“Renoir’s Problem Nudes”
“Sex and art figured for him as practically interchangeable rewards for living. An argument is often made that we shouldn’t judge the past by the values of the present, but that’s a hard sell in a case as primordial as Renoir’s.”- Peter Schjeldahl regarding the problem of Renoir
I was all set for a few hours of meandering Sunday afternoon reading (total disclosure: it’s nearly suppertime and I’m still in pajama bottoms, a micro-vacation after a couple of weeks of 19-hour days) when, unfortunately, the second or third text I chanced upon was a consummately-irritating article in the New Yorker. I can remember when the New Yorker seemed great, still, in the 1970s and 1980s. Which is why I foolishly wander back sometimes. Though I would be a lying arsenozzle if I didn’t admit that I knew what I was in for when I saw the article’s title… or if I pretended that I didn’t read on precisely because I knew the article would contain the kind of nonsense the title telegraphs in its awful vocal fry, gluten-intolerant, SJW voice.
Renoir’s kitsch (the opposite end of the crafts fair rainbow from the big eyed waifs and tortured Munch/van Gogh garret-dybbuks School of bourgeois empathy: the kitsch of shameless plenty) is not a banner I would go unironically to battle under but this article, by the NYer’s lead art critic Schjeldahl, is the oiliest example of virtue-signalling white-knighting I have been exposed to this month. Is Schjeldahl hoping to score a blowjob from a Weinstein victim?
“Renoir’s women strum no erotic nerves in me. There’s no beholding distance from their monotonously compact, rounded breasts and thunderous thighs, smushed into depthless landscapes and interiors, and thus no imaginable approach to intimacy. Their faces nearly always look, not to put too fine a point on it, dumb—bearing out Renoir’s indifference to the women as individuals with inner lives. They aren’t subjects, only occasions. (His models were often amazed at how little they recognized themselves in pictures that they had posed for.) Peculiarly, Renoir did grant the women wonderfully articulated hands, the body part hardest to render convincingly—good for doing things, perhaps around the house. In his later work, his most prominent models were his servants or other lower-middle-class women.”
All comedically-insightful notions of supplying a heavy-breathing background sound effect to the above paragraph aside, A) How does Schjeldahl calculate that his body-shaming critique (“wrong tit-shape” and “thunderous thighs”) is a blow for Feminism? (aren’t we supposed to be body-shaming thin women? And since when is the subjective fuckability of the figure in a painting an art-critical metric?) B) How often are artists, or artist’s models, required to appear to be intelligent? B1) How often have artist’s models actually been intelligent… or not… and how pivotal an issue is it to Art? B2) Are no (men or) women dumb? B3) Are dumb women ethically off-limits as artist’s models? B4) How do we calculate Actual Intelligence by (interpreted) appearance? B5) What sort of facial expression is a French woman of the late 19th/ early 20th century supposed (or allowed) to have? C) What was later-Renoir supposed to do, try to talk aristocrats into posing nude for him? Is that who posed for him in his early work? D) Here’s an actual photograph of one of Renoir’s models: does she look “smarter” or “dumber” than she looks on canvas? I can’t tell. I think she looks like she can’t breathe.
E) The “good for doing things, perhaps around the house” riff about Renoir’s “peculiarly… wonderfully articulated hands” is a vertigo-inducing act of insinuating (there’s a snake somewhere, in the etymology of that word, that makes it perfect) denunciation. Schjeldahl is wasting his talents as an art critic for the NYer… he should be persecuting witches, misogynists, commie Trump supporters and 1950s-era Queers in a time-traveling kangaroo court of his own.
Not that the article is a Hit Piece, exactly: the NYer critical style is to lead with the bad news in order to dramatize the paradox of the good (or vice versa), so it’s soon enough that Schjeldahl is working to get our heads nodding (eyebrows raised) over the case he tries to make for Renoir’s importance:
“Everything in Renoir that is hard to take and almost impossible to think about, because it makes no concessions to intelligence, affirms his stature as a revolutionary artist. He stood firmly against the past in art and issued a stark challenge to its future. You can’t dethrone him without throwing overboard the fundamental logic of modernism as a sequence of jolting aesthetic breakthroughs, entitled to special rank on the grounds of originality and influence.”
Which is a species of the Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc school of Cultural Criticism that likes to do things like declare that modern music is “unthinkable without Prince,” when, actually, quite the contrary, modern music is eminently thinkable without Prince, though Prince himself was unthinkable without Marc Bolan, Sly Stone and James Brown. We too often mistake the most famous beneficiaries of tipping or turning points in the History of the Arts for these turning points’ single-handed catalysts (a little like crediting the first East Berliner to walk through the neutralized boundary of the Berlin Wall with its fall, or suggesting that all the others who crossed after him/her were influenced by her/his example).
What counts regarding Renoir is the fact that he wasn’t hounded out of his village, arrested, stoned, flogged or burned at the stake for doing the paintings that he did; cultural conditions surrounding him made it safe to try to do something so obvious (casual-and-therefore-licentious nudes) that, one is quite certain, thousands of artists around Europe were trying at the same time and for which dozens remain famous. Renoir’s “Seated Bather,” after all, was painted in 1914, which is more than 50 years after Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal, about 120 years after the publication of the Marquis de Sade’s Justine, 9 years after the publication of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and only four years before Joyce published the first little serialized glimpse of Ulysses in The Little Review.
But Schjeldahl has already undercut his argument for Renoir’s status as “revolutionary” artist, in a previous paragraph, writing:
He’s great, though, according to the standard of art history that values the refreshment of traditions by way of radical departures from them. The brilliant curators of the Clark show, Esther Bell and George T. M. Shackelford, demonstrate Renoir’s pivotal place in French painting of the nude by interpolating apposite works by such predecessors as Boucher, Corot, and, especially, Courbet, whose nudes are like libidinous four-alarm fires; by Renoir’s contemporaries, the sardonic Degas and the conscientious Cézanne; and by members of the next generation, notably Picasso, Matisse, Valadon, and Bonnard.”
In other words, the niche Renoir carved for himself was one of nuance within the context of predecessors and contemporaries more or less working the same vein.
However: can one be a “revolutionary” via nuance? Doesn’t the explosive adjective “revolutionary” sneer at the tiny vegetable fart of the word “nuance”? For quite a long time, Europe’s Fine Arts Culture was an interlinked series of tense gardens surrounded by high, thick walls erected by various iterations of the Church. At some point the walls grew shorter and thinned and then crumbled… these walls are now no longer walls but plaques. Renoir passed casually through a hole, in his epoch’s remnant of the wall, big enough to pull all of his favorite naked models through on a hay wagon… at lunchtime. Renoir had an easy time of it: ask Egon Schiele about that.
The question of real interest, when one speaks of the psycho-socially “revolutionary,” in Art (before Modern Times), is something having to do with what was happening to the power and policies of the Church(es) in the 17th and 18th centuries. “The Enlightenment” springs to mind. That and a shift in economics; as Schjeldahl writes:
“This was the era when artists started to forsake aristocratic and institutional patronage—bucking the bias of the annual Salon while hungering for inclusion in it—in favor of support from a burgeoning middle class.”
So, not really terribly Revolutionary at all if Renoir had an already-existent (nouveau riche) market in mind for his output. Rather like Hugh Hefner.
In fact, there was a cartoonist who was popular in Playboy magazine, in the 1960s, who was arguably influenced by Renoir, and since my first exposure (le mot juste) to both Renoir and Playboy was around the same time (I was 7, or 8), the similarity confused me. I remember taking a trip to the Art Museum with a school class and seeing a Renoir and thinking, “Wait… is that the same guy…?” I thought I had stumbled across a naughty secret.
Schjeldahl opens his silly post-MeToo performance of an article with “Who doesn’t have a problem with Pierre-Auguste Renoir?”…
…the answer being: most of us who rarely bother thinking even a little bit about Pierre-Auguste Renoir.
Which does not include, obviously, the random Hackademics, and NYer art critics, who have to somehow monetize the long-dead horny kitschy bourgeois patriarchal French fuck in a batch with similar long-dead fucks, the contemplation of whom they are forced to encourage and revisit, time and again, picking the old bones for morsels of epiphany or controversy until their retirement funds kick in. How else to explain the absurd art-critical overreaching, in both ridiculous directions, lauding and shaming? Renoir deserves neither.
“At the show, part of me felt as though I were writhing on a pin: again and again the carnal tapioca, the vacant gazes, the fatuous frolic. Arriving at a cool Corot nude in a darkling landscape or a crisp Picasso nude combing her hair was like gulping fresh air in a miasma. The prehensile touch with which Renoir molds female masses with color—instead of modelling them with tonal shading—awes the eye, defeating a self-protective impulse to perceive the figures as if they were cels from animated cartoons. The work tends toward silliness but never topples into it. He can really move paint around, and his colors attain complex harmonies even as you may crave sunglasses to mitigate their screeching chromas.”
If one compares In Summer (1868), a totally not-bad, not terribly kitschy painting, with the Vaselined paint-blobs of 1914’s Seated Bather (I really must find the original titles for these paintings in order to elevate the fanciness of this rancorous meditation), it’s obvious that we are seeing a painter’s eyes failing him in old age while his libido, hot and going blind and nuts with nostalgia, takes on a no-fucks-given (or received) urgency. And fair enough: may we all be allowed to suck in Death’s antechamber.