While hunting around for some images from the Renoir: The Body, The senses exhibit, I came across this review in The New Yorker, which begins, “Who doesn’t have a problem with Pierre-Auguste Renoir?”
I skimmed, I skimmed. The upshot seems to be that Renoir was a misogynist because boobs, but we should halfway forgive him, because art. And that’s why I live at the P.O.
We did make the drive to the Clark Art Institute to catch the exhibit in person before it left town. Here’s how we managed to have a wonderful time, despite how problematic everything is:
We do actually have some issues to overcome when we spend exclusive time with art. Damien calls it “museum anxiety:” that terrible fear that you’re missing out on something exquisite and important; that you’re not “getting it.” In the past, I have recommended bringing kids along with you — not just for their own sakes, but because we can follow their lead and skip right over the pretensions and anxieties so many adults labor under.
Even if you don’t have kids with you, you can imitate their approach, and it will dissipate that stifling museum fog. I did this when I had the rare opportunity to spend 45 minutes alone in the Princeton Art Museum. I went for the ancient art gallery, and decided I would let myself laugh out loud at anything that struck me as funny — and there was a lot of it.
After about the fourth room at the Renoir exhibit, I got softened up, and recalled I had no obligation to try to impress the other grave, whispering museum-goers with their complicated necklaces and flowy linen pants. I actually went a little overboard, and when I saw yet another elderly gentleman soberly studying a set of rosy, glowing ass cheeks, I had to stifle the urge to sneak up behind him and emit a falsetto, “Niiiiiice!” like Peter Venkman. But seriously, Renoir: quite the ass man. And why not? They pretty.
Letting myself snicker a bit breaks down my head garbage and leaves me much more open to stuff that’s not funny at all, but just plain beautiful. This one hit me right between the eyes and made me cry, and I can’t even remember why.
I think I was just glad to be alive, with eyeballs.
They had some thought-provoking pairings at this exhibit, which included not only Renoir but Degas and Cezanne and other contemporaries, as well as later artists influenced by Renoir. One interesting set was a Renoir “Woman Combing Her Hair” (which really doesn’t narrow it down much) and a Degas also showing a half-nude woman combing her hair (which I can’t seem to find anywhere).
Here’s where I have to admit that I know what the guy was talking about in the New Yorker. The two paintings were of similar subject, but Renoir had buttered his gal up to a light-filled sheen, and the entire world faded into a hazy chorus rejoicing in the loveliness of women’s backs. But Degas approached the woman from above, and you got the impression she had a book propped awkwardly on her thighs to while away the time while she was painted. You felt the strain in her muscles; whereas Renoir’s gal would probably be content to stay there forever, endlessly brushing in the golden sun. This is no knock on the Renoir. It was just different, that’s all. Both women were real flesh, really real flesh (and Renoir apparently got dinged by critics by showing too much fat and including too many colors); but I got the impression Degas was more aware that they were human, too.
It’s strange how you see something better once you have something to compare it to. Like Richard Wilbur says:
See how the sparrow burrows in the sky!
And then I wondered why this mad instead
Perverts our praise to uncreation, why
Such savour’s in this wrenching things awry.
Does sense so stale that it must needs derange
The world to know it?
I actually enjoyed the rest of the museum more than the special exhibit. It’s a world-class collection, well worth the trip on its own, but small enough that you can see everything without dashing around like a maniac. The Clark does a good job with its labels, providing little bits of information you might not pick out on your own, but without dictating too narrowly what you’re supposed to think of a particular piece.
Among some Degas studies was a quote about how an artist should practice a composition over and over again, hundreds or thousands of times, so that nothing must appear to be by chance. I could see that was how he did it — there were the many, many studies, right before my eyes — but the end result was that it did appear to be by chance. Even when you know it’s a grindingly hard-won skill honed over thousands of hours, it does feel like the artist just happened to casually snag some familiar arc of the arm or angle of the elbow or weight of a thigh. Pff, Degas, what does he know about art.
There are a number of Renoirs in the permanent collection, including this one, which struck me for the first time as something of an inside joke for artists: Here is this gal, dressed to the nines to sit in her garden and embroider.
She’s surrounded by lush, boisterous foliage and blossoms, and what is she making so intently?
A little handkerchief with a little, delicate, stylized floral pattern on it.
I don’t know, I just thought it was funny. Flowers vs. floral. Art! What are we even doing? I don’t know, but we can’t seem to stop.
Many Renoirs showed women with their fingers working closely together, with something lovely flowing out from between them like a waterfall.
Women are like that, I guess.
Damien and I both adored all the John Singer Sargents. The Clark has the slightly silly but entirely successful Fumée d’Ambre Gris, which you should be required to study before you can buy white paint.
and several others. The Portrait of Carolus Duran really grabbed us.
You want to use words like “deft” and “confident” with John Singer Sargent, but that’s so inadequate. Check out these hands and cuffs:
Look at those shadows! Look at that ring! And you know these are just little phone pictures. You really need to see it.
Same thing with the portrait of Mme. Paul Escudier.
You could almost get a paper cut on the edge of that ribbon plopped on top of her head, but then you get really close and what do you know? It’s just paint. I don’t know how he did it, except that he believed in himself! Ha.
We kept coming back to A Venetian Interior.
This is where I want to find and murder the guy who recently suggested that museums are obsolete, since we now have digital photos of all art and can just go look at it whenever we want. You have to see it in person. We both felt very strongly that that one streak of yellow wasn’t actually paint, but was actual light, and it’s probably why he decided to paint this scene.
They also have several Winslow Homers, which is always a treat. Wear a jacket, because some of them are brisk.
Speaking of brisk, I think some people sneer a little over Frederick Remington, because it’s American White House horsey art. Maybe I’m making that up. Anyway, check out this shadow of a horse on the snow in the moonlight, and then get back to me:
This is from “Friends or Foe?”
A few other random things that caught my eye:
This fond, doting Mary from the Netherlands:
This is from Virgin and Child with Saints Elizabeth and John the Baptist. Quinten Massys, 1520.
And these terrible children with a cat who has just about had enough:
And that’s why this cat lives at the P.O.
One final note: They had another special exhibit downstairs: Ida O’Keeffe, the lesser-known sister of Georgia O’Keeffe. Apparently there were three artistic O’Keeffe sisters, and when the other two started showing some inclination toward art, Georgia swatted them down pretty savagely, because you can only have one Artist per family. One sister meekly abandoned her ambitions, but Ida struggled to make her own name; so Gerogia cut her off. Sheesh!
So before we went into the gallery, I mentioned to Damien that Ida wanted some way to set herself apart from the more famous Georgia and her famous . . . flowers. He says, “Well, that’s easy. All she had to do was paint penises, instead.” I snickered, but you know what? We walked into the room, and this is what Ida did:
Talk about a “mad instead.” (She also painted some banana plants.)
Anyway, go see a art! Cut yourself some slack, let your mouth hang open like a yokel, and just see what there is to see. Don’t forget to laugh at the funny ones.
You can probably skip the museum cafe, though. That really is there just to impress you and make you feel like you can’t complain when it’s terrible; but nobody in the world needs to pay $16 for a microwaved grilled cheese, even if it is called “croque monsieur.”