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(only 14, not counting Geller’s own) to move forward in the Presidential proclamation-winning process (it has been archived, according to the White House site), but his manifesto, surprisingly brief for a manifesto at only 124 words, states his goals: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:
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.
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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