Wednesday, November 21, 2012

stumbling along memory lane with Eddy Manet

It is all part of the cultural mosaic, baby.

Edouard Manet has been called the Father of Impressionism. The Toledo Museum of Art, which boasts a famous Manet work in its permanent collection, the portrait of Antonin Proust, is currently showcasing a few dozen more of this 19th century French Daddy-O’s portraits from collections around the world in what is billed as a major exhibition running through the end of the year.

There was plenty of foot traffic in gallery 32 earlier this week for “Manet: Portraying Life” and perhaps that is why the exhibition space seemed cramped. Or maybe museums these days no longer have the luxury of abundant space that I became accustomed to in my own heyday as an art museum rat on the Old Continent.

Indeed gazing on those impressionist portraits as well as several sketches of Manet himself by others that are included in this exhibition took me back to the early 1970s when I studied l’histoire de l’art at the Institut de Touraine in France. It was part of a curriculum designed to teach me French language and culture. I supplemented those classes at the venerable institute with a crash course in café conversations and locker room lingo as a part-time right wing for the St. Pierre-les-Corps soccer team. Sadly, my poor soccer skills never benefitted from the international exposure. Still, I got in some good evening workouts on that all-dirt pitch in the Tours banlieue. When I would get too gassed to go on I used to look up at the constellations, consider my fortune at being able to live in Europe, and push on past fatigue.

On the other hand, considering the lamentable level of my French knowledge upon arriving in France for that year of study abroad, the upshot was a success. I acquired a basic fluency.

In the exhibition's gift shop there is for sale, irony of ironies, a tee sporting Manet's stylish portrait of his longtime friend Antonin Proust. Of course, there ain't nothing ironic about ringing up 30 bucks for one of these V-necks.

Our art history prof was a Monsieur Girard, if I remember correctly. He was a middle-aged man with that French beefiness that accumulates from decades of the moderate intake of red wine and butter-fried horseflesh. M. Girard’s disheveled appearance, his worn blue suit and rakish silk scarf, the ragged clutch of papers he carried under his arm, his thick and longish black hair held in check by the requisite black beret, all belied a rigorous approach to his material. He instructed according to a well hewn syllabus but it was obvious the man’s knowledge of the history of art was wide-ranging and filled with inexhaustible details. Besides being a scholar he was certainly an artist in his own right although his dedication to his students never permitted him to talk about his own work. But he would draw voluminously each day in class to illustrate and explain the lessons and he demanded his students do likewise in their notes.

Initially this seemed an interesting challenge for me. When I was younger my father used to sketch and was very good at it. I hoped I might have inherited some of his talent. But I hadn't. Soon Monsieur G’s emphasis on drawing – those notes constituted a major portion of the final grade – became a deal breaker for me.

I did not fare well in art history class. But some 40 years later I still remember the way M. Girard explained Romantic painter Eugène Delacroix’s classic arrangement of figures in such masterpieces as "La Liberté guidant le peuple." And I still see the passionate M. Girard twist his fist in an unintended riff on le bras d’honneur and hear his throaty tenor exhorting us to observe la torsion in a particular work of the Baroque period.

See the Manet exhibition for the inspiration of it all. The Toledo Museum of Art is the only place in North America where the exhibition can be viewed. If you miss "Manet: Portraying Life" in Toledo you would have to travel to London to see it at the Royal Academy of Arts beginning in late January.

So for me, the trip to TMA’s major exhibition was well worth the price of admission. The experience nudged me to unearth some college memories and with them some of the humanism that characterizes learning at its core and is a good thing. And like the protagonist in Stephen King’s “The Shawshank Redemption” says: “…no good thing ever dies.”

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