The shadow of the Barnes Foundation has never lain more heavily over the Philadelphia Museum of Art than it does in the museum's big summer show, "Late Renoir," which closes on Labor Day.
The two most popular styles of art in the Western world remain Impressionist and Post-Impressionist, and early modern. Dr. Albert C. Barnes got the jump on all Philadelphia collectors in these areas with an astonishing buying spree, mostly concentrated in the 1910s and '20s, that netted him more than 350 works by Cézanne, Renoir, Matisse and Picasso alone. More than half of these—181 in all— are Renoirs. And for sheer volume, not to mention quality, they dwarf any possible competition.
There are all kinds of problems with the Art Museum's Renoir show, beginning with its sheer intellectual debt to Barnes. The Merion collector sized up Cézanne and Renoir as the chief begetters of 20th-Century art, and Matisse and Picasso as their major disciples and heirs. That was a radical notion a century ago, when only Renoir was acceptable to public taste, just as it is largely commonplace today.
The critical importance of Cézanne to modern art is universally recognized today, and, indeed, the Art Museum recently mounted a major show just to make that now-obvious point. Nor would anyone dispute the primacy of Matisse and Picasso in 20th-Century art, although Albert Barnes was ridiculed for collecting them at a time when John Singer Sargent was king.
Renoir, on the other hand, has been more problematic as a source of modern art. Barnes collected more of Renoir's work than that of any other painter, and he insisted on Renoir's crucial significance for Matisse and Picasso in particular. But Renoir's popularity in his own lifetime, and since, has militated against any serious evaluation of him as a pioneer; and the sometimes cloying opulence of his work seems at a considerable distance from the deliberate reductiveness of the Cubists and Fauves.
Barnes praised Renoir above all for eliminating line, and delineating objects through gradations of paint alone. Yet line was certainly crucial to Matisse and Picasso, a way of reconfiguring the world and forcing the eye to recognize new relationships. If Renoir led anywhere, it seemed to be to Kandinsky, and Kandinsky by the 1920s had forged a style of linear abstraction that he was to pursue for the rest of his life.
With a longer perspective, we can better appreciate Barnes's prescience. He enjoyed, too, the advantage of personal acquaintance; Barnes knew Matisse well, and would doubtless have discussed Renoir with him.
Nor is it difficult at this point to see the influence of Renoir's late nudes, with their simplified forms, on the monumental figures of Picasso's neoclassical period, or on Matisse's Odalisques. Once again, modern scholarship has begun to catch up with Barnes's autodidactical insight.
The Hollywood model
The Art Museum show has thrown in a dozen-odd pieces, including rather minor works by Matisse and Picasso, to illustrate Renoir's influence. For the most part, though, this is a conventional and even a somewhat lazy show. It is also illustrative of the profound difference between Barnes's genuinely dialogic approach to the display of art, and the assembly-line protocol of the modern museum.
Let us begin with the huge, streaming banners that proclaim R-E-N-O-I-R at both the Art Museum's front and rear entrances. We've become accustomed to these; they proclaim the typical blockbuster show devoted to a single artist and certify him (more rarely her) as a Master to whom homage must be paid. This is intensely reductionist, and produces the deeply anti-intellectual consequence of inviting the public to regard the fine arts as a constellation of stand-alone, superstar performers, each with his minor satellites but none defined by participation in a continually interactive field of tradition and innovation.
The model for this practice is the Hollywood star factory, whose antecedent is the hierarchy of Catholic and Orthodox saints. Indeed, one enters the Art Museum's Dorrance Galleries as a kind of shrine, in which the Renoirs, presented in the most conventional way—chronologically and by genre, with portraits here, landscapes there, and nudes to the side and up ahead, like assortments on a supermarket shelf— lead to the clincher at the end, where the mature master unfurls his Last (and invariably Greatest) works. And this way to the gift shop, ladies and gentlemen.
This formula is so well-worn that we've come to assume it, and most museum-goers would probably be disappointed by any serious deviation from it, like children who want to hear their favorite stories the same way every time. Throw in the ubiquitous headsets that tell the customer where to go and what to see ("Attention, shoppers, sale in Aisle 3"), and you have art reduced as nearly as possible to an object of consumption.
Barnes's different approach
In contrast, the Renoirs at the Barnes Foundation in Merion are part of a relational whole, and the eye is continually refreshed by their juxtaposition with other works that help draw out their formal properties. This constant, dynamic interaction keeps the works, as it were, on their toes. This is in fact the way artworks were typically presented before the advent of blockbuster museum commercialism, although the Barnes ensembles in Merion were and are unique in the brilliance of their articulation and the subtlety of their argument.
I'm not saying that one-person shows lack value, or that retrospectives, thoughtfully and selectively assembled, don't have their place. I am saying that making such shows normative is impoverishing to the eye, and distorts our sense of the relationship between tradition and the individual talent.
Yes, geniuses are in some sense unique. But they are not isolated. They're always part of a greater whole.
Renoir himself commented on this point in his Christine Lerolle Embroidering (1897). The foreground is occupied by the rather heroic-looking Christine (whose model is the figures of classical antiquity as well as Vermeer (see, for example,The Milkmaid), while in the background we see the collector Henri Larolle and a sculptor friend discussing one of the paintings that hangs on Henri's walls (Larolle was an avid patron of Renoir and Degas). The two men are engrossed in their conversation, dissecting the finer points of the work in front of them in a way that would be impossible in a museum with its many distractions, and, of course, its headsets.
Renoir offers here a new work of art that connects to distant predecessors and is yet fully up to date in its depiction of a contemporary bourgeois interior, while presenting art itself as a part of everyday life and enjoyment, and an object of intelligent discussion. It's not a great work, perhaps, but it is a very sapient one, with its ironic suggestion of how Christine herself, in her unselfconscious pose, is a subject of art awaiting its painter, while the men looking on the already accomplished work can't see what only the painter's eye will discern.
As this example suggests, Renoir's own eye was by no means simple, and his sense of tradition was keen. "Late Renoir" isn't all that late— the show covers the final 29 years of the artist's life, from 1890 to 1919, and much of the work comes from the decidedly middle-period '90s— but Renoir gradually turned from domestic interiors and local landscapes to an Arcadian world populated by ample nudes that looked back toward antiquity and the Renaissance but also forward to an art of the imagination that suggested not only Matisse and Picasso but Expressionism as well.
Fountain of youth
At its best, Renoir's late work conveys both fertility and repose, and there is something deeply affecting about the aged, arthritic painter determined to discover the perennial fountain of youth that art alone affords. One thinks of late Monet, finding in his garden a blazing paradise of light— and indeed the affinity of these two close contemporaries is great. Nor did Renoir yield to anyone in the virtuosity of his brushstrokes, even to the end.
But the argument for Renoir as a proto-modernist is still best made at the Barnes Foundation itself. The Art Museum exhibition scarcely refers to Barnes until its last room, which features a picture of the collector and John Dewey with a Renoir behind them. If, as some believe, the Art Museum is playing a long waiting game until it can get its hands on the Barnes collection, then "Late Renoir" may be regarded as a left-handed appropriation, if not yet of Barnes's works, then at least of his ideas. Little by little, the Lilliputians are bagging their Gulliver—or so they believe.♦
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