01-12-2007 - Traces, n. 11

renoir exhibit

Limited Landscapes

by Rebecca Vitz Cherico

The “Renoir Landscapes” exhibit, on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is the first exhibit to showcase Renoir’s landscapes. A collaborative effort on the parts of the (British) National Gallery in London, the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the show offers a new vision of Renoir, as a significant landscape artist. Renoir is a tricky artist–the “sweetness” in his depictions of women and children makes him both loved and despised. One of the exhibit’s achievements is in depicting Renoir as an innovator: there are remarkably varying techniques and a great variety of brushstrokes in these paintings. Landscape at Wargemont, the painting touted as the show’s focal point, clearly points to later pictorial developments: it is a short jump from this stylized landscape of purples, ochres, and greens to 20th-century abstraction. Looking at this painting, I somehow found myself thinking of Kandinsky–there is a sort of dreamy quality that the smooth winding paths and wind-blown sky exude.
The exhibit contextualizes Renoir and the Impressionist interest in nature: with industrialization, more places became accessible to painters and average citizens alike. The idea of “landscape” is apparently quite new: Pissarro coined the term in 1874 using it “to describe a landscape painting in which figures played a minimal role in the composition or were absent altogether.” Formerly, landscapes were part of a larger picture; in the 19th century, landscapes emerged as the focus in their own right. While people often occupy some of the space in Renoir’s canvases, there are a number of “pure landscapes,” in the exhibit, which covers considerable ground both literally and metaphorically–some of the last paintings in the show are works Renoir painted while traveling in Northern Africa and Italy.
Part of the question of landscapes is how we view nature. There is an irony in the fact that landscapes became a more prominent subject precisely in the moment when industrialization was changing everyday people’s experience of it. One of the disappointments of the show was that most of Renoir’s depiction of nature failed to move me. Overall, there was a smallness to his landscapes–a sort of bourgeois domestication of nature that did not inspire. While Renoir experimented with colors, a fact we witness in the show, his usual palette consists of light and bright pastels: cheerful but not strong. We get the sense that people inhabit Renoir’s natural world; his outlook is very human–but those people seem to spend a lot of time vacationing; the drama of life seems to be largely missing from his outlook. There are lovely views of flowers and gardens, but there are no vistas, and few mountains. Even the mountains do not usually look like mountains; they appear as rather large hills. We lose the grandeur of nature and the excitement that its glory can evoke. The people who frequently populate Renoir’s canvases do not seem to be there for any significant reason: they are part of the paintings’ charm, but not the meaning. Even a painting of Renoir’s friend Monet, painting in his garden, feels the same way: if I didn’t know this was a great Impressionist at work, I might easily have assumed this was a picturesque rendition of a street artist.
The show fails in making most of the individual pieces compelling. There are exceptions, however: the painting The Wave (1879) is Renoir’s attempt at conveying the motion of the surf. The palette is still excessively light to depict the intensity of the water’s motion, but there is a sense of the push of current and the strange meeting of sea and sky–vast expanses of blue that are perpetually in motion, independent of each other and yet somehow connected. Another of my favorites was Rocky Crags at L’Estaque–painted while Renoir was visiting Cézanne. There is a gratifying solidity to the crags–a certainty that something is really there behind the effects of light and color. Some of Renoir’s better paintings come about during his travels: his paintings of Algiers and Italy have a vibrancy and dynamism that much of the rest of the work in the show does not. His Jardin d’Essai of 1881, which depicts a sort of palm-tree alley, does, indeed, evoke the fireworks that the tour mentions–there is a riotous explosion of color and vibrancy that points to a dramatic and unexpected experience of beauty. Likewise, his version of the Piazza San Marco–an almost hackneyed subject–is treated quite atypically: the shimmering, multicolored surface compellingly evokes its subject while not fully resembling it. These pieces give us insight into a world in which seeing an object may become an event in itself–an experience of unexpected beauty. One hopes that if Renoir had traveled more he might have produced more of these works–but we can’t know this for sure.