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Exhibition Review: Renoir- The Body, The Senses

It’s no secret that I love museums. I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to see some of the best museums in the world throughout my travels in North and South America, Europe, and Asia in the last 12 years. I thought it was time I start writing about what I’m seeing! There are so many amazing works to discover, and exciting shows to explore. I hope you find my thoughts insightful and that you are encouraged to visit more museums and take a closer look at the art!

This past weekend I visited the Kimbell Art Museum in Ft. Worth, Texas to see a show entitled Renoir: The Body, The Senses. I must say before visiting the show I’ve always brushed Renoir (pun intended) aside and never paid much attention to his work. For whatever reason, when I’ve seen his work in European collections, or even American collections, I have had the same reaction: “Oh, there’s a Renoir! How pretty.” And then I would walk on to the next painting. Aside from a few of his larger pieces I’ve seen in person, namely “Dance at la Moulin de la Galette” at the Orsay in Paris (which I found stunning!) or “Luncheon of the Boating Party,” Renoir’s work never intrigued me like other artists I admire and study. However, after seeing his work this weekend, I’ve been forced to reconsider my opinions. I had surmised throughout my art training and museum visiting that Renoir simply was not concerned about accuracy of proportions, nor was his drawing important to his process. Therefore to me, his work simply lacked the expertise and the skill I so admire in many other artists in the last 500 years. (Ok, ok it’s no secret that Michelangelo is among my top favorites!)

The Kimbell show, which continues through this Saturday, January 26th is well worth your time. The show is beautifully curated in one of my favorite buildings for viewing art in the country- the Renzo Piano building at the Kimbell. The diffused sunlight illuminating the room provides a more natural way to view art. This is particularly impactful for me when viewing Impressionistic work, as so much of it deals with nature. There is a sense of sterility I feel in a lot of museums and galleries with no natural light. At the Kimbell you always have a light filled space and to me, it really adds to the experience of the exhibition.

I love to see a crowd in a musuem!

The exhibition design gives great insight into Renoir’s life and process. Juxtaposed with his idols and contemporaries, the viewer understands the context of Renoir’s life and his work. Renoir grew up in Paris, virtually next door to the Louvre, and drew much of his inspiration and the foundation of his work from his visits to the museum. Rubens being one of his primary idols (as he is mine!) I appreciated that the exhibition included a Rubens right from the beginning. It is interesting to note however, that thinking of who he studied and admired, Rubens, Ingres, Delacroix, Renoir’s work makes a complete departure of both their palette and style. While Rubens is concerned with the movement of the figures and the story he’s telling, Renoir takes on an entirely different approach. For all the Rubens I’ve seen across the world, (the unforgettable giant galleries in London and Paris full of his masterful works where the colors dance and you can almost hear the chatter of his figures as they interact and move across the canvas), Renoir’s in contrast are almost entirely still, silent paintings. He’s not capturing history, at least not in the same way Rubens did, but instead he’s capturing a moment. The moments aren’t even specific to a certain time or place, or revolving around a specific subject. It’s a particular moment of light hitting skin. Throughout the show, and throughout his life, this is a theme that he explored again and again.

My favorite painting of the show

Like water lilies to Monet is the skin to Renoir with the particular group of works shown in this exhibition. What struck me with this group of paintings was that difference of movement vs. stillness. Rubens’ figures and colors mesmerize and move. (Stay tuned for my review of the altarpiece I saw in Cambridge at King’s College chapel. I literally felt as though the figures were breathing!) Monet is conveying movement with the brushstrokes and Degas is concerned with the movement of the figures expressed with his layering of color and his line work. In contrast, Renoir does not seem to be concerned with those things at all. In fact, finding a line in his work is much like finding a needle in a haystack! Up close to the art you can see just how soft his edges are. It made me assess my own use of hard edges in my work and consider the ethereal effect he achieves with the softness that characterizes his work.

I did find it interesting to see a painting of Renoir’s side by side with Cezanne. Interesting to note is that the brush strokes are almost identical in parts of the two paintings. The width of the brush, about .25” and the stroke itself, about 1” and the level of blending are almost identical. Yet the two paintings achieve something totally different! That’s where I feel like the beauty and the skill of Renoir lies- he harnessed the same tools, even the same strokes, and achieved something so totally different than his contemporaries. I found it amazing that throughout the work displayed in this exhibition, which represents different stages throughout his 50 year career, his work all evokes basically the same visual and emotional response. The paintings are still, and they are beautiful. There is a timeless quality about them as they are sort of out of space and time altogether. They are not about the subject, they are not about the time and place, they are simply a celebration of light as he saw it, and a quest for the feminine beauty that was his muse his entire life. Though the show is comprised almost entirely of his nudes, the women are not objectified. Instead, they are elevated to a higher level of beauty and idealism that I believe is what carries his work into the 21st century and draws thousands of visitors to exhibitions of his paintings.

I was completely unaware that Renoir sculpted!

The chalk drawings in the show are beautiful, and gives him the credit I was so hesitant to give him for so long...he was in fact a competent draftsman.

There’s much more to say about his life, his journey as an artist, and the work itself. (Not to mention that this show contains Renoir paintings owned by Picasso, who idolized Renoir's work and owned 7 of his paintings, which he kept in his personal collection until his death.) I hope you will go and see for yourself and enjoy the deep history and beauty the show so wonderfully illuminates.

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