The Bathers, 1918-19 - oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay, Paris
All works shown are by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, except where noted
Paul Cézanne - The Battle of Love, c. 1880
oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Still, after viewing many telling juxtapositions at the Clark, I found that Renoir, at his best, could stand up to Cezanne, Degas, Corot, Delacroix, Matisse, and Picasso (among others), though at times I had my doubts. Credit the show's organizers for having the courage to allow viewers this unique opportunity to compare and contrast (they are Esther Bell at the Clark, and George T. M. Shackelford, at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, where the show will be installed in the fall).
Three Right Figures and Part of a Foot
(Study for The Great Bathers), c. 1884–87
chalk on paper, private collection
For a former student of figure drawing, this lovely oval-shaped room filled with dazzlingly executed studies in red and white chalk was like a dream, worthy of long minutes spent gaping from near and far (helped by nifty benches that mirror the walls' curves). These drawings alone could have cemented Renoir's position as one of the all-time greats.
Bather Arranging Her Hair, 1885
oil on canvas, Clark Art Institute
Other outstanding works in the show are not so dependent on color, in particular the only one of a male figure. Entitled Boy with a Cat, this enigmatic painting is prominently used in publicity for the show, perhaps due to its frisson of 21st-century androgyny, or maybe simply because it is so good. Juicily flanked by two equally provocative female nudes, one by Corot and the other a Renoir of the boy's older sister (who, at twenty, was Renoir's lover), the painting provides the moment in the exhibition where any viewer still possessing hormones must surrender to the understanding that this art is unashamedly about sex.
Boy with a Cat, 1868
oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay, Paris
But, of course it's also about much more - form, color, light and, most importantly, the freedom to break the rules, to experiment. It's easy to forget that it was super radical in the 1880s to paint a figure in realistic strokes, to include colors that weren't flattering, to distort reality to make it feel more real. These efforts and effects are among the reasons Renoir was highly esteemed among his peers, even if he was often reviled by contemporary critics, and why his influence then - as now - matters.
So, if, like me, you see the Degas pastels, the Cezanne oils, the Picassos and the Matisse in this show and think, "gee, they were even better than Renoir," bear in mind that those artists regarded him as a master to emulate. If he devolved in later years into a commercialized shadow of his former self, cranking out the popular kitsch (my opinion, as represented by the image at the top of this post), it doesn't tarnish the giant achievements of his younger days.
Edgar Degas - After the Bath, Three Nude Women, c. 1895
pastel on paper, private collection
In addition to the Renoir exhibition, the Clark is presenting Ida O'Keeffe: Escaping Georgia's Shadow, which features several strong paintings and prints by a sister of the iconic feminist painter (Renoir ends on Sept. 22, while O'Keeffe continues through Oct. 14).
Ida Ten Eyck O’Keeffe
Variation on a Lighthouse Theme II, c. 1931-32
oil on canvas, private collection
It's clear that Ida had a promising start, as the centerpiece of the show is a series of six variations on a lighthouse, each a stunning experiment in Modernism that she executed while still a student. Other paintings in the show exude the same lushness we've come to know from her sister's studies of flowers, as well as total abstraction, and curious night paintings in grisaille.
This inconsistency is no doubt part of what held Ida O'Keeffe back from a bigger success but, altogether, her art is still well worth a look.
Also worth some time during your visit is a sound installation originally created in 2001 by the Canadian artist Janet Cardiff that "deconstructs Thomas Tallis’s sixteenth-century choral work Spem in alium (Hope in any other) by assigning each of the forty voices to a single freestanding speaker in the gallery" (description from the Clark's website). The result, entitled The Forty Part Motet, is an intriguing and powerful listening experience, and certainly not the usual fare of this generally more traditional venue (continuing through Sept. 15).
Summer's not over - yet - so get out and enjoy these shows while you can.
|Installation view of The Forty Part Motet, by Janet Cardiff|