A new campaign wants to ban the French impressionist. Here are the paintings that prove what daft philistines the ‘Renoir sucks at painting’ protesters truly are.
It has happened. The gates have fallen. Artistic civilisation has collapsed. A mob has gathered outside the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, demanding that Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s paintings be removed from its walls because they “suck”. This is it, surely. The End.
Or perhaps not. Max Geller, whose Instagram account “Renoir sucks at painting” has mushroomed into a real life semi-serious protest movement against the French impressionist who died in 1919 and is a mainstay of every art museum worth its salt, has learned one rule for looking at art. You need to have opinions. In order to love some artists, you have to hate others.
Geller complains that people accept Renoir merely because his paintings are in museums. “Why do so many people think he’s good?” He is baffled by the acclaim this old French guy gets. He is right to question authority; we should not just accept a bland consensus about what constitutes great art. Hundreds of years of critical evolution – the paring out of fakes and forgeries, the definition of the canon – have created a pantheon of top artists that museums often present as unquestionable. But in real life, to engage with art is to be passionately selective. In the words of Shakespeare, as quoted by the critic Robert Hughes: “Nothing if not critical”. TS Eliot similarly observed that it would be very boring to talk about poetry with someone who liked all poetry. Dislike is the root of true enjoyment.
Who do you prefer, Caravaggio or Poussin? Jackson Pollock or Bridget Riley? These are not necessarily exclusive choices, but if no choices are made in a biased, passionate way then we literally won’t feel the force of art at all. It will all be a bland sludge gliding drearily past our eyes.
A lot of today’s supposedly educational institutions encourage people to accept the safe guidance of authorities. In doing so, they destroy the capacity to enjoy art. Guided tours and audioguides and textbooks that fail to discriminate or encourage discrimination, that feed out an endless parade of “correct” opinions, muffle the fire of art.
So I salute Renoir’s haters for this attempt at aesthetic democracy.
There’s just one problem. Geller is utterly wrong, and his reasons for disliking Renoir appear ignorant and philistine. “In real life, trees are beautiful. If you take Renoir’s word for it, you’d think trees are just a collection of green squiggles,” he complains.
Where to start? Do I need to explain that Renoir belonged to an art movement called impressionism? These painters sought to paint the flow and flux of the way we see nature, not to reproduce it in a pedantic way. They wanted to be evocative and suggestive.
If Renoir’s trees appear to be just “green squiggles” then you must be equally shocked and disgusted by JMW Turner’s vague skies, Claude Monet’s blurred morning light, and Camille Pisarro’s undefined streets.
With the “post-impressionist” painters who built on these artists’ discoveries, things get even stranger. Ban Cézanne! Abolish Van Gogh! Because they really do show nature as shards or squiggles.
Renoir does not suck. You just need to look at his painting Dance at the Moulin Galette. See how its sexy crowd of young Parisians are brought alive by dappled sunlight that glints and glances through the trees. How does this fail to be beautiful? The play of light that makes this painting dance is something we recognise and know to be a typical natural effect – but amazingly, no one had ever painted such a broken light before. This quickness of sunshine, this fluency of shadows, had never been acknowledged in art before Renoir came along.
Geller’s claim that Renoir fails to show the “beauty” of nature is astonishingly and crassly wide of the mark. Not only is the art of Renoir beautiful but he, personally and singlehandedly, taught the world to appreciate new dimensions to the beauty of the world we live in. By getting closer to the way we actually see, he showed us jewels that previous generations had never noticed. This can be seen gloriously in his sensual appreciation of a rainy day in the city, The Umbrellas.
Renoir is a rich and imaginative genius. He creates the equivalent of a provocative French novel in his painting La Loge, containing a whole narrative of dangerous liaisons in one glimpse of a couple at the theatre. He similarly encapsulates a whole life of artistic obsession in his portrait of the dealer Vollard caressing a statuette.
Just these few paintings are enough to prove the campaign against Renoir is daft and wrongheaded. It’s good to think about art and healthy to have strong opinions about it. But try looking harder first.