In this Biennale year Manet - Ritorno a Venezia, at the Ducal Palace, is the big-hitter amongst the more traditional art exhibitions.A friend of mine actually worked on it. He still couldn't get me a free ticket.
It was supposed to finish in early August, and was then extended until September 1st. I left it, of course, almost until the last minute to go. I had no idea how busy it might be, but - Venice still being packed with tourists - I made sure to be there right on the stroke of nine. The piazza at this time was almost free of crowds, one of those all-too-rare occasions when it's a pleasure to stroll through. Likewise, for the first ninety minutes, the exhibition space was practically empty.
The curators have played up Edouard Manet's connection with the city and its influence on his art; yet he was a visitor here on only two occasions and painted just two views of the city (one of which, a pleasant but unremarkable work showing the Salute and the Grand Canal, is in the final room). It was the city's artists, as opposed to the city itself, that had the greatest influence on him, and so a number of Venetian works are juxtaposed with Manet's own : his painting of Zola accompanies Lorenzo Lotto's Portrait of a Young Man, while Carpaccio's Two Venetian Ladies hangs next to The Balcony.
This works absolutely brilliantly in one case in particular : for the first time ever we have the chance to view Titian's Venus of Urbino next to Manet's Olympia. Beyond the surface similarities, it's the differences between the two that really catch the eye. I'm particularly taken by the little dog snuggling happily into the sheets at the feet of Venus; replaced in Olympia by a stroppy-looking cat staring balefully at the viewer.
Manet really is one of those artists I blow hot and cold on, but I emerged from the exhibition realising I liked him far more than I thought I did. He could draw quite brilliantly, and had an extraordinary talent as a copyist (his copy of a self-portrait by Tintoretto is almost indistinguishable from the original). The Spanish-period paintings here didn't do much for me; neither did the small number of religious pieces. Yet there are paintings here I could sit and look at for hours upon end : his wife, Susanne, depicted in two beautifully meditative works Woman with Jug and The Reader; the four isolated figures of The Balcony; or his two wondrous portraits of Berthe Morisot. But unfortunately no seats are provided and, after two hours or so, the crowds were starting to arrive en masse. Slightly reluctantly, I decided it was time to go. Outside, the queues for the Basilica were stretching back beyond the entrance to the palace...