Renoir,Shmenoir

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

Noting that Renoir "pos[ed] friends in modern narratives that gave the illusion of being direct transcriptions of everyday life," Bailey's essay extols the "affection" and "tenderness" of these portraits. And neither was our hero a snob, it seems: "[T]he children of petit bourgeois clerks and shopkeepers are as commanding as the pampered offspring of provincial senators...It is this immensely reassuring and utopian vision of a shared and harmonious society that sets Renoir apart." A regular man of the people, that Pierre-Auguste.

It's a selective bunch of hooey. Though urban-improvement programs had made things comfy for the Parisian middle class, they had pushed the workers into shantytowns on the outskirts of town. And as the Dreyfus affair would show, even wealth could not guarantee security for Jewish residents in the City of Light. (In 1894, rabid French antisemitism resulted in the arrest and conviction of one Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a wealthy French Jew, on charges of espionage. Though Dreyfus was wrongly accused, the French military covered up evidence of its mistake. Eventually the affair blossomed into a Watergate-type scandal that brought down the French royalists, exposed French antisemitism, and generally split the country. Renoir was in the anti-Dreyfusard camp.)

Bailey's not-a-snob comment does, however, hint at the reason Renoir was a second-class painter: He had a hopelessly second-class mind. Possessed of the eye of an artist and the soul of a peasant from Limoges, he did not lack the ability to discern good from bad; he simply lacked the judgment to choose correctly. He had utter contempt for the truth, not only in terms of what he saw but in terms of conveying larger truths about life. As a result, Renoir is an artist in the small sense, that of deceiving or being artful.

This is not to say he lacked wit; many of the canvases contain painterly in-jokes. But Renoir disliked intellectualism of any sort. Not surprisingly, he wasn't that good at thinking. Like the geezers who pine for the good old days, conveniently forgetting the bit about chamber pots and gas lamps, Renoir was too often addled by a sappy reverence for the past.

Similarly, Renoir's pronouncements on art, posthumously recorded by his son, the filmmaker Jean Renoir, sound like "Deep Thoughts" from Saturday Night Live's Jack Handey:

"Go and look at what others have produced, but copy only nature itself. If you copy you are assuming a creative personality which is not your own. Nothing that you did would ever be your own.

"Young people should be trained to see things for themselves and not always seek guidance.

"Painters on porcelain only copy the work of others..."
"It's all very well to be sentimental about the past. Of course I regret the passing of hand-colored plates...of the days when every craftsman could use his imagination, and put something of himself into every object he made..."

Given his shortcomings as a theorist, perhaps it's no surprise that subjects for which Renoir cared least were his most successful. Renoir was a better painter of landscapes than of men, and with few exceptions--one being his psychologically astute First Portrait of Madame Georges Charpentier--a better painter of men than of women. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in comparing two portraits that hang close together in the show: the portrait of Charles Le Coeur and that of Madame Henriot. The former captures many aspects of the sitter: his savvy, dandyism, vanity, sophistication. The latter is pure fiction, a fantasy of a woman that conveys nothing of the sitter's considerable drive and ambition. Psychologically opaque, it is fit only for selling skin cream--a use to which it was put.

Worst of all are Renoir's wretchedly sentimentalized children, which the Kimbell has lumped together in a single room of the show. Renoir started out well enough, as demonstrated by his 1864 portrait of Mademoiselle Romain Lacaux. Yet from this early pinnacle, with a few notable exceptions, the portraits of children go straight downhill, until, by the late '70s, Renoir's children have assumed the saccharine mien of china dolls. (Indeed, the Kimbell even displays the doll many were modeled after.)

These flaws mar the famous Impressionist works in the Kimbell's show, such as the Art Institute's Two Sisters (On the Terrace). In this undeniably beautiful picture, bursting with jewel tones and ambition, Renoir's portrait of the older sister skillfully walks the tightrope between flattery and representation. And then--sacre bleu!--one focuses on the younger girl, who has the too-dominant eyes and the too-small rosebud mouth of Franklin Mint dolls. The painter who would thus destroy his own masterpiece should be hung in effigy instead of in the Art Institute.

Protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, this show is at least as much about promoting a popular legend as promoting scholarship. And it's too bad, because it would have been easy to have one's Renoir and one's integrity too. The organizers of this exhibition could have justified a dozen angles for the show: Was Renoir a proto-Pop artist? How about Renoir and Picasso? Renoir and Rauschenberg? Here's an interesting high/low comparison: Renoir and Norman Rockwell.

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