How Renoirs nudes helped the Clark get its groove back

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Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Bathers (Study for The Great Bathers) (1884-87)
Courtesy of the Morgan Library and Museum, New York. Bequest of Drue Heinz

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) is an artist most people either love or hate. Both sides invariably cite the same Renoir totems: his pastel palette, gauzy lines, and unambiguous adoration of womens bodies. Renoir: The Body, The Senses, the bracing and beautiful new show at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts (until 22 September), offers a fresh twist 100 years after the artists death. Renoirs work is more than sweet and pretty; it is both sensual and cerebral and a vital, unconsidered part of the story of Modern art.

The subject of the show is Renoirs nudes. He did hundreds of them, starting in the 1860s but with intense and adventurous application from the 1880s until he died. Through these nudes— not only paintings but also sculpture, drawings, and pastels—the curators Esther Bell from the Clark and George T.M. Shackelford from the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth have done something amazing: they have found new things to say about an Impressionist.

The show itself is organised in an Impressionistic way, loosely thematic and more often ambling than linear. This works, since great artists do not work in a linear fashion. Works by Rubens, Boucher, Fragonard, Delacroix, Courbet, Corot, Degas and Cézanne bob and weave through the show in attractive, apt juxtapositions that inform Renoirs development. The conversation stays lively and textured.

As a teenager, during a period of Rococo revival in the French decorative arts, Renoir worked at the Lévy-Frères porcelain factory in Paris, where he embraced a fashion for playful serpentine forms, with more than a soupçon of nudes and cherubs. He also developed a lightness of touch and a sense that heavy narrative was not all it was cracked up to be. His Little Blue Nude (1878-79) is an especially lovely example of Renoirs roots in what the show calls the decorative tradition.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Little Blue Nude (1878–79)
Courtesy of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York. General purchase funds, 1941

In a superb catalogue essay, Bell, the Clarks chief curator, puts Renoirs nudes in the context of Rococos rehabilitation, as does the contemporary artist Lisa Yuskavage, who sees Renoirs time as a porcelain decorator essential for the development of what she calls his "low taste". Yuskavage does not mean this as a swipe, but as recognition of the artists feel for pleasure and beauty for their own sake. Renoir's nudes are often faulted for their lack of agency or engagement, which has defined them as objectified. Yuskavage finds them to be self-absorbed: they might give pleasure, but they are also thinking about pleasure, frankly happy in their own world. We as viewers are blithely invited to join them. It is lush, gorgeous escapism, expertly conceived, and there is nothing wrong with that.

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Renoir was never stagnant and always a voracious looker, traveller and thinker. Impressionism, for him at least, ran out of steam in the early 1880s, and he did not expect a long visit to Italy in 1881 to move him as much as it did, but he was ready for change. After looking at Raphael especially, Renoir entered a period loosely called Classical Impressionism, where his nudes became more sculptural and weighty and his contours more clearly defined. Two famous nudes in the collection of the Clark, Blonde Bather (1881) and Bather Arranging Her Hair (1885) are among the works showing a transition that happened subtly and over time.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Bather Arranging Her Hair (1885)
Courtesy of the Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts. Acquired by Sterling and Francine Clark, 1937

One of the show's many revelations are Renoir's drawings from the 1880s, brilliantly presented as a pivot point. They are bold and bracingly economical. Among them is a big drawing, Bathers (Study for The Great Bathers) (1884-87), recently acquired by the Morgan Library & Museum in New York. It establishes Renoir's genius in creating convincing form and structure with minimal lines.

I think visitors will find the biggest surprise in two galleries devoted to Renoir the Modernist. Renoir's large, late paintings of nudes are an acquired taste. Sterling Clark was never bitten by the bug, as much as he considered Renoir the best artist France ever produced. He called Seated Bather (1914) "a great big mushy gelatinous fat woman" in a characteristically pungent diary entry.

I agree with Clark that too many late Renoir nudes, as at the Barnes Collection, make for a dizzying proliferation of flesh, but the selection here is a perfect balance. Over the years, Renoir's nudes grew softer and more liquid. They are formally solid but float like dense, puffy clouds. His paint surfaces became thinner so that each layer is delectably present. These surfaces are less a splurge of colour and impasto and more a medley of paint conveying the smoothness of flesh. The perception of flesh is less tactile. It is a difference between feeling and understanding.

Whistler seems as far from Renoir as any two artists can be, but Renoir's late nudes do seem like tonal studies. For Clark, who owned many pictures of young girls by many artists in many styles and also despised Whistler, these late nudes were not objects of lust but abstract studies in rose, yellow and blue.

My quibbles are few. A giant Renoir chronology tucked in the back needs condensing. Visitors do not see it until halfway in the show, anyway. The final section on the reverence young artists held for Renoir after 1900 is one of the show's great merits. GivenRead More – Source

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