‘Unreliable Evidence’ presents Edouard Manet’s The Execution of Maximilian (c. 1867–8), on loan as part of the National Gallery Masterpiece Tour, alongside paintings, photography, film and installation works by contemporary artists. It connects Manet’s painting, whose subject is the death by firing squad of Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian of Mexico and his two generals in 1867, to more recent conflicts. The title is all-important. It creates doubt, emphasising the notion that ‘truths’ are very often constructions, pieced together from different perspectives, memories and specific agendas.
A complex multi-channel video installation by Omer Fast helps to set the tone. The literature tells us that Fast interviewed a soldier returned recently from Iraq, but the work, which is titled The Casting (2007), deliberately reveals the material construction of its images and stories. Two double-sided screens show Fast and the soldier in the style of a documentary on one side, and more cinematically shot images on the other. The work confusingly interweaves the soldier’s stories about a firebomb and shooting in Iraq and an encounter with a woman in Germany, while scenes from a television film studio reinforce the sense of construction.
Family Effects (2007–9), a series of 13 short films by Edgardo Aragón, similarly highlights the ways in which cinema and media coverage of conflict shapes our understanding of it. The ‘acted’ scenes in these artists’ works are unsettling in the context of real warfare. It is impossible to discern between fiction and truth, exaggeration and cover-up, clarity and deception. Manet’s painting was made through an assemblage of fragmented news reports of Maximilian’s execution in 1867 – unreliable evidence proliferates throughout the exhibition.
Santiago Sierra’s photographs of ex-servicemen, slightly larger than life-size, are particularly disconcerting. They show soldiers standing with their backs to the camera, faces turned to the wall. The images recall child-like postures of wrongdoing and punishment, but these strong backs also signify acts of resistance: control exercised silently by turning away. Sierra’s works also relate to Manet’s soldiers; sets of figures with unseen faces, obeying orders of one form or another.
Of Manet’s painting, only the sleeve and fingers of the titular Maximilian can be seen; the work has been sliced and pieced back together, some pieces are lost forever, and the backing is visible. These are perhaps the most intriguing aspects of the work, despite its political subject. Each of these alterations have contributed to its cultural and monetary value, and resonate with the themes of the exhibition: occlusion, editing, back-stories. The problem, though, is that The Execution of Maximilian, in this context, struggles to maintain its own presence alongside the vital and urgent contemporary works. Its positioning in the gallery is a little odd – off-centre, dimly lit, tucked around a corner with too much text and adjacent to two paintings by Luc Tuymans which depict fragments of Belgian colonial history.
Without adequate breathing space, direct comparisons are inevitably made between Manet and Tuymans, Manet and Sierra and so on. The formal and conceptual links are evident and interesting, but the more recent works seem brighter, more engaging, more relevant, and ultimately more powerful than Manet’s, despite their second billing.
‘Unreliable Evidence: The Execution of Maximilian by Edouard Manet and Other Histories’ is at the Mead Gallery, Warwick Arts Centre, until 6 December.