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.

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.