Art Thoughts, Week 9 -- Renoir & Revolution

(above, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Chestnut Tree Blooming...and, the usual disclaimer: it is not the painting I speak of below, but something complement your reading.)

Chestnut Trees, Pont-Aven, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, French, 1841—1919, c. 1892, oil on canvas, BF 242.

Two admissions off the bat: firstly, Renoir, though definitely being the artist with the greatest number of works at the Barnes Foundation, is by no means my favorite; secondly, of all his works, his pieces most usually adored by the public (e.g. The Artist’s Family; Mother and Child, etc.) I find at best pedantic, and at worst overlookable. That leaves me to say that my favorite (read: personal preference; therefore incontrovertible, thank you very much) are his landscapes. Renoir’s landscapes: those often chaotic and conflicted paintings, seemingly the result of a naturalistic and aesthetic struggle, and normally devoid of people.

An example: Chestnut Trees, Pont-Aven. Here is an example of where enlightened, unbiased scholars say Renoir was truly revolutionary and avant-garde: the tumultuous, swirling activity of his painterly craft in the mid-life landscapes; the contortion and compression of space; the glossolalia of brushwork techniques; the drastic, almost monochromatic color schemes of siennas and emeralds; lemons and mints.

Dwell on this as a mindset for a bit, while gazing at one of Renoir’s landscapes (i.e. a painting where the figure is nominal) and you will begin to be reminded of his truly revolutionary place among the arc of Western painters and painting (the Australian painter Peter Doig perhaps being one of his aesthetic progeny, with the additional element of a core mysticism).

And truly, there is conflict here, in Chestnut Trees, Pont-Aven: its surface reminds me of an exercise my mother did with me when I was enthusiastic about embroidery in my early teens. It was a wood duck, stitched on a linen-like material, each part of its elaborate anatomy stitched in an intricate and different needling technique – adding up to an ordering of disorders; a gathering of idiosyncrasies; a convention of unconventionalities. In the painting, there’s hatching, dry-brush, outline; there is pentimenti, sgrafitto, impasto; Matissean coloring-book like fillings-in; piles and stacks of color, and strata of space, land, tree and sky. Renoir was seemingly doing everything in his power to keep up with the tableau constantly shifting in front of him; none of his arsenal was left untouched. To get a sense of the difficulty of this for a painter, think of a breezy day in sunny June. What more complex interplay of light and shadow; layering and movement can one imagine?

Lest we get lost in this maelstrom, one lone, skinny tree reminds us that we are in the land of Cezanne – a hot, dusty, rocky and bright terrain. Perhaps the heat was getting to Renoir while he painted this gem, much like the sun to Meursault in Camus’s The Stranger, and that is what made all the glowing difference. Verity was more often found for Renoir while outside, rather than inside, and in this way he showed himself to be, at least in the glossy-leaved fullness of his middle life, at his heart an impressionist...and therefore, a revolutionary.

Post a Comment

Related Posts with Thumbnails