It's not exactly Dogs Playing Poker, but Christine Biederman says the Kimbell Art Museum's new Renoir exhibit panders to the masses

Gary Larson, creator of The Far Side, once did a cartoon that showed a grizzled old cowpoke lifting a coffeepot from the campfire. Though at first glance both the poke and the pot appear to be standard cattle-drive issue, upon closer inspection the pot has some funny-looking spouts and attachments. And neither does this turn out to be your stereotypical cowpunch. "Latte, Jed?" he asks a companion.

For nearly 25 years, those who call North Texas home have come to regard Fort Worth's Kimbell Art Museum as our own sleek little espresso maker, dispensing culture out here on the range. The museum is the legacy of Kay Kimbell, a minor collector of mostly western and British art and a major Fort Worth businessman who in 1964 left his entire estate to "[b]uild a museum of the first class" in Cowtown.

In less capable hands, this mission could easily have become the stuff of satire. But early on, those charged with carrying out Kimbell's legacy lit on a strategy: They would be a small museum and spend only on the best, acquiring only works of "definitive quality"--that is, art that could be said to "[define] a master, period, school, style or area," according to the museum's self-published hagiography, In Pursuit of Quality: The Kimbell Art Museum.

In practice, this meant buying Old Masters. It was a shrewd strategy for building a collection, one that flew in the face of what most other museums born in the second half of the 20th century were collecting. And it paid off by quickly establishing the Kimbell's reputation. Of course it also brought astonishing treasures to our neck of the prairie: Masterpieces from late Gothic to Modernism hang in the Kimbell's Louis Kahn-designed barrel vaults.

Mind you, this isn't New York City's Frick Collection; you can't really get a sense of the continuity of artistic schools or traditions, a shortfall that makes it hard to comprehend, say, how Caravaggio's style presented a radical departure from a hundred mannerist painters of the day. But the Kimbell has long atoned for this shortfall with relatively boosterism-free exhibitions and education. For years the Kimbell seemed to favor scholarship over spinning turnstiles, and the result was superb crema.

This history only serves to make the Kimbell's recent Impressionist binge--of which Renoir's Portraits: Impressions of an Age, running February 8 through April 26, is the latest episode--all the more puzzling. As the London Financial Times noted this January, "[e]ach year, one marvels at the American ingenuity in exploring yet another angle on the Impressionists." Granted, it's impossible to overstate the art-historical importance of Impressionism, the moment when painting left representation behind; then, too, our British cousins have never shared Americans' mania for the school. Yet after two decades of nonstop Impressionist exhibitions, they're beginning to look like the highbrow equivalent of the Eagles' Reunion Tour, a cynical means of using the safe and familiar to draw in the rubes.

To be sure, it hasn't all been dreck. The Kimbell's 1994 show, Impressionist Masterpieces from the Barnes Collection, was a must-see. And if Monet and the Mediterranean, the Kimbell's 1997 foray into the land of Impressionism, was a bit of pandering to the masses, it was arguably justifiable, Claude Monet being not only the father of Impressionism, but the godfather of abstraction as well. Even last fall's mini-show, Impressionists and Modern Masterpieces: The Rudolf Staechlin Family Foundation Collection of Basel, Switzerland, can be explained, if not excused, on the grounds that all museums toady up to potential donors.

But now, just when it seemed safe to venture back into the barrel vaults, we're served up another dose of the world's most fawned-over school of painting. And the rationalization is pretty thin; basically, they're doing it because it's an angle on Impressionism that hasn't been done.

"Despite 20 years of Impressionist exhibitions and scholarship, it's surprising how little is known about Renoir," says Charles Stuckey, the Kimbell's curator of Impressionist painting. "There's so little hard information about him." Indeed, the last exhibition of Renoir's portraits took place in 1912, and the only survey of his work in recent memory is the 1985 Boston show.

Of course this begs a critical question. Yes, Renoir is the least picked-over corner of the Impressionist world, art history's answer to James Fenimore Cooper studies. But why?

"It's a good question," says Stuckey, who suggests Renoir was "rather naive" in the ways of creating posthumous fame. He theorizes that since the '60s, art-world critics have favored "tough art instead of old-fashioned art." He touches upon the schmaltz factor: "That's all [Renoir's work] is, sentimental. And 'sentimental' today is derogatory." Stuckey even suggests that this is due in part to feminist scholarship, because of feminist quibbles over the way he portrayed women.

If Renoir's Portraits had explored any of these arguments, it might have made for a better show--but first, it would have had to acknowledge The Problem of Renoir. And this is where Renoir's Portraits fails to come clean with its audience. For Pierre-Auguste Renoir is a troublesome art-historical figure. Aside from Monet, no painter was more critical to the evolution of Impressionism. And as the Kimbell's show reveals, he had enormous talent. At the same time, however, Renoir's Portraits also demonstrates the troubling aspects of his work: the wild inconsistency, the addiction to the saccharine, the vapid mythologizing.

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