Yesterday I had plenty of time before my class so I went to “Unreliable Evidence” a multi-media exhibition showcasing Manet’s "Execution of Maximillian" at the Mead.
Maximillian I of the Second Mexican Empire, was a puppet governor of the French and he was executed along with two of his generals by firing squad in 1867. We know what Manet’s original work looked like since his “Maximillian” survives in other versions; this incarnation was bought by the London NG in 1918. It was cut up and damaged, probably by members of Manet's family,- and it was only saved from oblivion by Degas in the 1890s. Manet and Degas took a keen interest in each other’s work and the latter already owned a lithograph of Manet's modern tragedy which is a canonical representation of the military killing machine, indebted to Goya's harrowing Third of May, 1808.
Manet's fragment was fascinating of course. I studied it for about twenty minutes, both from a standing and sedentary position. I had never studied it at such close quarters before, so I made the most of it. Its fragmentary status certainly adds to the picture's interest. What we have here is a kind of unintended montage effect which undermines the narrative, and offers instead a constellation of fragmentary images and motifs. This is how news works after all: it is the shock effect of the bulletin which arrives in packages of data, furiously updated by the newsgatherers, rather than a coherent report objectively reporting the facts. For Manet, the source of his painting was the newspaper which would have to be interpreted through his brushstroke and his technique. It's interesting how the curators have cemented that link between the print media of the broadsheet and the operations of painting itself. As you enter the Mead you encounter a huge stack of exhibition guides done in the style of an antiquated newspaper like Le Figaro itself, from which Manet obtained news, in the sense of <<unreliable evidence>> that allowed him to construct- with aid of photographs also- the event itself. Today Manet would have just googled the web, or accessed Le Figaro's web site, but back in the 1860s, the speed of news was slower and he had to rely on these unconnected and contradictory sources to piece together the scene of execution before he committed it to paint.
Standing up close to this painting in a virtually deserted gallery allows the eye to alight on details. For example, you notice how smeared and "unfinished" the faces of the soldiers look- this is after all a sketch. Then there's the pictorial language, the formal aspects of the composition. With Maximillian and co only represented by the left hand fragment showing one of the generals, attention is naturally drawn to the central mass of soldiers firing on their victims. I noticed particularly the placement of the heads: there are six soldiers, one standing apart from the main central group which consists of five in two different planes: three at the back; two at the front. Manet cleverly creates two triangles of heads with the two nearest soldiers' heads as the apex of each one. That way we're able to see the head of each soldier clearly, but as stated a few sentences ago, the painting is heavily worked completely blurring their facial features, and thus contributing to that <<impersonal>> detached air of juridical death. The sprightly rhythm of these heads which conveys to me agitated mental activity can be contrasted with the straight, angular accent of the rifles which suggests the onset of concentrated purpose and firm resolve as the soldiers bear down upon their grisly task of firing bullets into three defenceless men. There is much more that can be said about the pictorial elements. For example, if the eye moves down the body from head to foot, down to ground level we see how the white impasto of the stockings oozes over the black shoes, which are thinly painted by contrast. Seeing this painting up close and personal alerts one to the abstract setting which shows the barest hint of a convincing natural landscape. The blue-grey mass in the distance is meant to be the mountainous terrain, and the green and brown of the middle distance the Mexican landscape; but Manet was impervious to the joys of nature and would never have enlisted the natural world as a metaphor for indifferent, timeless nature impassively presiding over the spectacle of man-made violence.
Accompanying the Manet "Maximillian" were a number digital prints and oil paintings of people imitating the poses and attitudes of this juridically murdered trio. Santiago Sierra's digital prints like "Veteran of the Wars of Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Kosovo facing the Corner" play on the spectator’s uneasy relationship with war and the witnessing of it. Should we confront it head on or turn away from it in shame and disgust.
It is true that the curators could have just shown the Manet, but by surrounding it with videos, films, looped soundscapes all dealing with different aspects of war such as guilt, memory and the technological means of delivering wholesale carnage, the "Maximillian" was enhanced and given a contemporary resonance. All this can be ignored of course, but don't forget the reportage of Manet's time was prescient for our media- saturated era. Witnessing the carnage wrought by missiles via an IPhone -as one installation shows- is just a updating of the way the violence of the world was delivered into Manet's studio via the news technology of the 1860s. Then as now, the recipient of news has to negotiate through a maze of contradictory statements, biases, multiplying images and weigh such evidence in order to judge its reliability.