Monday 16 May 2016

In Excelsis

Lilac time is brief, and can end suddenly - think of Geoffrey Hill's description of a churchyard after rain,  'blossom comes off in handfuls; the lilac Turned overnight a rough tobacco brown'. Around here the lilacs are already past their best and will soon be over, the bushes reverting to shapeless anonymity after their moment of fragrant glory.
 Many have painted lilac blossom, in situ and as a cut flower, but surely no one has ever caught its beauty as perfectly as Manet. In his long last illness, Manet painted a brilliant series of flower paintings, taking as his subjects the posies brought to him by visiting friends. The best of these are surely his paintings of sprays of lilac in light-catching, light-concentrating crystal vases against an intensely dark background. It's hard not to read these as an assertion of beauty - fragile but for now supreme - in the face of imminent death. Manet's treatment of the white-green colour and lacy texture of the lilac is masterly, and his intense focus on the reflections and refractions of light in the water creates an entire visual world, at once a naturalistic account of what is there and something more, something beyond. This is flower painting in excelsis.

1 comment:

  1. I agree that one of the best features of these paintings is the stalks in the crystal glass vases. I have a full size poster of this painting from the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin.