Friday, September 28, 2007

Out in the Open

Springtime (in Chatou), 1872-73, Pierre-Auguste Renoir (French 1841-1919). Oil on canvas, 23 ¼ x 29 1/8 inches. Private collection

“You can almost feel yourself getting hayfeaver,” said John Zarobell, associate curator of European painting before 1900 at the PMA, while standing before Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Springtime (in Chatou) (above) , one of the many eye-opening landscapes of the new PMA exhibit Renoir Landscapes 1865-1883. Along with Colin Bailey (formerly of the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa) and Christopher Riopelle (from the National Gallery of London), Zarobell co-curated this amazing exploration of Renoir’s landscapes that reveals Renoir as a more thoughtful, experimenting, and diverse artist than is commonly believed, bringing a new Renoir known only by scholars out in the open. (During today's press preview, Zarobell pointed out that his two co-curators were his predecessors in his current position at the PMA, making the show a testament to the scholarship of the PMA in the past and today.)

Many of the paintings in the show have never been part of a Renoir exhibition before. In fact, one painting, a portrait with landscape that greets patrons in the first room of the exhibit, was believed to be lost until recently and was unearthed as part of the research for the show. (The portrait, In the Rose Garden, is owned by Steve Wynn and his wife. Apparently it was at the Bellagio. Thank God they got to it before Wynn got too close.) These little-seen or almost unseen Renoirs provide surprises not only for the museumgoer but also for the Renoir scholar, making it truly an exciting exhibit.

Zarobell talked through the thought process behind the installation. Using period photographs and journal illustrations from the PMA’s permanent collection, Zarobell sets up the context of landscape in nineteenth century France first, orienting the viewer to the conventions Renoir worked within, most especially the idea that a landscape can include figures and still be a landscape. Zarobell neatly blows up the strike against Renoir that his interest in the figure somehow precludes his landscapes, allowing the viewer to see the landscapes in the spirit in which they were made.

Throughout, the installation clearly illustrates how Renoir interacted with the known conventions of landscape as well as with fellow artists such as Claude Monet and Paul Cezanne. Zarobell explained how the concept of “pure landscape” devoid of the human figure didn’t exist before 1874, and how Renoir embraced that concept as well before moving on again, particularly to his landscapes painting during his time in Algeria and then Venice.

Venice, the Doge's Palace, 1881, Pierre-Auguste Renoir (French 1841-1919). Oil on canvas, 21 3/8 x 25 3/4 inches. Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts. © Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts

Seeing the Algerian, aka, Arab, pictures up close really impressed me. I’ve always ranked Renoir below Monet and Degas among the Impressionists, but I couldn’t help but be bowled over by the freedom and experimental quality of these works, as if the exotic location brought out a different side of Renoir. Italian works such as Venice, the Doge’s Palace (above), painted in 1881, the same year as the Arab pictures, show a more commercial side to Renoir, without compromising quality.

Zarobell placed Renoir in a totally different context for me when he explained how Renoir’s dealer tried to follow the successful sales of the Arab pictures with a sale of the Italian pictures, which failed miserably. Renoir had asked his dealer to hold the Italian scenes back, to “let them age like wine.” A more calculating, sophisticated, self-promoting Renoir emerges in this image of an artist astutely taking the measure of his audience while continuing to innovate and create new ways of seeing. After reading Petra ten-Doesschate Chu’s The Most Arrogant Man in France: Gustave Courbet and the Nineteenth-Century Media Culture explain how Courbet similarly but more extravagantly approached self-promotion and the marketing of his works, Renoir came alive for me as an artist truly of his time, interacting with the transforming society around him and actively carving out his own place in it. The Renoir of the “pretty pictures” and little else falls away, restoring him to a fully dimensional creative artist and someone who can speak to our own visual and media-obsessed culture as much as his own.

[Many thanks to the PMA for inviting me to the Renoir Landscapes 1865-1883 press preview and for the images from the exhibition shown above. The exhibit opens to the public on October 4th and runs through January 6, 2008. The PMA is the only United States venue for this show.]

1 comment:

Impression EMEDIA said...

On every visit of the doge's palace I was surprised by the contrast between the brightness, the clear colours and the elegance of the outside facades and the rather dark decoration from the inside of the Doges Palace.
The sculptured and gilded wooden ceilings, the paintings of the masters Tintoret, Veronese, Bassano, Palma the Young and others do not really cheer up the somewhat ponderous decoration, essentially of the end of the 16th century.