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Friday, August 23, 2019

Renoir: The Body, The Senses and Ida O'Keeffe: Escaping Georgia's Shadow at The Clark

The Bathers, 1918-19 - oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay, Paris
All works shown are by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, except where noted
Each summer's must-see show is usually at The Clark (aka the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute) in Williamstown, Mass., and this year is no exception. But Renoir: The Body, The Senses isn't a typical blockbuster - rather than just mount a massive display of the great artist's work on the centenary of his death, this show's creators have delved into a central theme of the French Impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir's oeuvre, and have built on that thread using striking examples from a stellar supporting cast.

Paul Cézanne - The Battle of Love, c. 1880
oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
So, if you're going in order to relish the Renoir nudes (that's the theme), you won't be disappointed. But expect much more: There are so many other artists' paintings in this show that it really isn't a solo at all. And, frankly, a few of them could easily overshadow Renoir, if given the chance.

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
Their intentions are to show Renoir's influences (in part by including others' paintings that he owned) as well as his influence (represented by those who followed in time), as well as to present his entire career through a single subject. The show fulfills both goals nicely. It also allows plenty of immersion in Renoir himself, especially in one room that presents a series of study drawings that led to a single very large painting (entitled The Great Bathers, it's not included in the exhibition, but related examples serve as helpful mates to the drawings).

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
But the best of the paintings do trump them. One of those, entitled Bather Arranging Her Hair (from 1885 and part of the Clark's large collection of Renoir's work) is outstanding in that it works the figure and her drapery into a compelling distant seascape, all of it perfectly rendered in Renoir's seductive Impressionist colors.

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
(Not that there's anything wrong with that!)

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
Speaking of youth, the show did bring up one question for me, regarding the apparent age of Renoir's models. It may be that in his time it was socially acceptable to lust after underage girls (and make pictures of them), but in our present moment it felt a bit icky to be in a public gallery ogling paintings that emphasize both the childishness of the subjects' faces and the engorged readiness of their bodies (e.g., A Young Girl with Daisies, painted in 1889 when the artist was about 70 years old, now found here, reproduced on a yoga mat). I'd be curious to know if anyone else felt at all the same, and whether this was also part of the organizers' intent.

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
Relatively unknown, Ida O'Keeffe had a minor fine art career while working mostly as a teacher, but her work is worthy of the attention this show brings to it, and the show provides a unique opportunity to see the work as a body, with all of its elements having been brought together from diverse private collections. The show also includes a fun array of snapshots of Ida and other family members, taken by her brother-in-law Alfred Stieglitz (and of him by Ida).

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