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The Tech goes to Renoir

Please leave the ufstars in place. The article is too long not to be articulated in this way.

Renoir, at the Museum of Fine Arts, through January 5, 1986.

The comprehensive exhibition on the work of Pierre-Auguste Renoir, the major fall event at the Museum of Fine Arts, raises fundamental questions of aesthetics. On the one hand, Renoir's appreciation by the general public is said to be at an all-time high, and the Museum hopes for a record-breaking attendance. At the same time, Renoir's reputation with art historians and critics is in the process of free fall, with as yet no ground in sight.

This situation is not without irony. After all, the hostility of the general public in the face of daring and revolutionary innovations has become a standard ingredient of the legend of Impressionist painting, making Impressionism the paradigm for that Romantic version of art sociology which holds that all true genius is scorned by the many. It is a remarkable renversement des alliances.Please don't translate this.mb.

To see what the fuss is all about, let us first try to draw the contours of Renoir's artistic personality.

In mid-19th century France, around the time that Renoir received his artistic education, the conflict of the schools of painting hinted at an impending revolution in aims and methods. The classicist tradition was challenged first by Delacroix and the Romantic movement, then by the more agressive Realist approach, of which Courbet and later Manet was the principal exponent. The first room of the current exhibition gives an idea of the alternatives available to the young Renoir.

Among the experiences of his youth, two deserve special mention. First, he worked for a while as a decorator of porcelain. Later, he received formal training in the studio of Charles Gleyre, an academic painter if ever there was one. On the positive side, this brought him the friendship of his fellow apprentices Monet, Sisley and Bazille, which was to determine the course of his art for the next thirty years -- and steered it away from academicism.

However, traditional painting made a dramatic comeback at the other extreme of Renoir's career, during the last thirty years of his life (from about 1890 to his death in 1919). In those days, he backed away from his mature style, attempting instead to emulate classical masters -- especially Rubens and Titian, whose plastic nudes and strong hues must have seemed particularly congenial to him.

Unfortunately, these attempts failed. They produced an endless series of dollhouse scenes which mock monumental classicism while trying to extoll it. Even without such explicitly incriminating evidence as the 1908 Judgment of Paris, one rapidly infers that the spirit of Renoir's illustrious models was outside the scope of his technical and conceptual grasp. Only his most ardent champions would rank his latest works among the high summits of art, and the Museum is courageous rather than commendable for including such a lavish selection of them in this show.

Therefore, if we want to do justice to Renoir's achievements, we have to look at works which follow his tentative early work but predate his later phase: We need to focus on the canvases of his maturity, which we may take to span the last century's 70s and early 80s. There we find such works as The Swing (1876), Mme Charpentier and her Children (1878), A Box at the Op'era (1880), the three Dances (1882-83) and countless other textbook mainstays. The essential completeness of this section of the show is astonishing in the light of present-day curatorial constraints, a fact of which the Museum is justly proud.

It is important for the appreciation of this work to realize that the mature Renoir's concerns, unlike those of some of his Impressionist colleagues, were never of a formal nature. The art of Monet, for instance (which more than any other established the popular conception of Impressionism) can be interpreted as an exploration of the modalities of natural light. Degas opened up new pathways in the treatment of movement and light dynamics. Both of these artists thought of themselves as innovators, and produced many works that can be termed programmatic. Compared to them, Renoir appears as somewhat of a stylistic opportunist.

There can be no doubt that for him the primacy was in his subjects, and the painter's task their exaltation. All his artistic means are applied toward this single goal. If so much on his canvases is feathery and fluffy, it is not because Renoir believes this to be the essence of our visual experience; it is because he believes it conveys a sense of delicacy and poetry to a cherished subject. If the colors are lavish or exuberant (sometimes to the point of assaulting the eye), it is not to make a statement about color but to stress and celebrate its existence.

Take the landscapes, for instance. The stylistic consistency of the best among them (like High Wind (1872), Landscape at Wargemont (1879), Piazza San Marco (1881)) is carried less by a single formal principle than by a common aspect in their subject matter -- in these cases, a sense of vibrant movement dissolving in a fragmented medium. (Renoir was particularly fond of this motif; it reoccurs in The Mosque (1881), a scene of mass turmoil in Algeria, which provides an interesting contrast with Delacroix' well-known treatment of similar topics.) Renoir's response to the chromatic diversity of these subjects is particularly pleasing.

But Renoir's reputation is built on pictures of people rather than inanimate things. Many of those are scenes of recreation and entertainment. The Museum is particularly glad to show the three Dance pictures from the early 1880s (Dance at Bougival, Dance in the City and Dance in the Countryside) together, something that has not been possible since their separation in 1892.

No subject was treated so often by Renoir as the female nude, to which he seems to have born a special fascination and a definite artistic predilection. Neither is unique to him: the first is shared by roughly half of humanity, and the second a Leitmotiv throughout the history of art. But Renoir's nudes are easily recognizable as his.

Renoir goes for the delicacy of the flesh in its most voluptuous manifestations. He shows his Bathers in feathery settings enhancing by contrast the plasticity of their forms, and often adds a bucolic gaze to their already abundant sensuality.

Thus they embody more than any other subjects the issues about which the debate on Renoir's art revolves. For the same image that constitutes to some the very consecration of life on earth may appear to the less lyrically inclined as its exact opposite. What seems proof that art transcends restrictive morality may occur in a different perspective as that moral's triumphant self-assertion. And it is a matter of taste to judge where embellishing stops and cloying starts.

The same points return in Renoir's portraits. It is not a matter of discussion whether Renoir was a great psychologist; he was not, and presumably did not want to be. His characterization is shallow and his treatment of human features generic. His emphasis on the eyes, windows of the soul, has hardly an equal in art history (except perhaps the Fayyum portraits from late Antiquity), yet nothing could be so similar as two of his woman or child portraits. Renoir deals in charm, not in vision.

What this amounts to is clearly shown by the group portrait of Mme Charpentier and her Children (1878). The general atmosphere of suave happiness, and details like the sentimental motive of the dog have close parallels in other visual imagery of the time, from simple everyday craft objects to the court portraits of the Second Empire; the individual characterization is indifferent to the point that one has to read the caption to find out that the girl in the middle is actually a boy. It is up to the emphatic, straightforward appeal on universal forms of affection and the supporting heavy coloration to make the difference.

This, then, brings us to the core. Renoir's art is an art of representation, rather than penetration. What it strives to represent is a particular limit of our world where the sun always shines and everybody is always smiling. And to realize this goal, it pushes its means to their limit as well. As the painter himself summarized his intentions, "A picture should be something that is pleasant, joyful and pretty; there are already enough unpleasant things in life to dissuade us from producing still others."

All this is fine, but it brings up a problem. The point is, simply, that the ultimate affirmation of existence is dangerously close to its utter trivialization. Both the highest ambitions and the dullest clich'es have their place in dreams.

It is the privilege of a dream that is doesn't have to be credible. But is has to be convincing. This, of course, is ultimately a personal affair. Go, judge for yourself whether Renoir's dreams are yours.

Michiel Bos->