Down with Renoir!

Yesterday at noon, protesters began to chant: “Rosy cheeks are for clowns / Do your job, take them down.” Another: “God hates Renoir! God hates Renoir!” The number of people attending the protest in front of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts numbered in the middle-to-high single digits, according to reports.

Max Geller, a political organizer, hates Pierre-Auguste Renoir, the Impressionist painter who died in 1919 and never used anything but pastels in any of his several many famous and gigantic works. If one could type a sentence that used air quotes and then took them away and then replaced them again, one might perhaps begin to convey a sense of how completely almost serious and almost mocking and yet earnestly this hatred is felt.

Protest is important. In a free country, one ought to be able to protest anything and everything. This happens to be a free country, and the display of Renoir’s frenetically-dabbed pastel pastorals is as good an object of protest as many. (Not “any,” but many.) Two of his works have fetched more than $70 million at auction in the last quarter-century, so the received perceived wisdom in both the art world and the world world is that Renoir’s many giant works are good and valuable.

In interviews, Geller points out that Renoir was an anti-Semite, which certainly takes points away from the Grand Master in my book, but that traps the protester in the authorial fallacy: an artist’s biography is not the artist’s work. Renoir’s paintings on their own merits ought to demerit them enough. They do. I agree with Geller.

Geller started an Instagram account titled, “Renoir Sucks At Painting,” and he took his protest to the White House on April.

When the Obama Administration came into office, it set up a citizen petition section in the White House web site. This section has been used frivolously and it has been used seriously; many issues have received publicity because individuals have started citizen petitions. Some of these have been successful in winning Presidential proclamations.

Geller’s petition, titled “We Petition the Obama Administration to: Remove all of the literally awful Renoir paintings hanging in the National Gallery in Washington DC,” did not receive enough signatures (only 14, not counting Geller’s own) to move forward in the Presidential proclamation-winning process (it has been archived, according to the White House site), but his manifesto, surprisingly brief for a manifesto at only 124 words, states his goals:

The #RenoirSucksAtPainting movement seeks to critically reassess the terrible oeuvre of Pierre Renoir. Through the process of de-hanging Reniors from our nation’s museums, we work to reverse the deleterious effects Renoir’s treacly, puerile paintings have had on our nation.
We call on Mr.Obama to issue a Presidental Proclamation denouncing Renoir for his saccharine scribbles in general, and, in particular, removing all Renoirs from our National museums.
Finally, any ‘Fine’ art worthy of its name, imparts on its viewer emotional force and inspiration. The time has come for we, as a nation, with grim resolve, to recognize Renoir’s utter failure in these regards. We call on the President to to take proactive steps to correct the historical mistake and end Renoir’s reign of aesthetic terror.

I have long felt that Renoir’s paintings are dull and vapid. Vapidity and dullness are cultural enemies that must always be combated. The received wisdom is that Renoir is an important artist from the Impressionist period. His works ought to remain in the history books, but museums do not merely display history. One of Renoir’s “greatest hits” is “Girls at the Piano,” which is not at the MFA:

Jeunes filles au piano, 1892, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Jeunes filles au piano, 1892, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Musée d’Orsay, Paris


A billowy cascade of soft fabrics attack two young women with poorly rendered hands. Besides that, what is happening with the standing girl’s skirt? What bodily contortion, what yoga position, is she attempting to make it drape off herself like that? How is the seated girl’s hair casting such a dark shadow on that same skirt? Is this a portrait of dangerously strong static cling more than a portrait of two music lovers?

Geller told WBUR, “Curators lack the courage to say, ‘Hey, wait, everybody’s been wrong this whole time.’ They’re not looking at the paintings.” He is right. Art rebels against received wisdom, the dictatorship of public taste. Sometimes it takes a somewhat tongue-in-cheek protest to remind us to open our eyes.

There are more famous works of art worth denigrating, and there are many unknown works worth celebrating, and there certainly are more worthwhile things to protest, but every reminder to look again at what we think we know is worth at least $70 million.

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Today’s Alterna-Prompt, “The Blog Propellant,” asks us to “express an opinion or reflect upon a moment or time in your life. To rant.”

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19 comments

  1. Martha Kennedy · October 6, 2015

    I have a general internal protest against Impressionism. It’s now the same pernicious de rigueur totalitarian imperative that realism was back in the days of Monet, Renoir, etc. If you paint representational art to sell, it more or less must be impressionistic because that is, now, what people can “see.” If I paint with “freer” brush-strokes, I get “You’re really making progress as a painter.” But…the paintings I like most (of my own) are not painted that way. I am not sure that the “impression” is sacred. And the expression will not fit anyone’s mold but that of the artist. As for the anti-semitism, well, it’s appalling, but I agree with you that the work of the artist must be judged as the work itself. And everyone’s anti-something. It’s been a revelation to me that over these past months I’ve gotten to know a person with an ethos that I find absolutely abominable. That pretty much showed me I’m no better than anyone else… 😦

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mark Aldrich · October 6, 2015

      Renoir is one of several versions of Thomas Kinkade in his era.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Martha Kennedy · October 6, 2015

        Or vice versa… It’s just interesting that some of those fresh-faced young people were whores and opium addicts.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. camparigirl · October 6, 2015

    Impressionism in general is much beloved because so easy to understand. I found this post very interesting as I knew nothing of this movement. I often try to separate an artist’s work from his/her biography and judge it on its own merit but I find it tricky, arguing for or against depending on how much I like the work.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Catherine · October 6, 2015

    Say what you want. Whenever I look at an Impressionist painting–no matter who the painter may be, I see something that tickles my esthetic and subjective fancy. I despise Picasso because I think he’s infantile and pretentious. To each his own. But the good thing is that you have started debate about art. Never a dull subject.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mark Aldrich · October 6, 2015

      Thanks for your kind words.

      I happen to love most of Picasso’s work (another whose biography is of a cruel man), because for me, intellectual excitement is a profound aesthetic excitement. (I am not certain how any art can accomplish the trick of being simultaneously infantile and pretentious.)

      But taste is not arguable, as we all know. De gustibus non disputatem.

      But a debate over art is always a good thing; I agree with you 101% on that, Catherine!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Catherine · October 15, 2015

        You are certainly correct about Picasso being cruel. My better half’s dad was both a friend and peer and he was not a nice man! But yeah, isn’t it so much better to open debate about art? Better than discussing politics and religion, IMHO!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. LRose · October 6, 2015

    This rant also fits brilliantly with the Public Art option in the prompt.
    I’m wondering if Geller’s manifesto might have garnered more signatures, say, another 14, or so, if he used the actual term for the removal of an artwork from public view and from a collection, “de-accession,” rather than “de-hang.” It’s not as cute, I realize, but given the use of other S.A.T. words in the document, I think “de-accession” might be a better choice.
    This was a fun read!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. loisajay · October 6, 2015

    You don’t like it; don’t go see it. Geez. Some people have too much time on their hands.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Julie · October 7, 2015

    Sounds like jealousy to me.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Mark Aldrich · October 15, 2015

    Reblogged this on The Gad About Town and commented:

    The anti-Renoir movement continues to get (tongue-in-cheek) coverage and has announced a march at “High Noon” this Saturday, October 17, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

    Like

  8. Pleasant Street · October 15, 2015

    I find the whole protest fascinating

    Liked by 1 person

  9. lifelessons · October 15, 2015

    I would bet that the great majority are tweeting and posting as a sort of lark. I even wonder how serious the original protesters are? If you compare this protest to the Raif issue, this seems like a bit of fluff, doesn’t it?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mark Aldrich · October 15, 2015

      A nice bit of fluff, even though art is certainly important and freedom is certainly important, but no one is being punished for their opinion or for having an opinion.

      Renoir’s descendants are not amused by Mr. Geller’s protest-as-aesthetic-critique.

      Like

      • lifelessons · October 16, 2015

        Strange, I never think of Renoir or Rembrandt or any really famous artist as having descendants! Makes me want to Google them to see who they are. Strange to think that the ones making millions on this art are not the artist or his/her descendants. I guess all they have is the distinction being family to genius or talent or notoriety–however it is seen.I’m not saying art is fluff–I’m saying the demonstration itself seems “fluffy.” Nice to live in a country where, as you say, such demonstrations can take place legally.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. Relax · October 15, 2015

    “Is this Renoir blue or black?” lol — sorry couldn’t resist!

    Liked by 1 person

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