Snickering through museums: How we managed to enjoy Renoir: The Body, The Senses

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?”

Um.

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:

I said the trees are mines in air, I said
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 take Wilbur’s answer to the question “why this mad instead?” to be “it just do.” If it works, it works. My senses do stale, and I’m just glad there’s a remedy, whether it’s juxtaposing art, or just snickering.
 

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.” 

Expose your kids to art! (Or vice versa)

Expose your children to art! Or vice versa.

Portrait of a youth who stopped and looked closely at a work of fine art. This is a win.

The other week, we visited the Worcester Art Museum in MA. I heartily recommend it if you’re in the area (and it’s free all through August!). They had a world class collection with tons of variety, from pre-Columbian art to this guy; it was quite kid friendly (a docent in the armor display helped the kids try on helmets and gauntlets), the docents were genial and well-informed, and they had the exhibits arranged well to really help you see them. We saw everything in about three hours, and had time to go back and look at our favorite rooms.  Looks like they have a pleasant cafe and a bunch of programs, classes, and demonstrations, too.

About what happened in the photo above, I take full responsibility. I’ve been reading them Black Ships before Troy: The Story of the Iliad and he got kind of hung up on Helen of the Fair Cheeks.

Of the Fair Cheeks.

I’m just glad he didn’t notice what was going on on the B side of some of those Grecian urns. Whoo-ee!

Anyway, we had such a good time that I want to encourage everyone to bring your kids to an art museum this summer, even if you don’t think of yourself as one of those high culture families. If you’re in New England, don’t forget about Free Fridays (which includes art museums and lots of other fun stuff).

Here’s something I wrote a few years ago, on that topic of why adults sometimes struggle with visiting art museums, and how kids can show us how to do it better. For more reading on this topic, check out “Introducing Children to Art” by an actual artist, John Herreid, who is raising three hilariously arty kids.

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Remember the scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, when the Holy Grail is being snatched again by the bad guys?  Indy cries out in righteous indignation:  “That belongs in a museum!”  I love me some Indiana Jones, but I have regretfully come to the conclusion that this line was not meant ironically.  This really is the highest compliment that Americans can pay to an object of beauty and worth:  that it belongs in a museum.  I heard someone say the exact same thing in real life, when our college group first stepped out into one of the teeming, sun-drenched piazzas in Rome.  There was a magnificent fountain in the middle of the square, featuring a sculpture carved by one of the giants of Western art.  And people were sitting on it, and smoking, and drinking terrible wine, and flirting with each other, trying to sell socks out of a duffle bag, and generally acting like this timeless piece of art was theirs.  Almost tearful with outrage, the fellow cried out, “That should be in a museum!”

He meant that it ought to be protected from the elements, and also from bird droppings and graffiti and vandals.  But he also meant that it ought to be tucked away indoors, where the lighting could be controlled, where people would speak in hushed tones as they file past in reverence — where only the select few, acting in a very select way, would see it, and no one would get comfortable with it.  And there, he was disastrously wrong.

Art museums are necessary because they are the most convenient way to preserve and share works of art which would otherwise be tucked away in the private homes of the very wealthy.  But there is always the danger of museumishness taking over the work of art — making us forget why the artist made the piece in the first place.  It’s a relatively new idea that art is here to “challenge” us, to jar us out of whatever cultural sin is currently considered intolerable.  Instead, the great artists of every century have all said one thing:  “I see something!  You come and see it, too!  Do you see?”

Well, that’s a pretty big topic.  But in this little post, I can say that the problem with putting something in a museum is that it tends to give the impression that the question, “Do you see it, too?” is already answered.  We feel like we have to stroke our chins gravely and say, “Yes, yes, of course I see,” whether we do or not, because there it is, in a museum.  It must be Real Art. No wonder so many people have an aversion to art.  They think they’re expected to respond like highly educated robots when the encounter it.

What’s the cure for a case of Stifling Museumishness?  Take your kids to the museum with you . . . and do what they do.

Oh, listen, if your kids are awful, please don’t take them to a museum.  If they can’t be controlled, don’t take them.  If they can’t tell the difference between indoors and outdoors, and if they don’t obey you, and if otherwise kind people groan audibly when they see your family coming, then by all means, stay home.

But many parents underestimate how responsive their kids will be to good art.  Kids in art museums will often behave in a way that is not only tolerable, but which the adult patrons should imitate.

Kids do not talk in whispers, as if they are at the bedside of a dying tyrant.  Why do we whisper in front of art?  We shouldn’t speak loudly, to distract other patrons; but a normal, conversational tone of voice is completely appropriate.  Talking about what you’re seeing isn’t rude!  It’s a natural thing to do, and makes the experience so much more rewarding, when you hear other people’s takes on what you’re seeing. I also like to eavesdrop on strangers’ conversations — so sue me.

Kids do not pretend to like things they don’t like.  It’s one thing to have an open mind; it’s quite another to be a sucker. Many museums have extensive collections in the ever-popular genre of Egregious Crapola, and sometimes it really is only kids who are willing to point this out.  Many adults have been duped into giving up on beauty; most kids have not.  (But really, each kid is allowed to say, “I could have done that in ten minutes with a gallon of housepaint and a stick!” one time, and then they’re done.  This comment may or may not be true, but it gets old fast.)

Kids are also remarkably open to admitting that there is more than meets the eye.  They may shrug or grimace in front of a wonderful piece, but they are usually ready to listen if you point out, “No, look at how the light shines through that leaf!” or “See how realistic her hand looks — but get closer, and it’s just a bunch of paint” or “But why do you think this guy on the side has that look on his face?” or “Holy mackerel, what is this?!?”

Kids laugh at paintings – not only ones that look ridiculous, but ones which are meant to be funny.  There is nothing sillier than a bunch of adults gravely appreciating the finer points of a work of art which is supposed to be hilarious.

Kids do not suffer from appreciation anxiety.  Some adults who feel insecure in their grasp of art may spend their entire museum time wondering how obvious their lack of expertise is.  Well, that’s no way get to be more of an expert!  Kids don’t think about how they appear to others; they just look at the art.

Kids do not waste their time looking at exhibits that don’t interest them, out of a sense of duty or thrift.  They will keep circling back to take another look at that one room or one piece they really like, and that is a much more natural response than trying to “do” the whole museum just because it’s there.

Okay, yes, and some kids will go berserk and behave like little demons, while their fond parents look on and do nothing. Or if you have a generally decent child who is temporarily going through a highly unreasonably, ridiculously loud stage, then this is probably not the best time to work on enhancing their cultural education. But really, if your kids are generally the non-demonic, non-berserker types, consider taking them to a small museum next time you have a chance.  Wear comfortable clothes, discuss expectations ahead of time, plan a small treat for afterwards, and just relax.  You will probably have a lovely time!
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A version of this post originally ran in the National Catholic Register in March of 2013.