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Art review: 'Renoir in the 20th Century' @ LACMA

February 15, 2010 | 10:01 am

Renoir The Concert At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, "Renoir in the 20th Century" seeks to overturn conventional wisdom.

Here's the contested rap on Pierre-Auguste Renoir: Following success at the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874, when he was 33, plus another decade's worth of heady achievement, his paintings went steadily downhill. After his death in 1919, conventional wisdom began to solidify: Late Renoir is bad Renoir

What happened? Count the culprits.

Renoir repudiated the Impressionist movement's hallmarks of broken brushwork, distinctive subjects drawn from the hurly-burly of modern life and painting outdoors. A yearning to compete with past masters he revered -- Titian, Rubens, Watteau, Delacroix, etc. -- meant studio setups replaced direct observation of nature. He traveled to Europe's museums to look at older paintings as a guide.

Infirmity dealt the final blow. Renoir's hands became increasingly gnarled from the crippling effects of rheumatoid arthritis. Ultimately he was wheelchair-bound.

Compare that to Claude Monet, whose friendship and encouragement in the 1860s had been key to Renoir's brilliant early success. Monet kept pushing, and his late, nearly abstract waterlily paintings include some of his best work. Renoir, by contrast, got more hidebound as he aged.

The show -- trimmed somewhat from its debut last year at Paris' Musee d'Orsay, co-organizer with LACMA and the Philadelphia Museum of Art -- assembles 54 late-Renoir paintings, some drawings and nine bronze sculptures. It also includes about a dozen 20th century paintings, drawings and sculptures by Pierre Bonnard, Aristide Maillol, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. They're strategically placed in the galleries to suggest the influence late-Renoir had on other celebrated artists who came after him.

It all adds up to this: Conventional wisdom is confirmed, not denied. Late-Renoir is mostly bad Renoir, an array of often cloying paintings.

After the crisisBather-on-rock425 in faith that led him to stop showing with the Impressionists, the painter is reported to have lamented to a dealer, "I've come to the conclusion that I can neither paint nor draw." Looking at the show one is inclined to mumble, "Indeed."

It isn't true, of course. See gorgeous early works such as "The Promenade" (1870) at the Getty Museum, a vivid scene of a bourgeois Adam and Eve sneaking off into an Edenic urban park, or the clattering midday revelry "Luncheon of the Boating Party" (1880-1881) at Washington's Phillips Collection.

There are also beautiful passages of painting here -- the purple lip of a porcelain washbasin opening a gash in a muddy brown background, or a voluptuous crimson ruff as sensuous pedestal elevating a young girl's profile. But Renoir seems never to have gotten over his youthful decision to abandon official training at Paris' Ecole des Beaux-Arts in favor of running off to the forest at Fontainebleau to paint outdoors.

 He was born to a humble family in the small provincial capital of Limoges but grew up in Paris, the sixth of seven children. His father worked as a tailor, his mother as a dressmaker, and he was apprenticed as a commercial porcelain decorator. But Renoir aspired to greater expressions of art. Repeatedly rejected for exhibition with the French Academy, he hooked up with his friend Monet to show with the dissident Impressionists. Yet the fleeting subjectivity of their work did not suit his languid temperament.

Renoir Huntsman All but four figure paintings at LACMA depict women or children, and two that don't are self-portraits. Ditto virtually all of Renoir's grandiloquent bronze sculptures, which were actually modeled and cast by the young Catalan artist Richard Guino, working at his painfully crippled elder's close direction.

The paintings' palette is rosy, the brushwork sleek and smooth -- almost a parody of the "licked surface" of academic paintings. With long limbs, high breasts and no sense of either skeletal structure or musculature beneath tactile flesh, mannered female figures in oil paint or bronze are like inner tubes filled with compressed air.

They are posed in corny scenes from classical mythology -- nudes as nymphs -- or aristocratic art. A full-length portrait of his teenage son, filmmaker Jean, is a modern "Blue Boy," minus Gainsborough's dazzling brushwork.

The art market ate it up, and Renoir grew rich.

The curators have worked hard to show Renoir at his best. A primary figure painter among landscape-oriented Impressionists, he is represented here by just five modest, smeary landscapes. Still lifes have been entirely purged. And dates are fudged: Twenty of the 54 paintings are from the 1890s.

But the sprinkling of comparative (and often better) works by Picasso, Matisse, et al., backfires. It comes across as special pleading: See? They liked late Renoir; you should too! This attempted manipulation goes over the top in the final gallery, where a monumental painting from just before his death is installed in splendid isolation.

A pastoral fantasy, "The Bathers" shows two voluptuous female nudes reclining on floral pillows in a verdant landscape as three "goddesses" splash in a river behind them. Matisse, who was a frequent visitor to Renoir's vast estate on the Mediterranean coast between Nice and Antibes, is quoted in text writ large on the oppositeRenoir White Pierrot wall: "It is his masterpiece ... one of the most beautiful pictures ever painted."

Unsaid on said wall is Matisse's famous disdain for Picasso's 1907 "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," now universally revered as one of the century's greatest paintings. "Picasso's hoax," he called it.

Win some, lose some.

What Matisse rightly responded to in Renoir, I think, was the latter's profoundly decorative sensibility -- surface decoration being a loaded slur against all things avant-garde for much of the last 100 years. Decoration as a taboo tool of critical pictorial power is the very narrow sliver of interest that bubbles up from "Renoir in the 20th Century."

But it goes nowhere, unlike Matisse's own brilliant efforts in that regard. In Renoir, decoration is unsurprisingly yoked to mossy masculine views of fragile femininity, but the real problem transcends period stereotypes. His conventional, even reactionary artistic attitude does him in, and it makes for a revisionist show that feels as flabby as a Renoir nude.

-- Christopher Knight

"Renoir in the 20th Century," Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., (323) 857-6000, through May 9. Noon-8 p.m. Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays; noon-9 p.m. Fridays; 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Admission: $20.

Images: From top, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, "The Concert," 1918-19; "Bather on a Rock," 1897; "The Huntsman," 1910; "The White Pierrot," 1901-02. Credit: LACMA

Follow Times art critic Christopher Knight @ KnightLAT on Twitter.

Comments () | Archives (15)

One of the Best reviews by CK. Renoir did have promise when he was young, but quickly devolved into a painter of compulsively combed cake icing in subject, structure and cherry skin tones. Sickly sugary and “Flabby” is an apt description, the artist is worst of the prominent impressionists and frankly the only reason I see this show happening was the hope of financial success by association of true greats like Van Gogh, Degas and Lautrec. A hoped for magic button to generate money from the public devotion to all things impressionist.

I agree. And THIS is the show that LACMA is using to lure new members? Except for the traveling William Eggleston exhibition much later in the year, there's nothing to see at LACMA worth the time or effort.

Plus the fact that the new-ish Broad building is a snooze (plus the one that's being built) and I wonder what the heck Michael Govan is doing over there.

Tear down the May Co building. Put up something progressive, like Zaha Hadid, put in a couple of killer restaurants, a trolley to the Grove, and get some more exciting exhibitions. I wish Jeffrey Deitch were coming to LACMA, too, to bring some life to that place.

I have shown how to easily liven up LACMA on my blog. click my name below, and for very little monies. It can be done other ways, just a possibility, but one that would work. Nothing wrong with the buildings as is, in LA TImes Court anyway, New new buildings cant be modified, as most starchitects make their beasts beige and unalterable. And completely lifeless.

Stop being so scared, color is life, learn it. Use it.


Thank you Christopher Knight. You are often too sharply opinionated for me, sir, and your opinion is often that the emperor has no clothes. So I grit my teeth and read your stuff, wondering how the LA art world can be so disproportionately populated by naked emperors. But Renoir? -- now there's a naked emperor. I have never understood his inclusion in the pantheon of impressionists. I confess I love the Boating Party at the Phillips, but most everything else by Renoir is gauzy, sentimental, and completely lacking in punch or irony.

You guys have it all wrong. Renoir's late works are so bad, they're good! There's feeling in every brushstroke, and a definite boldness in the sentimentality.

The review of Mr. Knight was not a kind and gentle review of an artist who had a great passion for his profession and love of everything that surrounded him. The paintings were not my favorites; however, he painted them with a disease eating at his body. The technic learned at the Limoges factory as a youngster gives all of his paintings a unique quality of softness and beauty. August Renoir - you made my day!

I just might give the show a shot. Three of the four above are terible, the other I kinda like. Not great, but better than todays nonsense by far. i have seen some excellent nudes, they arent very anatomically correct, but the color of his flesh is often quite good, and like ripening fruit. His clothing and landscapes are terrible, as Cezanne noted, callin them wooly. Matisse also went through a similar drought, replacing base sensuality and sentimentality and "exoticism" for creativity in his Nice period, but also had some great work when his line became stronger, and color simpler and richer. Renoir may have a few gems, but yes, mostly rather awkward and art studentish. In todays art drought, it at least may ahve a few drops of clear water for parched lips. But certainly no a blockbuster show, this more a low key survey. But marketing is king, and so we have this.


The usual boring baloney from critics- years will go by- when heaven ! they are reassessed
and found to be masterpieces and "how could
have critics like Knight been be so stupid . All artists go through this down grade and then back -Critics like Knight dance to the tune of fashion --

Looking for any inforamtion on "Gabrielle avec la chemise ouverte" 1905.

It was secretly sold by the "mullah mafia" out the back door of the Tehran Museum.

If you have any info, please share. Thank you

"After his death in 1919, conventional wisdom began to solidify: Late Renoir is bad Renoir

What happened?"

Uh-oh. Renoir got clumsy in his old age and dropped a period. Must be male menopause.

i think the show is really good. boris 8 got it right.

See Cate - that's what I mean. What ARE you TALKING about?????

I'm talking about the words, Naiomi. Stop, or at least pause for a moment, and look at the critic's words. Look at the punctuation, or lack thereof.

Everyone is ignoring the theft of one of Renoir's most celebrated semi-nude paintings..."Gabrielle Avec La Chemise Ouverte"

Now, why is that?

I guess if questions were raised about this one...people would have to answer about Jasper Johns "Passage 1", "Passage 11", "Pinion" and "Decoy" and then there is Andre Derain's "L'Age D'OR"

The "mullah mafia has been very busy!

This stuff is sentimental kitsch.


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