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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.

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