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In the flesh: Kimbell exhibition dares to examine Renoir's nudes


In the flesh: Kimbell exhibition dares to examine Renoir's nudes
Pierre-Auguste Renoir's "Bathers Playing with a Crab" from 1897 shows his peerless skill at painting flesh.(Howard Agriesti / Cleveland Museum of Art)

When Pierre-Auguste Renoir died at 78 in 1919, he was among the most famous artists in the world. Of his impressionist colleagues, only two — Claude Monet and Mary Cassatt — were to survive him, and all four of the major post-impressionists (Georges Seurat, Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin and Paul Cézanne) had been dead for more than a decade.

Since then, his reputation as a painter has been in a slow, steady and relentless decline, particularly with scholars and critics, who increasingly view his figural art as cottony or, to use a British phrase, “chocolate boxy,” or, worse still, guilty of the objectification of women.

In the flesh: Kimbell exhibition dares to examine Renoir's nudes
Pierre-Auguste Renoir's reputation as a painter has been in a slow, steady decline among scholars and critics, in part because of the belief that works like his "Study: Torso, Effect of Sun" objectify women.(Erich Lessing / Kimbell Art Museum)

Enter the Kimbell Art Museum with what is a second major reappraisal of Renoir’s oeuvre in the past generation. The first, a landmark exhibition almost precisely two decades ago devoted to the artist’s portraits and genre scenes, was generally acclaimed nationally and internationally and produced a massive catalog that remains a touchstone of impressionist scholarship to this day.

Not to be outdone, George Shackelford, the Kimbell deputy director and an internationally known scholar of impressionism, has gone where few have dared to tread: Renoir’s nudes. He has done so with the collaboration of Esther Bell, curator of painting at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass., which has the second-largest collection of paintings by that artist in the U.S. (after the Barnes Collection), including several canonical paintings of female nudes.

The exhibition opened at the Clark Art Institute during the summer with reviews that, even when good, expressed ambivalence about the work as exploiting for a male audience the bodies of female models who have, in the paintings, no agency — no ability to be anything other than “bodies.” This, when combined with Renoir’s well-known belief that women should be wives and mothers first and foremost, makes it tough for the post-modern audience to swallow many of the paintings.

Yet, if a “great” exhibition of Cézanne or Pablo Picasso is often a bitter pill to swallow, this Renoir exhibition is both sugarcoated and as easy to chew as a gummy bear. It’s reminiscent of when, early in the 20th century, the first major historian of modern art, the Austrian critic Julius Meier-Graefe, decided that the two greatest artists of the time were Cézanne and Renoir, calling them the Poussin and Rubens of modern painting.

One was hard, geometric and rooted in classicism, the other soft, painterly and of the senses — the Apollo and Dionysus of painting. As is often the case in art history, Apollo wins over the wine-drinking sensualist, Dionysus.

In the flesh: Kimbell exhibition dares to examine Renoir's nudes
Pierre-Auguste Renoir painted this self-portrait around 1875.(The Clark Art Institute / Kimbell Art Museum)

For Meier-Graefe and many others, “important art” had to be figural art, not landscape or still-life, and had to compete with the great traditions of European painting, traditions respected by both Cézanne and his friend Renoir. Poor Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro!

So, with all this critical baggage, we confront an exhibition that, although called “Renoir: The Body, The Senses,” is actually about Renoir nudes. These paintings do flirt with traditions of the female nude that thunder throughout the history of Western art as well as the history of modern art.

If you go to Fort Worth expecting to see six or seven galleries of Renoir’s soft-focus nudes, think again. In fact, the exhibition’s strengths are that, while it does include plenty of beautifully selected Renoir nudes, it places them carefully into the context of Renoir’s sources, including Rubens (whom Renoir copied) and François Boucher (whom he carefully studied) as well as the nudes of his immediate influences, principally Gustave Courbet and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot.

Works that are, in most monographic exhibitions, simply comparative plates in the catalog here are on the walls doing battle — or in carefully curated dialogue — with Renoir. This approach extends to his friends and collaborators in the impressionist movement, particularly Cézanne and Edgar Degas. We participate in an exercise in the connoisseurship of quality, a value intrinsic to the very identity of the Kimbell, in an art historical conversation across more than four centuries.

In the flesh: Kimbell exhibition dares to examine Renoir's nudes
"The Bathers" illustrates Pierre-Auguste Renoir's penchant for painting plump women who over-eat for pleasure.(Musée d'Orsay, Paris, France. Gift of the artist’s sons, 1923)

Renoir is the dominant force, because we see him literally digesting art history and defining himself both with and against it. Occasionally, as in the Clark’s great Bather Arranging Her Hair of 1885, we see a firmly modeled and Rubenesque-in-proportion nude seated in a landscape painted with the same organized strokes of paint used by Renoir’s good friend Cézanne, but in a pastel palette.

In other cases, we see nudes whose softly brushed surfaces and fuzzy contours take us back to the late paintings of his friend, Berthe Morisot, who was recently celebrated at the Dallas Museum of Art. Because she painted so few female nudes, her work is sadly absent from this Renoir exhibition. This pictorial relationship needs careful reconsideration in a future exhibition.

What is, for me, among the most remarkable aspects of the exhibition is the inclusion of several large-scale red chalk drawings done by Renoir in preparation for the so-called Tyson Bathers of 1886 in the Philadelphia Museum of Art (sadly not itself lendable) as well as one brilliant pastel, which collectively tell us that, in addition to being a great painter, Renoir was a major draftsman, whose works on paper are in need of re-evaluation.

In the flesh: Kimbell exhibition dares to examine Renoir's nudes
"Blonde Braiding Her Hair" is an 1886 oil-on-canvas work by Pierre-Auguste Renoir.(Brad Flowers / Kimbell Art Museum)

The exhibition also makes what is, to me at least, a vain attempt to resurrect Renoir’s reputation as a sculptor, an art form he learned late in life and did in collaboration with younger artists because of his severe arthritis. The elderly painter was encouraged in this endeavor by his younger colleague Aristide Maillol. If only he had resisted the temptations.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the exhibition is the extent to which Renoir’s late nudes exerted a major influence on younger avant-garde painters. We see his late nudes in the company of bracing modernist nudes by Pierre Bonnard, Picasso, Henri Matisse, Suzanne Valadon (a woman, at last!) and Fernand Léger. To my eyes, the only truly persuasive comparison is with the nudes of Bonnard, only one of which is included in the exhibition.

For the others, all that links them pictorially with Renoir is that they represent female nudes. Yet, as we learn from the superb wall labels and the catalog, many of these 20th century masters both collected Renoir nudes and wrote admiringly of them.

If I had been asked to curate the exhibition, I would have ended with a room of only Renoir nudes from the last 25 years of his life — no sculpture and no other artists. Fortunately, in the Kimbell’s highly intelligent installation, the works by other artists are carefully segregated so as not to force the point.

No one painted flesh better than Renoir — no one. And it is the tactility and the contourless sense that these bodies are composed not of skin over bones, but are, instead, plump women who over-eat for pleasure and have layers of under-used muscle, fat and soft skin — literally flesh. They appear as flesh, and, sexist as they undoubtedly are, they are a sublime pictorial accomplishment — perhaps unmatched in art history.

Many viewers will insist on feeling guilty or angry if they like the pictures, and so be it. Renoir can do nothing about it. Let’s give him his due, both as an innovative artist and as a traditionalist. The exhibition certainly does. See for yourself. After all, you are in the judge’s seat.

Details

“Renoir: The Body, The Senses” opens to the public on Oct. 27 and closes Jan. 26. Free to Kimbell members. Tickets are $18 with discounts for seniors, students and children. Half-price tickets all day on Tuesdays and Fridays after 5 p.m. The two curators will discuss the exhibition for the public at 4 p.m. Oct. 26. This event is free to the public, but seating is limited. Doors open at 3 p.m. Details at kimbellart.org.


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