Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Hating on Renoir-hating (only, not really)

When Pierre-Auguste Renoir showed up in Argenteuil and crashed a painting idyll between Édouard Manet and Claude Monet, an irritated Manet snapped "He has no talent, that boy. Since he’s your friend, you should tell him to give up painting!”

The Garden in the Rue Cortot, Montmartre
One of four Renoir paintings from Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum of Art collection

Some folks in Boston wish Monet had taken his advice and steered Renoir in a different direction. Weary of curatorial foci on this prolific Impressionist, a group of self-proclaimed Renoir-haters staged what has been termed a "playful protest" outside the Boston Museum of Fine Arts on October 5, 2015 (LINK). The small group reportedly bemused on-lookers with its chants for Gauguin and placards bearing sayings such as "God Hates Renoir" (Who knew God took aesthetic positions?) and "We're not Iconoclasts, Renoir Just SUCKS at Painting." (My personal favorite for the helpful qualification).

Hating on Renoir, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Photo credit: Boston Globe

There's a lot to unpack here, but I'll say at the outset that I love the protest! Not because I think Renoir outright sucks, or because I think that individual protesters' tastes ought to dominate museum galleries. I love it because it's gotten people thinking about art, museums, and the nature of protest.

Well, some people, anyway. Plenty don't get it. The social media commentary that I read in response to this story largely seemed to condemn the protesters as sophomoric for wallowing in "first world problems" and seeking their 15 minutes of fame on such a trivial issue. There were many comments about how they should 'get a job" and stop wasting their time. The gist of any more considered criticism was that taking time to talk about art precluded caring about other pressing social problems, and also that press coverage of this small protest demeaned more important concerns.

I call BS on all of that. With the very nature of news reporting being reconstructed and redistributed across so many and varied digital venues, we're spoilt for choice when it comes to what news we want to read. The fact that this protest received appropriate press coverage doesn't take away from stories about the on-going Syrian immigrant crisis, concerns about law enforcement biases toward black Americans in the United States, stories related to Mental Health Week, dithering about the American presidential campaign, or updates on the devastating floods in South Carolina (all things I read and cared about today in addition to articles about this demonstration).

Seriously, let's acknowledge that caring about art doesn't mean one doesn't care about other things. If anything, caring about art has the ability to enhance how much we care about global concerns. Witness the overwhelmingly positive response to the work of the men and women involved in The Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program during World War II. The work of these Monuments Men has only received its positive due in the last decade, but the belated respect is enhanced by the  realization of how much cultural identity could have been lost had these people not cared about art. Given that historical context, the current assaults on cultural heritage and its protectors in Syria becomes that much more poignant and pressing.

Frankly, I see the general backlash to this protest as akin to valuing reductionistic thinking over holistic reasoning without recognizing that there's a time and place for both perspectives. It's also a larger commentary on how art is valued in today's world. For most of us, visiting an art museum is a weekend distraction, a luxury afforded to those who have the time and means to indulge. It's ever been thus; see my ramblings about that HERE.

Fortunately, there are good folks out there who understand the power that harnessing creativity has to affect change, and who create programs like Pittsburgh's Love Front Porch. But for many others, taking art seriously is seen as self-indulgent and naive (and apparently rage-inducing for some  vitriolic social media commentators). Even President Obama, who usually 'gets' the Big Picture (so to speak), took a gratuitous swipe at art history majors in 2014 when he said "....folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree. Now, nothing wrong with an art history degree — I love art history. So I don't want to get a bunch of emails from everybody. I'm just saying you can make a really good living and have a great career without getting a four-year college education as long as you get the skills and the training that you need." (For the record, I got his larger point, and he responded graciously to the inevitable "emails from everybody" mad about that art history dis. But, still, he singled out the particular field to compare it with other admittedly more financially lucrative ones, thereby assigning it a hierarchical position according to a set of standards that represented perceived value).

So to me, the backlash to this playful protest reflects what we value as a culture. What to think about Renoir's suckage, though?

Well, I don't think Renoir sucks, but I do think he's over-rated. His work never impressed me with the consistently innovative and exciting qualities and vision that characterized other Impressionist masters. I guess Manet would agree with me--although Manet was a notorious crank, so consider the source there. OTOH, a lot of these guys weren't particularly warm and cuddly, including Renoir. Reading about their lives and personalities informs my personal understanding of their art, though.

I think Renoir is rather the Thomas Kinkade of the Impressionists, the guy whose work today would grace 21st century hotel lobby starving artist sales and end up on your suburban living room wall. I'm not saying Renoir didn't have his moments of grace, despite what Manet and the Boston protesters might say. Having taken in the Durand-Ruel exhbit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art this summer, I had the opportunity to view Renoir's three full-length paintings (unusual for him) hung together: Dance in the Country, Dance in the City and Dance at Bougival. I came away smiling, and bought the postcards in a vain attempt to hold onto the feels I experienced while looking at these three works.

To be honest, part of my joy in seeing these paintings was remembering when a massive bronze sculpture inspired by the couple in Renior's 1883 Bal à Bougival was brought to Pittsburgh last summer by the Laurel Foundation. My husband and I used Seward Johnson’s “A Turn of the Century” 20 foot tall, 14000+ pound sculpture as an impromptu photo backdrop one summer evening after dinner...and I'm sure many others did as well. It was a wonderful opportunity to connect with art in a fun way.

Seward Johnson’s “A Turn of the Century" in Pittsburgh 2014

Renior's Bal à Bougival recently returned to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and is thus the kind of feel-good Renoir that these protesters might like to see taken off the walls. (The other two dance paintings live at the Musée d'Orsay, but I don't think they're off-limits to the group's criticisms).

Bal du molin de la Galette, 1876
I can't say that I'm fond of Renoir's later classically-inspired works, which meander all over the canvas and aspire to something greater than they achieve. His earlier crowd-pleasing crowd at the Dance at the Moulin de la Galette is more to my liking for its well-composed snapshot of everyday life, as is Luncheon of the Boating Party. Renoir would no doubt say that one did not 'compose' when portraying real life, but I beg to differ. An artist needs to first seek and recognize a compelling image, then portray it to its best advantage with his or her technical virtuosity. The eye comes first;  Renoir's vision, to me, wasn't reliable.    
Le déjeuner des canotiers, 1881
Other criticisms? There is a childlike snub-nosed quality that pervades his group facial features, which I think arises from his indistinct sketchwork and composition. It's not as noticeable in his many individual portraits, which provided the mainstay of his income...but his nudes are another story. Renoir started his career as an apprentice to a porcelain painter and thus it's not surprising to me that the decorative is so prominent in his work. And Renoir's landscapes are so deeply saturated; I shudder to think what he'd do with today's Instagram filters.

For what it's worth, Renoir sometimes seemed to recognize his limitations. In a letter to dealer and Impressionist promoter extraordinaire Paul Durand-Ruel, Renoir wrote "I am still going through an experimental stage. I’m not happy, and I keep scrubbing out and scrubbing out again. I hope this mania will pass…I’m like the children at school; the clean page has to be filled with good writing, and splash – a mess! I’m still making messes and I’m forty years old. He lived to be 78 and made messes to the very end, even when someone had to fit a paintbrush in his withered hand.

So, yes, Renoir is admittedly a bit much for my tastes. And there's just SO much Renoir out there. The Impressionists were a prolific bunch, especially the longer-lived ones like Monet and Renoir, but I think our man takes the prize for most thousands of paintings. Enough paintings, anyway, to fill the Barnes Collection, and for nearly every major museum to have at least one, or two, or more. Renoir saturates the market like he did color to his canvases.

Because he was so prolific, I think Renoir is over-represented in the Impressionist oeuvre. It makes him an easy mark to criticize, to be sure. And I know there are those who'd argue that Impressionism itself is way over-represented in museum collections in general, and doesn't deserve its resounding popularity. We do so love our Impressionists, but are so used to the works from that movement that we have a hard time imagining how ill-received these artists' perceptions, styles, and subject matter were during their own era. I think recent exhibits like the Durand-Ruel in Philly and the Caillebotte at the National Gallery in Washington DC, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed, have done a wonderful job of putting art from this period into historical perspective. Learning about the social context of artwork enriches the experience just as learning about the artist does, allowing me as a non-artist to appreciate the works so much more. Truth is, I used to be embarrassed by how much I liked the work of this period, fearful of being labeled a fan of escapist pap. But with maturity and age comes, if not wisdom, then a satisfying disregard for what others think about what I think. So, now, I don't particularly care if my artistic tastes are mocked.

I wouldn't presume to inflict my tastes on others, though, so I couldn't seriously stand in front of a museum and call for the eradication of a particular artist's oeuvre. And I take to heart a message that is a bit more nuanced than what is being spun from the Renoir Haters' demonstration, with its Westboro-extremist satire. Let's face the fact that there's a lot of Renoir out there, and maybe too much. But let's not get into destroying art we don't like; that's a bit too Nazi-esque Entartete Kunst. The demonstrators' meta-message is that museums need to collectively evaluate how and what they present. If a particular artist like Renoir is over-represented, then more shows that explore over-arching thematic presentations may be called for to offset that. With only a small fraction of the collection in a particular museum on display at any one time, let's encourage cultural institutions to find time and space for the lesser-seen pieces. Let's encourage more private collectors to allow their paintings to go on display; it increases the value of their paintings, after all. And let's encourage museums to poll their patrons to learn what works they most enjoy in a collection. Lastly, let's recognize and act on our individual responsibilities to seek out variety when exploring our cultural heritage. There's a hell of a lot to chose from, and a digital smorgasbord to present it to us if we can't get to a museum in person.

I'm not espousing a populist curatorial approach here. Well, maybe I am...one taken in holistic context with other practical and scholarly concerns.

But for sure, I'm not hating on Renoir. I'm not hatin' on the haters, either. They've got something to say about encouraging us to see the big picture.