It’s been a few years since the last big Pierre-Auguste Renoir exhibition in town. The last one, if I remember correctly, was “Renoir: Tradition & Innovation” at the National Art Center Tokyo (NACT). That brought over the French impressionist’s “Dance at Bougival” (1883), an excellent painting, but padded out the rest of the show largely with inferior works, leaving a generally negative impression — no pun intended.
This time the show is again at NACT, but there seems to have been a noticeable uptick in quality. Instead of just one or two famous works to emblazon on posters and leaflets in order to draw the crowds, there seems to be a surfeit. Among these are “Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette” (1876), touted by the museum as one of the “crown jewels of impressionism”; the tender and heart-warming “Girls at the Piano” (1892); and “The Bathers” (1918-19), one of the best examples of Renoir’s “fuller figure” nudes from his later period. In addition to this, the lesser works seem to be of a generally higher quality.
From all this, there is a real sense of the organizers upping their game and attempting to give this famous and much-loved painter his due.
A large part of this is down to the two museums involved, revealed in the exhibition’s title: “Renoir: Masterpieces from the Musee d’Orsay and the Musee de l’Orangerie.” These are two of the top museums for impressionist art in Paris that clearly have the resources to do any of the great impressionists justice. But why have they decided to get so fully behind this show?
One reason could be because the Renoir “brand” has come under attack in recent years. While other well-known impressionists, such as Claude Monet, are still widely respected, there is something of an anti-Renoir movement afoot in the world. Last year there was even a demonstration — partly serious, partly tongue-in-cheek — at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, protesting the museum’s Renoirs under the slogans “Art Terrorism” and “Renoir sucks at painting.” The latter phrase i s also the name of an Instagram account dedicated to the artist’s shortcomings.
An article in The Atlantic magazine covering this controversy pointed to some of the reasons why Renoir was being singled out: “Then and now, critics complain that Renoir was promiscuous with color. That he paid no heed to line and composition. His works were never formal explorations of light and shadow, like Monet’s, or social critiques of the turn-of-the-century era, like Manet’s.”
There is a germ of truth in these critiques — and a few paintings that unfortunately back them up — but there are also paintings here in which color is expertly used and where the composition is strong. This is definitely one of the delights of “Girls at the Piano,” where our attention is subtly drawn in by the arrangement of the hands and arms of the two girls.
“Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette” may not qualify as an incisive Neo-Marxist critique of late-19th century French capitalism (what does?), but it gives us an authentic and attractive slice of the social life of the times, while also reminding us of Renoir’s skill in evoking intimacy and capturing sun-dappled light.
This exhibition seems to be an attempt to counter some of the unfair anti-Renoirism and defend the Renoir brand in one of its strongest markets. If this is the intention, the show is a great success, with several interesting sections that are designed to present Renoir as a more serious artist than the rather saccharine image that many have of him.
One of the criticisms of Renoir that has gained some traction is that he was rather too comfortable in his painting style. To counter this, the sections on his early art and landscape paintings emphasize the struggle he faced as he tackled his subject and developed his unique style.
An early work — “Boy with a Cat” (1858) — is much more carefully painted than his later works, and as a consequence is reminiscent of the crisp, somber style of Edouard Manet. His earlier landscapes suggest that he was not only vying with his painting companion, Claude Monet, but also the fast-changing light of the French countryside. It was in response to these conditions that Renoir evolved his famous fast feathery brushstrokes, which sometimes veered toward the glib and trite but were also capable of great sensitivity.
The exhibition has an impressive selection of works by other artists, both for purposes of comparison and in an attempt to recreate the milieu in which Renoir operated. These include several Van Goghs, which show that artist also pushing toward his own style. This reminds us that, easy as Renoir’s style may sometimes appear, it too had to evolve and grow with the man.
“Renoir: Masterpieces from the Musee d’Orsay and the Musee de l’Orangerie” at the The National Art Center, Tokyo, runs until Aug. 22; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Fri. and Aug. 6, 13, and 20 until 8 p.m.). ¥1,600. Closed Tue. www.nact.jp