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

Unfortunately, none of these shows seems likely anytime soon. For we live in the most Darwinian of museum eras, an age when too many exhibition-hungry museums, all built to put some midsized metropolis "on the cultural map," compete for too little underwriting and aging cultural consumers. And these are factors that lead to scholarly timidity. In this age of box office Yber alles, even the Kimbell is in no mood to be provocative.

Indeed, the Kimbell is a case study in what the safe, straightforward Impressionist blockbuster can do for a museum. During the late '80s, the Kimbell did a series of shows that drew critical acclaim but relatively small audiences. The Kimbell's 1988 show of the French 17th-century painter Poussin, which drew rave reviews for groundbreaking scholarship, drew approximately 85,000 visitors. According to Wendy Gottlieb, a spokesman for the Kimbell, during the late '80s, the Kimbell's membership "was fluctuating between 5,000 and 6,000 members." On the eve of the 1994 Barnes exhibition, the membership was still "about 6,000."

In three months, the 430,000 visitors to the Barnes exhibition resulted in 150 percent increase in the Kimbell's membership. "During Barnes it almost tripled, going from about 6,000 to 15,000," says Gottlieb. Though a mere 330,000 came to last year's Monet exhibition, the membership took another quantum leap; now, on the eve of Renoir, it hovers at about 26,000.

While the Kimbell declines to say how many visitors it expects Renoir to lure (at the Art Institute, the show brought in nearly 500,000), they do say they expect Renoir to take these figures even higher. "Exhibitions always drive membership," Gottlieb says. And there does seem to have been some spillover effect; even the numbers for Old Masters shows have climbed. Last year's La Tour show brought in 113,000 visitors. "That was very well attended for an Old Master show that was up in the winter," Gottlieb notes. "La Tour is not a household name."

As the numbers indicate, one can make the case that the Kimbell's Impressionist shows are expanding the base of cultural consumers. But there's a real side of cynicism to this argument, since it assumes that you can't give the people what they want and something to think about too.

Renoir's Portraits is in no danger of changing the scholarly wisdom on Renoir, mostly because they would have had to deal with it honestly in the first place. Instead, the show's curators argue the merits of even his worst work.

As Renoir's Portraits makes clear, by 1881 Renoir had grown dissatisfied with Impressionism. With the security that Durand-Ruel's support provided, Renoir toured Italy and Algiers. It was then that Renoir began to develop his own mature style.

Influenced by Renaissance masters, as well as by the French Rococo he so admired, Renoir ceased to paint the history of the French bourgeoisie and instead began his "classical" phase. By the late 1880s, Renoir had virtually ceased to paint commissioned portraits. His models were his family and friends, whom he frequently placed in narrative fantasies such as Young Shepherd in Repose (Alexander Thurneyssen). It was during this period, too, that Renoir began painting an endless series of blowsy nudes, which the curators have not seen fit to include although they were the primary focus of Renoir's later years. (Bailey's essay does mention the nudes; he quotes the painter Mary Cassatt "insensitively" dissing them.)

Of course, such doubts about Renoir's work are unlikely to stop the occupants of faux-Georgian suburban homesteads from storming the Kimbell. At $10 a head they will come, sallying forth from security-gated 'burbs to soak up the middle class' idea of culture. And well they should. For Renoir is a veritable Homer of suburbia, an artist who raises the banal to the heroic.

Not to mention that the mugs and prints go so well with the sofa. Too bad; the Kimbell could have sent them home with something to think about.

Head 'em up. Move 'em out.

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