Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

A Blot on Renoir's Landscape; the Painter Is Feted for Sensuous Female Flesh and Convivial Cafe-Concert Scenes, but the New Exhibition at the National Gallery Tells Another Story

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

A Blot on Renoir's Landscape; the Painter Is Feted for Sensuous Female Flesh and Convivial Cafe-Concert Scenes, but the New Exhibition at the National Gallery Tells Another Story

Article excerpt


THE CATALOGUE of the National Gallery's new exhibition of landscapes by Renoir opens with a foreword by the director, Charles Saumarez Smith, written in conjunction with the directors of the National Gallery of Canada and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the institutions to which it will travel later in the year. To these panjandrums it is "a stunning presentation of a major artist's work - [of] wonderful loans - [and] treasures rarely seen - a remarkable exhibition".

Stunning? Could three such educated men not find a less trite and ugly commonplace?

They also write of Renoir as a painter who evokes pure pleasure in the viewer and argue that in landscape he achieved "his most startling Impressionist effects and his most arresting colouristic discoveries - closer to pictorial abstraction than any other artist of his time" - a piece of arrant and demonstrable nonsense. They continue with the assertion that their exhibition "is an invaluable reappraisal -".

It is not. It offered an invaluable opportunity for reappraisal, but its curators have not taken it. They merely assert yet again Renoir's universal popularity with those who throng art galleries to delight in endless pictures of endless summer days - as though the popularity of Beryl Cook and Rolf Harris must be a justification for their presence in Trafalgar Square. They remind us of Renoir's French conviviality (but not of his disgusting eating habits), of his fondness for beautiful and not so beautiful young women whom, lasciviously, he admitted to painting with his prick; and they quote a notorious and lunatic American collector, Albert Barnes, who, no doubt thinking with his prick, opined that Renoir was the equal of Cezanne, Matisse and Picasso.

Matisse and Picasso.

So much for the propaganda: now for the cold eye of truth. In restricting the exhibition to landscapes, these directors and their appointed curators have dealt Renoir an almost mortal blow. Most of these landscapes are appalling. Those few that are not are tolerable only because they are tentative works in the shadow of Corot, Courbet, Millet, Diaz and other landscape painters of an older generation, or because Renoir was briefly close to Monet or Pissarro, both of whom are infinitely his superior in the genre. As for his supposed response to Cezanne, with whom he is thought to have worked closely in January 1882, of this there is little evidence in the exhibition other than the Rocky Crags at L'Estaque in which he manifests his utter incomprehension of the slightly older painter's efforts to convert Impressionism into "something solid and durable, like the art of museums".

There are other landscapes that might be described as prettifications of Cezanne, but none is included in the London version of the exhibition (an example, No 72 in the catalogue, Landscape near Menton, of 1883, is to be seen only in Ottawa and Philadelphia).

With such observations, however, I

run the risk of taking seriously paintings of which I have already used the word appalling. Smudge, smear and ineptitude is the best that can be said of them; greasy too, and occasionally dollopy, for Renoir's handling of paint in these landscapes is often physically repellent. The kindest thing that the curators could have done for his reputation would have been to abort the exhibition when they realised how dire and dreadful it would be; that they did not, suggests that such a realisation dawned on not one of them, nor on their associated essayists, nor on their directors, none of whom, it seems, has the slightest eye for quality.

Had LS Lowry set out to forge a late Utrillo, he could not have matched the sheer nastiness of Renoir's Piazza San Marco, Venice, of 1881; had David Hockney painted his Californian masterpiece of 1980, Mulholland Drive, in a haze of cannabis and LSD, it could not have been worse than the road snaking through Renoir's Landscape at Wargemont a century earlier, a hefty thing of greens, purples and mustards applied in blurs and splotches. …

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