I have not seen “Renoir: The Body, The Senses,” an exhibition at the Clark Art Institute, in Williamstown, Massachusetts, but an online correspondent sent me a titillating review of it by Peter Schjeldahl of The New Yorker, which is entitled “Renoir’s Problem Nudes.” I have absolutely no idea why my correspondent sent it to me (nevertheless I shield h/er identity), but it seemed like it might be some sort of challenge, so much so that I replied [trigger warning] “I wouldn’t touch that with a ten-inch pole.”
Still, this is a blog about design, mostly architectural but not exclusively. An Impressionist nude like Renoir’s “Bather With Blonde Hair” sits somewhere between a classical nude and a modernist nude, between a Titian nude and a Picasso nude. In architecture, an Art Deco building sits somewhere between a Wren and a Gehry. In both realms of art, a minor revolt against tradition precedes a major revolution, also, naturally, against tradition. Schjeldahl seems to view Renoir as the subject of a “purge” by “the more politicized precincts of the current art world.” The Clark exhibit has teed up Renoir as a stand-in for sexism. Art radicals are invited to swing away. He writes:
Everything in Renoir that is hard to take and almost impossible to think about, because it makes no concessions to intelligence, affirms his stature as a revolutionary artist. He stood firmly against the past in art and issued a stark challenge to its future. You can’t dethrone him without throwing overboard the fundamental logic of modernism as a sequence of jolting aesthetic breakthroughs, entitled to special rank on the grounds of originality and influence.
In that passage Schjeldahl presents Renoir as a revolutionary when he was, as an Impressionist, more of a hesitant dissident, dancing on the walls of the compound, as Tom Wolfe put it in another context, eager to be in the Salon even as he thumbs his nose at it. His nudes didn’t have the same sort of problems as a Picasso nude, with both eyes to the left of her nose or her breasts wandering around somewhere in the thoracic zone. Even Picasso’s nudes were natural compared to the nudes (if you can call them that) of the Cubists, who themselves were modest compared with some of the nudes who emerge after abstract painting went around the bend, at which point it was hard to recognize the body, let alone whether it was clothed or not. A similar progression in architecture, with a brief Art Deco/Stripped (but not nude) Classical period, followed the painting revo by about two decades.
I assure readers that this post is far less titillating than Schjeldahl’s New Yorker review, which itself must give way to the comments that accompanied my correspondent’s email, which shall remain under a cloak of censorship. Aside from the titillating, there is much fascinating material in the review that goes completely unacknowledged in this post.
Although I suppose it doesn’t make me any less sexist (to be a man is to be sexist, right?), to at least put my relative modesty on display, below is the sort of nude I prefer. It is by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, and is less sugary than the Renoir (to use the word Schjeldahl uses), with a more intelligent face. Is it entirely classical? I don’t know, but it’s classical enough to trigger my appreciation.