Manet, at the Musée d’Orsay, starts with a shock: a dead toreador laid flat upon the ground, crimson paint seeping from one shoulder like blood. His body fills the frame, clad in black silk and white satin. From his gleaming shoes to his spreading pallor, the painter has summoned his presence so superbly, and so closely, it seems as if you could stroke that soft hair.
So close, and yet so far beyond reach. The portrait is overturned. To see the face you would have to be nearly upside down, a vertigo abetted by the extreme foreshortening of the corpse. This is not how the toreador must have looked, fatally gored by a bull. The body has been moved; the diagonal declares the artifice.
Manet has positioned his hero to invoke the suddenness of fate, the upright body instantly felled (and by implication the opposite, so that you may imagine him rising again). It is a tremendous performance, this pictorial laying to rest. You want to applaud.
This was emphatically not the contemporary response. In his short life (1832-83) Edouard Manet met with continual rejection and scorn. His silent trio on their famous green balcony; his naked Olympia staring laconically from her chaise longue; his barmaid among the glittering lights of the Folies Bergère, doubled, and estranged, in the mirror behind her: all were mocked by the press and refused by the Salon.
As for Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, that riddle of a picnic with its inexplicable nude, exhibit A in any standard version of modernist art, its reception was the very caricature of a Paris scandal.
All these paintings (except the barmaid) are in Manet: the Inventor of Modernity which opened last week in Paris. Modernity, you notice, and not modernism with its slippery definition and advanced aesthetics; this is a show with a biographical thrust. It gives you Manet the urban intellectual, friend of Baudelaire, Mallarmé and Zola, portrayer of artists, politicians, models and prostitutes: heroic painter of modern life.
This approach sets up a useful momentum for such an ever-changing artist, tilting through 200 of his works from the early solo figures and crowd scenes, to seascapes, history paintings and portraits and on to the late still lifes. It also helps, somewhat, to camouflage the absence of masterpieces such as The Railway and Woman With Parrot, which are presumably now too priceless to travel.
And if it stints on Manet’s icebreaking modernism it scarcely matters, since his originality is there for all to see in this exhibition, the first in almost 30 years.
No superlative seems sufficient to describe the clarity, directness and power of Manet’s art. The paintings confront you, suddenly new again after a thousand reproductions. Take Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, with its studio-lit nude turning amiably towards the viewer from among the trees, the size of life and fully as strange.
Everyone knows she is Victorine Meurent, Manet’s redheaded model, in a reprise of past paintings by (among others) Giorgione. So far, so well-established. But where exactly is this ambiguous place? Why are her male companions dressed when she is not? And why is she apparently the only one with eyes for us?
A professional model taking a pause from posing, she is in a different reality from these self-absorbed men. And all around them the picture emerges in disparate vignettes – the food, the glade, the spectral bather at the back – variously crisp and vague. The whole painting goes in and out of register, cohering and then floating adrift. Like all great Manets, the scene is unfixed.
Victorine appears again in the next painting, got up as a toreador, and in the next as a chanteuse with a guitar and a faraway gaze. The fluid drapery of her taupe costume is held together by Manet’s distinctive black drawing, a line so suave and versatile it can as easily indicate a single eyelash as hold a whole figure firmly in place.
Victorine Meurent is a recurring presence. But is she really a character in an extended novel, as the writer Philippe Sollers claims in the catalogue? It is true that one can deduce a close circle of friends and family from the paintings, and that they exist somewhere between fact and fiction like the characters in Proust. But this is no serial narrative.
What Manet invents is a way of portraying people so that there is a sense of separation between their public and private selves. Victorine may hold a pose, but she is conscious of doing so; and at the same time free to inhabit her own inner world.
That is part of Manet’s supreme tact. These images don’t declare powerful attractions or private feelings, at least not directly; Manet doesn’t impose himself upon his sitters, he simply offers some stage directions. One senses his reticence in Fantin-Latour’s portrait of the artist, silk-hatted and self-contained. And one senses it in the paintings too, so intelligent and enigmatic.
Among the familiar faces – Zola, Meurent, Mallarmé, the painter Berthe Morisot – is a blond-haired boy who gradually grows up in Manet’s art. You see him first in Boy With a Sword, a homage to Velázquez. The top half is all 17th-century sword and collar, the bottom is school shoes and shorts. The boy poses with his unwieldy prop, trying to hold still, to follow Manet’s directions; and this effort is part of the picture’s content. Between the child and his role lies a most poignant distance.
Leon Leenhoff was the boy’s name. Manet eventually married his mother and may even have been his father, though there is some suggestion that the real parent was the painter’s father, Auguste Manet. But half-brother or son, this is not quite (or not wholly) a portrait of the person it depicts. Identity is never just a question of appearances for Manet.
Every great survey throws up something new. This one presents Manet’s copy of a Tintoretto self-portrait in which the eyes, as Sartre wrote, resemble “two black suns”. Immediately one notices that Manet often paints eyes as darkly glowing discs. Perhaps this is one reason why it is so hard to tell what is going on in the many portraits of his friend/lover Berthe Morisot – with veil, behind fan, or on the balcony.
Morisot is immediately identifiable behind the curlicued barrier that insists on your distance. The others are real too (including Leon inside), but the scene is conspicuously unreal, an image above all else. You might say these people are taking part in something – a conversation, a group portrait – except that they are not. Each appears separate, alone, lost in thought. Not so much sitters as people in a modern world.
Georges Clemenceau, bristling with nervous energy inside his silhouette; Baudelaire’s mistress receding behind her stupendous white gown: Manet’s picturing of people remains startlingly radical, and it even embraces objects. The heavy lemon, king of its own small picture; the dying peonies ceremonially laid out like the toreador.
As for Manet’s celebrated flatness and concision – the supposed link between illusion and abstraction – I do not think it has been exaggerated at all. Nothing quite prepares one for the jolt of seeing The Fifer, that life-sized figure arriving out of thin grey air. So crisply cut, the pose apparently derived from a tarot card, the boy stands perfectly contained in Manet’s outline; a thing of paint, for sure, and dazzlingly so with his exquisite undulating stripes and rounded forms. But a real boy too: lively as a firefly, sounding bright notes on his instrument.
The Fifer doesn’t just look ahead of its time, it appears almost futuristic, flashing up out of space. “I do not believe it is possible to obtain a more powerful effect with less elaborate methods,” wrote Zola in amazement. Anyone who thinks that this is old-fashioned hyperbole should try and get to Paris, see this show and be amazed.
The Observer, Sunday 10 April 2011