Renoir the Pinhead
If ever you doubt God's perverse sense of humor, consider Pierre-Auguste Renoir, the most overrated Impressionist. Upon Renoir, Yahweh bestowed great artistic gifts--virtuoso paint-handling, stunning ability as a colorist--and then, in some sort of cosmic in-joke, saddled his creation with a hopelessly third-rate mind. The problem wasn't just that Renoir was that most unattractive form of homo sapiens, the right-wing Frog; it wasn't just his chauvinism, his xenophobia or his anti-Dreyfusard stance. The problem is that Renoir's bad judgment carried over into aesthetic matters, like a little gremlin that pops up to mar many of his greatest efforts. As a wag in the Modern department at Chicago's Art Institute once quipped, it's too bad about Renoir--his son (the filmmaker Jean Renoir) was a great artist.
Alas, as with the Corvette, or antique reproduction furniture, or Tom Cruise, no matter how much one might wish it, Renoir's popularity seems never to wane. Museums are, of course, well aware of this, and shamelessly seize upon any excuse; this space is too small to list all the Impressionist shows that have schlepped through this part of the world in the past two decades. Comes now the Dallas Museum of Art's latest effort, Renoir and Algeria, a heavily promoted exhibition, an offering that smacks of mindless summer escapism, of desperation to get those turnstiles spinning, of pandering to the public's worst taste.
Naturally, being a cynic and habitual DMA-basher, I couldn't wait.
Unfortunately, the DMA's show presents no opportunity for schadenfreude. This is a fine scholarly effort, a legitimate attempt to throw light on Renoir's little-known turn as an Orientalist--an interesting and little-explored aspect of Renoir's oeuvre, and of Impressionism at the same time.
Although the Impressionists were best-known as the painters who celebrated French middle-class life and subjects, they were not entirely xenophobic. In the late 19th century, France was a great colonial power, and French merchants brought back exotic spoils to sell in the Impressionists' beloved Parisian department stores. Thus the Impressionist taste for Japonisme, for example, has been well-documented, as have Monet's travels to the wilds of Breton and Degas' adventures in New Orleans.
Renoir, however, seems to have been the only member of the group to have exhibited a fascination with Arab lands and peoples. As such, he was both a throwback to earlier Romantics and a precursor to a younger generation of post-modern adventurers like Gauguin and Van Gogh. Although Renoir tried his hand at Oriental themes as early as 1870, it wasn't until the early 1880s that he actually traveled, twice, to the French province of Algiers, in North Africa. The show does the meat-and-potatoes work of tracing Renoir's steps in Africa, examining his models, his views and his possible photographic sources. It also explores Renoir's early "studio Orientalism," ascribing his interest in the subject not only to his reverence for Ingres and Delacroix, but also to Renoir's eagerness to earn admittance to the Salon. It explores the re-emergence of Orientalist themes and motifs in Renoir's last, "classical" years. Best (and rarest) of all, it does a fine job of placing this all in historical context, exploring France's tangled 130-year colonial history in Algiers.
Sadly, the organizers have been unable to secure many of Renoir's best Orientalist works. Among the missing are Renoir's great Algerian "set piece," the unabashedly erotic "Woman of Algiers," painted in 1870, a decade before Renoir ever set foot in North Africa. Missing, too, is "Parisian Women in Algerian Costume," Renoir's frank 1872 effort. The Algerian portraits are especially bare, and the best landscapes, like the Bellagio's "Le Jardin d'Essai à Alger" conspicuously absent.
In order to fill in the many gaps, the DMA has grafted its own hodgepodge Renoir show and art-history lesson onto the tail of this exhibition. As usual, the educational effort is pedantic and amateurishly done, what with the reproductions of important, absent canvases and the cheesy art-lesson placards. At the same time, however, the museum does something remarkable: It attempts to mitigate the DMA's greatest folly, the Wendy and Emery Reves wing.
As all in Big D surely recall, in the early '80s, the DMA was in the same pickle as most museums in flyover territory: all building and no endowment, and, needless to say, very little art. Lacking the geld to acquire Important Art, and looking to, as the breathless boosters always say, "put Dallas on the cultural map," the local yokels were easy prey for Wendy Reves, a former model turned Riviera hostess looking to immortalize herself and her life. The muckety-mucks then running the DMA were so eager to land Wendy's Impressionist collection that they agreed to what no other self-respecting institution would: They would build an exact replica of Wendy's villa within the new museum, so that hoi polloi could admire not only Wendy's paintings but her furniture and rugs and ashtrays. To top it all, they agreed to rope it all off, so the public couldn't see the loot and dirty the carpets.
For only the second time, this exhibition seems to have provided the art-world minions with the backbone to bend Wendy's bequest; they've moved the Reves' Renoirs downstairs to the exhibition space, where the commoners can view them up close. The paintings have very little to do with Algeria, but are interesting nonetheless--and the DMA should be commended for using any excuse it can come up with to make amends.
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