Renoir’s “problem nudes”

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Detail of “Bather With Blonde Hair” (1903) by Pierre-August Renoir. (Clark Art Institute)

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.

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“Odalisque in Grisaille” (c. 1824-34) by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. (Wikipedia)

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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10 Responses to Renoir’s “problem nudes”

  1. Daniel Morales says:

    An art deco building is in between a Wren and a Mies!?! Sounds like something more than aesthetics at work.

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  2. Do you remember your comment awhile back about the beauty of a woman being in her eyes? No wonder your partiality is for Door #2.

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    • You have a better memory of my work product than I do, Nancy. That sounds like something I might say. Door No. 2 definitely has more intelligent, engaging eyes. In fact, one of the more edgy comments that I ignored was the critic’s declaration that Renoir’s nudes look “dumb.” Now there’s a comment I will hasten to not touch!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Steven Semes says:

    I think you meant to say “Impressionist” not “Expressionist.”

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  4. LazyReader says:

    How immature must you be to be appalled by boobies and butts. The invention of photography crippled the art industry by the turn of the 20th century. We don’t need realistic paintings or years of mastery, I can replicate the image of a person, or a bowl of fruit in an hour. Modern art is nothing but a circle jerk of pretentious unemployable losers making a fortune of doodles and trash installations by telling people it’s meaningful and important. By ascribing a societal, analytical or political endorsement with random objects. Modern art is a financial price fixing scam, where galleries, museums and auction houses, keep prices artificially inflated. Owners of which often donate to public view to avoid paying tax. Others buy modern art as a method of laundering money.

    Modern art was also a CIA ‘weapon’ As for the artists themselves, many were ex- communists barely acceptable in the America of the McCarthyite era, and certainly not the sort of people normally likely to receive US government backing.

    Why did the CIA support them? Because in the propaganda war with the Soviet Union, this new artistic movement could be held up as proof of the creativity, the intellectual freedom, and the cultural power of the US. Russian art, strapped into the communist ideological straitjacket, could not compete.

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    • Lazy, read James Curl’s history of modern architecture, “Making Dystopia,” published last year. I’ve written reams on it. He describes that interesting interlude after WWII and into the ’50s during which the CIA pushed modern art for reasons you point out in your comment. As for your opening remarks, it is a fallacy that photography mooted figurative art, opening the door to modern art. Modern art took advantage of people’s lack of confidence in their own taste, the rich even more than the middle class.

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  5. barry says:

    I don’t agree David, Renoir’s nudes, though obviously plump, are far more inviting to me than the colder nude you show by Ingres. I think Renoir’s popularity is partly his skill in appealing to the middle class that likes his scenes of boating parties, lush foliage, pleasant well dressed people in pleasing gardens or landscapes or at a dance – it makes you want to be with them … (It also reminds me of how pleasant many places may have looked before the auto age intruded) Indeed as a non-artist (I’m in math) I’ve been made fun of by friends and colleagues in the art world for being hopelessly middle class by liking Renoir, impressionists, landscape artists such as Corot and the Barbizon school …while being totally bored or appalled by most abstract expressionism that academics tend to favor, and, often so do corporate purchasers for modern office buildings, not sure why

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    • Agree with most of what you say, Barry, even if I do prefer the Ingres to the Renoir. I think most corporate purchasing of modern art for office buildings is made by committees of people who mainly want to impress others with the degree of their hipness.

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