Manet’s Execution: still shocking

The four pieces of canvas which comprise the reconstructed Execution of Maximilian by Manet currently hang on the wall in the Special Exhibitions room of Canterbury’s The Beaney. I’d seen the painting before, many years ago, in the National Gallery, but on visiting it recently in the walled city, I was struck anew by its power.

Manet: The Execution of Emperor Maximilian; c.1867-8

Large enough to make the viewer an implicit spectator at the scene, what shocks the most even after all this time is the matter-of-fact approach of the figure on the right, the soldier preparing his rifle for the finishing coup-de-grace. The collision of the act of violence – somehow made all the more vibrant because the pieces on which the emperor was painted have been lost, and only his hand remains to clasp that of one of his comrades, also facing execution – and the practicality of the soldier readying his rifle serves to heighten the tension in the painting.

the-execution-of-the-emperor-maximilian-of-mexico-1868An earlier lithograph of the same scene renders the commonplace even more apparent, as Manet depicts a ragged bunch of street-urchins looking over the wall behind the scene, like everyday gawkers or the tricoteuse, those women who would sit and knit beside the guillotines.

By dressing the Mexican army in French uniform, Manet caused the painting to be too controversial to be displayed during his lifetime. Even now, over one hundred and forty years later, the painting still has an explosive quality.

The painting is on display at the Beaney until Sunday 16 March.


Dan Harding is the Deputy Director of Music at the University. Follow Dan on Twitter.

Whatever floats your boat

As people all over the world gather to celebrate the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, a remarkable boat will set sail on its maiden voyage. The boat will be made from the lives and memories of people across the South East.

Click to view PDF

We want your wood: but not just any old wood, we want something that’s a part of you, something with a story to tell. Come and tell us that story – your donated wood will be used along with donations from thousands of others to build this unique 30ft sailing boat, a living archive of our lives.

Donations will be accepted in the foyer of the Gulbenkian Theatre between 1- 7pm this Wednesday.

The Boat Project is part of Artists Taking the Lead, a series of 12 public art commissions across the UK to celebrate the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad. The Boat Project is the winning commission for the South East region and is funded by Arts Council England.

Does it matter who killed Caravaggio ?

I watched Andrew Graham-Dixon’s programme, Who Killed Caravaggio? on BBC4 over the weekend. Caravaggio’s life (and death) are shrouded in violence, mystery, and a good deal of moodily-lit art.

David and Goliath by Caravaggio
Keep your head: 'David with the head of Goliath,' Caravaggio

Whilst the programme was interesting, it did make me think: does it matter ? By which I mean, does it matter to an appreciation of his art, solving the mystery of how and why he died ?

What we can forget, especially in the presence of great art – music, painting, literature or poetry – is that artists are like us: human. Caravaggio’s life was peppered with incidents (according to the programme) of sexual jealousy, a duel in which he killed his opponent, periods on the run, and artistic creativity. Like most people, Caravaggio was prey to the same desires, phobias and emotions as all of us: he just happened to paint as well. And rather brilliantly.

Of course, knowing that particular pictures were painted during a time when he was a fugitive and had to paint quickly, or that they were created in order to establish a reputation amongst the plethora of artists competing for attention at the time, can enhance or widen your perception of a painting.

But, ultimately, a work of art is experienced by meeting it at a particular moment, on your own terms. What led to its inception, the circumstances under which it was created, or its original intended audience or display-space: these factors don’t necessarily impact on the moment you view a painting or your reaction to experiencing it. They may inform your understanding, but your visceral or emotional reaction to it is perhaps beyond the biographical accounts of the artist’s life.

Graham-Dixon thinks that, after ten years of research, he has finally solved the mystery of Caravaggio’s death: murdered by one of the Knights of Jerusalem after he apparently escaped being imprisoned on Malta for sodomy. That’s all very worthy: but humanising him and investigating the facts of his life won’t add anything to his work for me. Like the work of great artists, no matter how human his story, Caravaggio’s art transcends all the squalor.


Posted by Daniel Harding, Deputy Director of Music at the University of Kent.  Click here to view his Music Matters blog.

Fee or free ? Museums and galleries

Titian: Bacchus and Ariadne
Bacchus and Ariadne, Titian

In an article in The Independent yesterday, Adrian Hamilton makes the point that our public galleries and museums are neglecting their core collections, and devoting their energies to mounting exhibitions instead.

The reason, he argues, is ecomomics: exhibitions are more likely to attract media interest, with specific themes uniting the display, and also more interest from the public. People will also buy merchandise associated with a particular exhibition: the Van Gogh tea-towel or Dali catalogue. All these factors combine to mean one thing: more money.

With the abolishment of entry fees under Labour back in 2001, musuems and galleries are having to work hard to compensate for cuts in funding. Exhibitions and featured attractions are more likely to bring visitors through the revolving doors than focusing on the objects that are a part of the institution’s regular collection.

As Hamilton says, “Free entry has brought a huge expansion in the customer base. But it has been at a cost of directing museums to showmanship and to commercial avenues of income at the expense of concentrating on their own collections and adding to them. The funds available for purchase are derisory. The attention of keepers has been directed to the numbers passing through the doors.”

He proposes that museums and galleries should consider re-introducing entry fees, with reductions for the young and the elderly, which would then allow them to provide exhibitions driven not by the need to generate revenue, but to showcase what the gallery or museum already owns.

Turner painting
The Fighting Temeraire, Turner

As someone who loves the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery, both of which are free, this option scares me. I have two very young children with whom I want to share my love of Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne and Crivelli’s Annunciation when they are old enough: I want their imaginations to be lit up by sacred paintings from the Renaissance, whorls of colour in Turner, Stubbs’ rearing horses or Monet’s floating lilies. If I had to pay for us all to visit each time, this would be costly and would, I’m sure, discourage many from visiting.

I can, however, see the point, though: museums and galleries need to bring paying visitors through the doors to keep themselves going.

Would you pay entry fees to galleries and museums if, by doing so, it guaranteed their continued existence: or would it put you off ?

Slipstream Showcase

SlipstreamAcross the course of this academic year, Slipstream has challenged staff and students at the University of Kent to create ambitious and inquisitive responses to the Cultural Olympiad and the 2012 Games, supported by the Creative Campus Initiative

An interdisciplinary approach lies at the heart of the work and this has provoked a diverse and flamboyant collection of new art work ranging from an interactive cycling concert to a memory provoking ballroom dance with elderly people on the University labyrinth. The work culminates in an exhibition of performed and visual artworks across Kent in June 2010.

The Slipstream Showcase will profile commissions by Chris Yates, Neil light and Jim Lockey & Katy Norton, whose work has been mentored by curator Sue Jones and artist Adam Chodzco. Samples of project work on both Canterbury and Medway campuses will include Le Reve de Newton, Iron Gym and Moving Memory.

We look forward to seeing you at the showcase and individual events – all of which are free.

The Slipstream Showcase is based in the Marlowe Building Foyer, on the University of Kent’s Canterbury Campus.

For more information please contact

All that jazz: the photographs of Herman Leonard.

Herman Leonard’s photos are unmistakable. Jazz enthusiasts everywhere with large record collections will be familiar with his work, which has adorned the covers of jazz albums by legends such as Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and Dexter Gordon.

Odd angles, often shot from below the subject; stark contrasts between black and white tones; smoke circling lazily in the air; the images capture the dim and sometimes dingy culture of jazz in the 50s and 60s, as this gallery collection shows. A young Miles Davis with an ankle crossed over one knee casually plays; Dizzy Gillespie amidst phantom-like swirls of smoke above his head; drummer Art Blakey is pictured truly caught up in the music; the great bandleader Duke Ellington appears all alone at the piano on a concert-hall stage; Frank Sinatra gestures with his cigarette from behind a radio microphone. These images capture the transient nature of jazz: improvised, spontaneous music that sings one moment and is gone the next, never to be repeated live.

Dexter Gordon photograph by Herman Leonard
Dexter Gordon: photographed by Herman Leonard

Perhaps the most memorable for me is the portrait of Dexter Gordon: smoke curls and twists around him like one of Gordon’s own melodic improvisations. There’s a casual feel to the image, a languor imparted by the tilt of Gordon’s head, the hat-brim turned up from the forehead, the cigarette between the fingers. Taken when he was twenty-five years old, he looks lost in contemplation, at ease with himself. There are other musicians around him: the bell of a trumpet protrudes from the left-hand side, and a drummer grins in the dimness behind him, sharing a joke with another player outside the picture on the right. But it’s Gordon’s moment, lit from above-left in an almost celestial fashion.

Once seen, never forgotten: Herman Leonard’s jazz photographs are the quintessence of jazz music made visual.