drawing specialist, has integrated Manet's sketches with his paintings. "In copying a Renaissance work," she says, "he selects a single figure for its expressivity, capturing what's original and new." Further, the dead-on accuracy in these drawings underscores the purposefulness of his later distortions.

The installation points out Manet's other dialogues with the past too. His "Portrait of Zola," for example, wittily recalls two Velazquez paintings, the dwarf "El Primo" and "Los Borrachos." All three paintings hang in proximity. Displaying Manet's 1867 work "Execution of Maximilian" together with the picture that inspired it, Goya's 1808 "Third of May," lays out critical steps in the evolution of painting from romantic to modern. The tone goes from operatic to ironic, from hot to cool.

Paris in Manet's day went mad for everything Spanish. The Iberian craze influenced all the arts: from Victor Hugo's play "Hernani" and Prosper Merimee's "Carmen" to the Spanish dancers Manet repeatedly painted. "Spanish" signified colorful, exotic, a little racy. (In his studio Manet kept Spanish costumes that appear in multiple paintings in the show.)

That suited Manet's realist artistic agenda. He once complained to a model who struck a classical pose, "Can't you behave naturally? Do you stand like that when you buy a bunch of radishes at your greengrocer's?" Such realism he found aplenty when he got to the Prado, like Ribera's sagging bodies with dirty toenails.

Manet was likewise drawn to the Spanish use of unmixed colors and strong black-white contrasts, so different from the "brown sauces" of French academic art. He was attracted in particular to the 17th century Spanish court painter Velazquez, whose work he'd even copied as a student. His first Salon hit was the "Spanish Singer," and one critic declared him "the Velazquez of the boulevards."

He wasn't let down when he arrived in Madrid. After viewing genuine Velazquez canvases in profusion at the Prado, Manet declared him the greatest artist who ever lived and alone worth the journey. Over time, the Spaniard's paint handling would influence Manet's later work. Vindication for "Olympia" would come too; eventually it would be regarded as his masterpiece and the very emblem of modern art.

Manet's return to Madrid comes amid another artistic upheaval and more scandal. Some 18 months ago Edouard Serra, former Spanish defense minister who chairs the Prado's governing board, brusquely fired the museum's director. Serra replaced him with 37-year-old Miguel Zugaza -- the sixth director installed in 11 years.

The Prado, which has space to display only about 10% of its collection, was also in crisis because of a controversial $56-million expansion. Architect Rafael Moneo's plan to build a cube-like extension on the former site of the 17th century Cloister of the Jeronimos sparked protests and lawsuits from neighbors and preservationists. (Moneo is also the architect of downtown L.A.'s Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.)

While the previous director chose to lay low, Zugaza brilliantly and unexpectedly decided to call the world's attention to his museum. With breathtaking speed Zugaza mounted three blockbuster shows in 2003: "Vermeer and the Dutch Interior," "Titian" and now "Manet in the Prado." As curator Mena put it: "He jumped like a tiger."

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