Each of us reacts to art exhibits in different ways. For this member of the Casual Art Viewer's Society, the Art Museum's "Late Renoir" show provoked a quirky, highly personal musing: What would a 21st-Century version of Renoir's portraits look like?
Most of the paintings in the Art Museum exhibit portray members of Renoir's domestic household engaging in commonplace activities like reading or playing musical instruments. One of the exhibit's largest sculptures depicts a woman doing the wash.
Lesser artists might have turned Renoir's subjects into the kind of thing connoisseurs dismiss as "mere illustration." Renoir produced something far more weighty. He created paintings that intensify our sense of the poetry inherent in life's most mundane aspects.
As the Art Museum's commentary points out, many of Renoir's paintings are everyday versions of classical subjects, such as Venus in her bath. We see the world through the eyes of an artist whose sensitive response to color, texture and personality reminds us that our day-to-day existence is just as aesthetic and enchanting as the doings of gods and heroes.
So what would a contemporary Renoir paint? Young Woman with Laptop? Boy with Video Game? Woman with Kindle? Man with Blackberry?
Is that an e-reader?
A sarcastic critic of the modern cultural scene could toss out those possibilities. But they're actually reasonable equivalents of the subjects Renoir actually chose.
Most of his portraits depict women from moderately prosperous families engaging in activities— like embroidering or playing the piano— that filled the same position in their day that more technological pursuits fill in ours. In Renoir's portrait of a woman reading, the book lying on the table is painted so vaguely that it could just as well be an e-reader.
Renoir's portraits may seem picturesque to contemporary viewers, but their real strength is the way he evokes the profundity of commonplace scenes. His subjects are dressed more colorfully than our T-shirted contemporaries, but they probably looked just as ordinary, in their day, as the young women who sit peering into their laptops in the Barnes and Noble café on Rittenhouse Square.
A back yard comes alive
I'm not a gallery habitué, so I don't know if any contemporary painters are creating the kind of portraits I'm visualizing. Some contemporary landscape painters seem to be doing something similar.
One of our local Philadelphia stars, Larry Francis, uses his mastery of light to permeate ordinary sights with the sharpness of experience. He can turn a Philadelphia back yard, with washing hanging on the line, into an image that makes you feel intensely aware that you're alive. (See, for example, his Second Street.) But I can't think of any painters currently doing the same thing with portraits.
Any artist who painted uniquely contemporary subjects would have to breast a number of headwinds. One of the strongest would be the widespread perception of an inherent conflict between technology and art— a bias that has dogged our attitudes toward art ever since the first steam engines spread their smoke over the countryside.
An answer from Eakins
The best answer to that can be found at the Art Museum's Perelman annex, which I visited after I took in the Renoir exhibit. The major attractions at the Perelman are two Thomas Eakins paintings that combine astute portraits with a scientific and technical setting— The Gross Clinic and The Agnew Clinic.
Renoir painted women engaged in commonplace domestic activities. Eakins painted men engaged in humanity's epic struggle against death and disease. A young woman studying biochemistry on a laptop might have appealed to both of them.
Of course, it helps if you can paint as well as Eakins and Renoir. But the artist who applied that kind of talent to contemporary subjects might be surprised by the response.♦
To read another review by Anne R. Fabbri, click here.
To read another review by Andrew Mangravite, click here.
To read another review by Judith Stein, click here.
To read another review by Robert Zaller, click here.