Manet: The Opera or What you get is not what you see

April 19, 2013

Following in the footsteps of the Met’s direct broadcast of opera to a movie house near by you, Cineplex is offering us ‘Great Art on Screen’ starting with Manet this month and following with Munch in the summer and Vermeer in the fall. Good thing this: art for the masses, at least those with seventeen bucks in their pocket. Movies and television of great art have a long tradition that goes back to the beginnings of those media. Folks can’t get to the art so we might as well bring it to them, complete with commentary from art experts on what it is all about and what we should think about it. There in lies the rub. Looking at visual art is a personal thing and we bring our personal opinions to this venture however wrong they might be.

Back to Manet and the matter at hand. We are offered a tour of the exhibition Manet: Portraying Life that is currently at London’s Royal Academy of Arts hosted by Tim Marlow, a good fellow, I am sure. All will be beautifully photographed; the music first rate; and the experts will all be experts. All very good you might say, and as I am an expert myself, what would could possibly be wrong with this picture? Well, it is actually about looking and all that entails.


Opera is an event in time, looking at paintings is not, it has a start, an overture, an end, the fat lady sings–in short, it is theatre and that works as a film. I might rather be at the Met, but it’s not too bad at my local cineplex. Theatre, opera, is group event, you enjoy it in a crowd, if somebody sings something well everybody applauds and might even cheer and they even do this at the movie theatre where the opera is being shown, at least they have when I have gone. When was the last time you ever saw a group of people standing in front of a painting applauding?

Why? Because looking at a painting is a singular event between the viewer and the art work, even if the viewer is within a crowd at the time. I have seen Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring many times, often in a crowd, yet each time my viewing has been a unique experience. How does one ‘look‘ at a painting? The usual drill is first you see it as a whole and then scan the painting, most often from left to right and from up to down. Bright colours jump out at you and duller colours receed. In the Vermeer you look for the pearl earring and, no surprise, it is in the right place–the centre of interest. This painting is all about composition, Vermeer has got it right, but that is another whole subject that I used to spend an entire year teaching undergraduate art students. Manet gets his pictures right as well and that’s what makes him a great artist.


The problem with the camera doing the looking at parts (or details) of paintings, be they Vermeer’s or Manet’s, is that the camera is not you and will take a route that is not yours. A real difference between an opera and a painting is that a painting is a single unique object and an opera exists as a score that comes to life in many different guises. A performance of Carmen in San Francisco will be very different from one in Paris. You can even enjoy an opera on the radio or a recording. Hard to imagine listening to a painting on radio. You can talk about a painting on radio, but it leaves much to be imagined.

Surface and colour in a painting cannot be captured in film. Pigment colour is very different from film colour and there is no way that film can show the surface texture of an art work. There is also the issue of scale. A smallish painting like the Vermeer is a very different experience than a wall sized Jackson Pollack. The camera cannot overcome this problem, no matter how hard a director works at it. There is no way that a film can replace a real person in a real space looking at an original art work.

Well, where does that leave us? I, for one, will levy up my seventeen bucks, no, make that fifteen, I am a senior, and go to the movie and enjoy myself. I know to get the most out of Manet, I will have to go where the art works are and hope that some of audience will do the same thing. I know that some of them will never have the money to travel to see the art work and they are better informed by seeing the film. Alas, we live in a far from perfect world.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB Canada, Sunday, 14 April, 2013.

One comment

  1. Two things- 1- the magic flute was the first opera I saw, in berlin. The second opera was Marie Stuart, seen from the met on hd. Both were great experiences, the first because of the melieu and the second because of the availability, albeit virtual, of a quality performance which was in my range of experience.

    2- a true definition of art- that which is left after everything else falls away. How else to tell but in front of the work?

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