Apparently disaffected with his early work, in what appears to be a mid-career and mid-life crisis -- a crisis of artistic and personal identity -- Pierre-Auguste Renoir turned to what Clement Greenberg disparagingly called "museum art" in an effort to renew his creativity. Just as "Soutine turned his back on Cubism. . . and refused to like anything but the Old Masters," Greenberg writes,(1) so Renoir turned his back on Impressionism -- the Impressionism of La Grenouillère (1869), a "visual exploration of a dazzling newness even by such advanced standards of 1869 as Manet’s Departure of the Folkestone Boat," as Robert Rosenblum says(2) -- and "sought to adapt his new manner of painting from nature with the art of the past," in the words with which the Philadelphia Museum of Art celebrates its exhibition of "Late Renoir."
It seems that Renoir and Soutine had the same idea, perhaps in realization that modernist manners had reached their limits -- indeed, had become clichéd mannerisms, an easy language of art -- leading them to regress to the art of the past in search of new creative and esthetic possibilities and inspired emotion. It was the same "classical" past -- Tintoretto, El Greco and Rembrandt for Soutine, Raphael, Titian and Veronese, along with ancient sculpture for Renoir -- which avant-gardism had repudiated as passé, on the grounds that it was too "static" to be relevant to dynamic modern life, with its revolutionary technology and social revolutions. Art had to become as dynamic, revolutionary, innovative -- as alive with change and newness -- as modern society. Perhaps Renoir and Soutine realized that newness quickly became oldness, which didn’t mean lastingness, and they wanted an art that would last beyond their times, continue to be of interest when the modern had become another old tradition, like Old Master art.
"Soutine’s vision of the heights of painting saw Old Master pathos and naturalism lending themselves to the directness of ‘pure’ painting," Greenberg writes, and so did Renoir’s vision -- with the great difference that Renoir saw joie de vivre rather than pathos in his Old Masters: his stately, monumental nudes bespeak self-sufficient joie de vivre. Soutine was an expressionist pessimist, and Renoir an impressionist optimist. Soutine saw tragedy in nature, Renoir idealized it. Soutine’s expressionism was "vehement, almost brutal," Greenberg writes, and charged with "violence" and "ghastly anxiety," while Renoir’s impressionism conveyed élan vital: fluid, saturated with color, and decoratively intense, his paintings convey not the simple hedonism (forthright eroticism?) Rosenblum notes but inextinguishable, inexhaustible, jubilant vitality. But the point that I want to make is that both were "postmodernists" before "postmodernism" became fashionable. There is the shallow, clever postmodernism that casually, sometimes haphazardly brings avant-garde forms and kitsch imagery together (Richard Prince’s "abstract jokes" are an example), and the deeper, broader, more thorough, ingenious and paradoxical postmodernism that brings traditional and modern visions of art together, giving it a new integrity, subtlety, and presence -- a grandeur that seems innate. It is the latter kind of postmodernism that we see in Renoir and Soutine -- especially in Renoir, who perfects the postmodern integration of opposites in his female nudes, an early perfection that has never been surpassed: they have the allegorical meaning and substantial, epic bodies the female nude traditionally had and the lyric grace, affectionate intimacy, and buoyant spirit of impressionistic touch.
Greenberg sees "sweetness" and "lushness" in late Renoir, and "a suffocating kind of decorativeness," along with a "method of high-keyed, aerated modeling that has become a staple of academic modernism."(3) For Greenberg, "it was by dint of becoming more sculptural, after having at last tried his hand at actual sculpture, that he joined the Venetians and Rubens on the heights of painterly painting." To no avail, for his paintings became more and more "picturesque." "The picturesque means all that is viable, transmittable, liftable without risk, in the ingredients of proven art" -- art with "a sure-fire effect." "Renoir’s later landscapes often tend to be sketchy in a bad sense" and this sketchiness infected his facture, making it seem weak-willed and slick -- the seeming "crudeness of facture" and "lack of finish" that gave Impressionist painting its power, immediacy, and seeming "naturalness" were lost to a curiously inert sketchiness, suggesting that impressionist handling had become decadent.
But Greenberg is missing the point: Renoir was consolidating its esthetic gains in a visionary, emotionally purposive and powerful Impressionism. What Greenberg celebrated as "the Impressionist slice of nature, unmanipulated by ‘human interest’" -- for Greenberg a prelude to pure painting, in which there was little or no hint of human interest in nature, let alone emotional investment in it -- was overtly charged with human interest in Renoir’s late Impressionism, making it clear that from the start Impressionism involved "human interest," that is, nature was humanly interesting for it. Human nature was an inseparable part of nature -- human beings were innately natural however unnatural they sometimes seemed (but then nothing is alien to nature) and their welfare was inseparable from its welfare. More to the Impressionist point, the projection of human emotion into nature with the expectation that it would be well-received and reciprocated was inseparable from the perception of nature. This only superficially has to do with Renoir’s use of the human figure. However emphatically present, for him it is another piece of the landscape, if also a natural landscape in itself. For Renoir it was a sort of microcosmic concentration of macrocosmic nature, a concentration of its magnificence and munificence in one magnificent and munificent figure. The body may be smaller than the landscape, but in Renoir’s pictures it usurps the landscape, and has the grandeur and has a density and immediacy of presence that the typical Impressionist landscape, simultaneously diffused and suffused by atmosphere and light, usually lacks.
What Greenberg altogether misses -- and so does Rosenblum -- is that the Impressionist "flight to nature" is a defensive reaction formation, as the psychoanalysts call it, to modern society, and as such a sign of emotional health. The Impressionist’s responsive, spontaneous "handling" of nature, whether in the form of the landscape or the body in the state of nature that is the nude -- the Impressionist’s uncanny, hypersensitive attunement to the nuances of nature’s appearance, and his unembellished presentation of its beauty -- is not only a matter of projecting "good feelings" into it, and thus reinforcing them in oneself, but of excluding "bad feelings" about society. Meyer Schapiro understood this, but he didn’t fully understand the emotional realism behind Impressionism’s utopian naturalism, conspicuously evident in Renoir’s decorative idealism. But it is all an illusion, as the clear-eyed Renoir -- his friends and fellow artists always admired his eyes -- knew. What looks like a garden of paradise is the healthy façade of his disillusionment, even mourning for nature, as these telling remarks imply: "We get too accustomed to those [modern] things, and to such a point that we don’t realize how ugly they are. And if the day ever comes when we become entirely accustomed to them, it will be the end of a civilization which gave us the Parthenon and the cathedral of Rouen. Then men will commit suicide from boredom or else kill each other off, just for the pleasure of it." Renoir’s son notes: "We know that in Renoir’s opinion the ugliness of buildings towards the end of the 19th century and the vulgarity of design in articles in common use were a far greater danger than wars."(4)
It seems clear that the ugliness of modern life has grown greater since Renoir painted and sculpted from nature, with the expectation that it would restore his mental health and faith in humanity -- and restore nature itself to glowing, flourishing health. Renoir, like the other Impressionists, was an environmentalist ahead of his time, as other nature romantics were, among them Wordsworth, who also realized the ugliness of modern life and the modern world. It was clear to them that ugliness is a crime against life, and unhealthy in itself, and that modernity, with its interminable wars, may also be, whatever the benefits of modern medicine.
"Late Renoir," June 17-Sept. 6, 2010, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 26th Street and Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, Pa. 19130
DONALD KUSPIT is distinguished professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.
(1) Clement Greenberg, "Soutine," Art and Culture (Boston: Beacon Press, 1965), 116
(2) Robert Rosenblum and H. W. Janson, 19th-Century Art (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall and New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1984), 304
(3) Greenberg, "Renoir," 47-49 in passim
(4) Both quotations are from Adrian Stokes, "The Invitation in Art," The Critical Writings of Adrian Stokes (London: Thames and Hudson, 1978), 287