Review | In an unforgettable new show, Manet and Degas are much more than rivals

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NEW YORK — Rivalry is a kind of haunting. It takes place over time. The longer it goes on, the more the initial question — “How much did they hate each other?” — is transformed, under a corkscrewing pressure that can feel almost erotic, into a second question: “How much did they love each other?”

Other mysteries — Why was that created? Why was this avoided? — make sense with reference to the rivalry. But because creative rivalry is always secretly tending toward gratitude and homage, something more tender and elusive emerges.

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I felt this tenderness — along with waves of creative heat flowing like lava from the 19th century into the present — all through “Manet/Degas,” an unforgettable exhibition about the relationship between Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas, two of the most original and influential artists of the 19th century, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The exhibition lingers in the imagination not just because it brings together such a lavish array of great and beguiling artworks, but because it is a kind of haunted love story.

That’s made clear both at the beginning of the exhibition and in its poignant final room, which contains, surprisingly, no works by Degas — only the works by Manet that Degas patiently accumulated for two decades after Manet’s death. (“He was greater than we thought,” Degas is reported to have said at Manet’s funeral in 1883.)

Back at the show’s entrance, on a wall that acts like the title page of a book, designers have placed a giant diagonal slash between the names Manet and Degas. The immediate reason becomes apparent as soon as you step around the wall into the first gallery, which contains a small, damaged Degas painting, borrowed from an obscure museum in Japan.

“Monsieur and Madame Édouard Manet” is a very modern marriage portrait. Degas made it in the late 1860s, when under Manet’s influence he was revamping his whole approach to art. During that period, this lifelong bachelor specialized in paintings that revealed tensions between the sexes and especially between married couples.

The painting from Japan shows Manet lounging on a sofa as his wife, Suzanne, plays the piano. Degas was fascinated by what people reveal of themselves while listening to music, so some have read Manet’s pose as a depiction of innocent reverie. Others, however, think it conveys disaffection, boredom and alienation. (It’s not irrelevant, perhaps, that the sittings took place soon after Manet had met — and become smitten by — the painter Berthe Morisot, whom he began painting around the same time. Since they couldn’t marry, she did the next best thing and married his brother.)

But why have Suzanne’s face and half her body been cut from the painting?

Thirteen years earlier, Suzanne, a Dutchwoman living in Paris, had been hired by Manet’s parents to teach their three sons piano. The arrangement took an unwanted turn when Suzanne became pregnant. Manet, who was almost certainly the father, married her, but only after the death of his own father, a high-ranking judge who, ironically, oversaw paternity cases.

Back in his studio after Degas presented his double portrait to Manet as a gift, Manet took a knife to it, cutting away the part of the canvas that showed Suzanne’s profile, half her body and the piano itself. When, on his next visit to Manet, Degas saw what his friend had done, he was incensed. He took back the painting and, like a scorned lover returning earrings, sent back a still life given to him in jollier circumstances by Manet. Years later, Degas replaced the section of canvas cut off by Manet, intending to repaint it. But he never did.

Manet’s attack on Degas’s canvas, and the dense fog obscuring his motivation, dramatizes the violence and volatility at the heart of rivalry. But in the best, most generative rivalries, pacific emotions eventually prevail. Degas forgave Manet (“it is impossible to stay on bad terms with Manet for long,” he said) and kept the damaged painting — along with a trove of nearly 80 Manets — until the end of his life.

Manet and Degas both respected the past (a room early in the show is filled with studies they made after Mantegna, Filippino Lippi, Titian, Rembrandt and Velázquez). But both were determined to snap 19th-century art out of the listless, state-sponsored opium trance in which it had languished for too long. They succeeded magnificently, together inaugurating what came to be known as modern art.

But they went about their renovations in very different ways. Manet was the more affable of the two — a charming man prone to adolescent-style infatuations with, for instance, Velázquez and Goya (and indeed all things Spanish) and later on with Parisian nightlife, flowers and beautiful women. He wasn’t, however, frivolous. A committed republican, he loathed Napoleon III, who had seized power in a coup in 1851, and longed to see France replace his reactionary imperial regime with a republic.

Degas was more private and mercurial, his intelligence more analytical. His ambition, he once said, was to be “illustrious and unknown.” Where Manet was ardent and political, Degas cultivated a kind of detachment. He, too, was a republican, but he kept politics out of his art, and he loathed sentimentality. (What is politics if not a form of necessary sentimentality?)

When the two men met, Degas knew that Manet was far ahead of him. Manet was doing such astonishing things that a whole group of younger artists (among them the future Impressionists) had singled him out as their leader. His impact on Degas, too, proved enormous. But Degas was too proud and too brilliant to be a follower.

There are many instances where the two artists tackled the same subject matter as they vied to establish an idea of what it meant to make modern imagery. It’s instructive to see these efforts hanging side by side. No juxtaposition is more exciting than the pairing of Degas’s “In a Café (The Absinthe Drinker)” and Manet’s “Plum Brandy” — both indelible depictions of modern, urban dejection that could have been painted yesterday (and look superb, by the way, against the exhibition’s purple walls).

But they also painted scenes at the racetrack, in cafes and on the beach, as well as contemporary women getting dressed in private or trying on hats at the milliner’s shop. And both painted brilliant portraits of their peers, each more arresting than the last.

But “Manet/Degas,” which has been ravishingly installed, is more than just a compare-and-contrast exercise. The show — which comes to New York from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and was co-curated by Stephan Wolohojian and Ashley Dunn (both from the Met) in collaboration with Laurence des Cars (from the Louvre) and Isolde Pludermacher and Stéphane Guégan (from the Musée d’Orsay) — also manages to convey the texture and pith of the relationship. It’s surprisingly intimate.

Manet continued to chase success at the Salon — the annual, state-sponsored showcase for new art — long after Degas and Manet’s protégés broke away from this official institution, disgusted by its conservatism. That ambition partly explains why there are more masterpieces by Manet in this show — not just “Olympia” (memorably described by the poet Paul Valéry as “supreme, obscene and brutally factual”) but “The Balcony,” “The Dead Toreador” and several large-scale, overtly political pictures, including his depiction of a naval battle in the U.S. Civil War.

Dazzling as these are, it would be a mistake to conclude that Degas was the lesser artist. Several of his greatest paintings are here, including the Bellelli family portrait, “Interior” (a terrifying illustration of tension between the sexes), “At the Milliner” and his first depiction of a dance class. But by the 1870s, Degas had lost interest in submitting large-scale set pieces to the judgment of the Salon jury. He was too modern, too restless, too inquisitive. For the rest of his career, he strove to innovate through process and iteration.

Despite his cool, pitiless eye, Degas was more interested in psychological interiority than Manet. His compositions were more radical and expansive and his draftsmanship better. His female nudes were more commanding and original, and his later experimentations with color, under pressure from his slowly degrading eyesight, more expressive.

On the other hand, Manet’s use of black was more devastatingly charged (look no further than his portraits of Morisot) and his brushstrokes more thrillingly alive, keyed to bodily sensation and to a glancing, erotic response to the world that was urbane and unshockable.

This show is a two-hander, so the absence of works by Degas, who died 34 years after Manet, from the exhibition’s final gallery stands out. Hung with Manet’s drawings and prints, a cover for some sheet music and a political caricature, the room presents a piecemeal, messy conclusion to a show that’s otherwise exemplary in its lucidity. But the sense of disarray is apt, and actually moving.

Why did Degas gather so many works by his old, long-dead friend? Because he missed him. He was in mourning, and mourning is always messy because we can never be sure what it is we are grieving: the absent one or our former, more lovable selves?

By far the biggest work in this final room (it’s nine feet wide) is Manet’s patched-together painting of the Emperor Maximilian standing before a firing squad, his pointed critique of Napoleon III’s misadventures in Mexico. Posthumously cut into pieces and sold off separately by Manet’s son, it was patiently reassembled by Degas. Wolohojian, in the catalogue, makes a beautiful, arresting connection between the foreground figure of the sergeant loading his rifle, eyes downcast, and “Degas’s ballet dancers’ attention to their slippers and his milliners’ concentration on their hats.”

The dynamic of rivalry is never resolved, it just goes slack, like string cut from a loom, when one of the protagonists departs. As I left this stupendous show, I thought of Degas’s late pastels of bathers, composed of woven lines of radiant color, as somehow embodying his dimming memories of Manet. And I thought, too, of W.S. Merwin’s poem “Separation”:

“Your absence has gone through me/ Like thread through a needle./ Everything I do is stitched with its color.”

Manet/Degas Through Jan. 7 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. metmuseum.org.

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