"You can be a museum or you can be modern, but you can't be both." - Gertrude Stein
But if you think Gertrude Stein laid that particular argument to rest, keep reading.
I. - The title of the painting above tells a story, but not the whole story. A Room at the Second Post-Impressionist Exposition - The Matisse Room
by Roger Fry to commemorate the second exhibition of Post-Impressionist Art held in London.
Roger Fry was a historian specializing in the Italian Renaissance
when he was converted to modernism by Paul Cezanne’s paintings, seen in
Paris. Four years later Fry organized the
exhibition Manet and the
Post-Impressionists in London. By
1910 these artists were not news, but Fry coined the catch-all term them that
stuck, so we remember the moment. At the
same time, the conservative newspaper the Daily Telegraph is credited with first use of the term avant-garde
(a military term originating in French) to describe what made artists
modern. That French culture aroused deep
suspicion in the British only makes things more delicious.
II - Call it a protest or
a piece of performance art, it was an “anti-Renoir” event. On Monday, October 5, a small group
gathered in front of the Boston Museum of Fine Art to denounce the French
artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir, dead these one hundred years, The participants held homemade signs, one
stating “Treacle Harms Society.” They demanded that the museum remove a number
of inferior Renoirs (there are a lot of them) and instead give their precious
gallery space to artists like Gauguin,
provided great fun to the public including a bemused Carol Off who interviewed
the instigator Max Geller on the CBC
news program As It Happens It is
not often remarked in polite company just how mediocre Renoir's paintings can
be; after all their prices are astronomical, assuming you can locate one for
sale. Ar his best, Renoir's pictures
show him to be a gifted member of the dazzling group of French Impressionists
painters. But his pretty young women lived a precarious existence
as working women in the 19th century city, those nubile young nudes
were intended not for the walls of museums so much as for the smoking rooms of
lascivious rich men.
The protest could have been held, with equal justification,
at the Clark Art Institute in Willamstown, at the other end of Massachusetts. The Clark owns thirty-two Renoirs, some
very fine and as many that are mediocre. For my taste the star Renoir at the Clark is
the still life Onions (1881).
Here Renoir applies his modeling technique to vegetables; what takes my
breath is that the artist captured the
delicate shimmer of their papery skins.
Sterling Clark’s taste for Renoir
began in 1916 when he purchased his first painting, Renoir’s A Girl Crocheting. Despite its demure title, the subject is really the
young woman’s luscious body. There is ample evidence (Nymphs and Satyr by another French artists, William-Adolphe Bougereau, for instance) that Sterling Clark's taste in art extended to what we might call fuzzy porn.
Four years ago, the Clark deaccessioned ( a euphemism for
sold off for $$$) one of its Renoirs, Woman
Picking Flowers, through a London gallery, asking price $15 million. As the flower-picker
was Camille Monet, wife of Claude Monet, the painting has some
significance as the document of a
friendship. Asked why the Clark decided to sell this
Sterling Clark selection at an art fair,
director Michael Conforti explained in a written statement that the offering “would afford
both transparency and visibility since this art fair is so widely followed and
well attended by those individuals who are most likely to have an interest in
works of this quality.’’ Notice that this does not answer the question.
There may come a day when Pierre-Auguste Renoir is remembered as the father of Jean Renoir, one of the great 20th century filmmakers, rather than for his paintings.
III. - Both an art historian, Sir Kenneth Clark, and a structural
anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss, believed that collecting-and arranging,
call it curation or bricolage, is a basic human activity. Lévi-Strauss added a dark reminder: that ancient
Roman curators were procurers, agents for hire.
Museums as we know them were built on the collections
of royalty, beginning in the eighteenth century. The
first curators were hardly free agents, either. By the 1860s, French artists were fed up with the curators of the official salons and
began their own counter-exhibitions, joining aesthetics and commerce under
their own banner.
The third act in this drama took place in New York City
when Alfred Barr, Jr., the first director of the Museum of Modern Art,, became art's
chief arbiter of value, a model that ruled the art world until, like other
ideas, it wore out its welcome. It fell
to curator Lucy Lippard, whose exhibition Six Years: The Dematerialization
of the art Object from 1966 to `1972 to threw down the gauntlet. The modern museum had made a fetish of art
works? Very well, we will dematerialize
them! And so they gave us conceptual
Contemporary suspicion of institutions has given rise
to art fairs (places where art is sold) and kunsthalles, (places where
art is displayed but not collected).
The anxiety about separating the good from the bad seems to be a human constant and we
have given the curator the power to assign value, but what values? Aesthetic or monetary? And let us not forget eros. Deciding seems to be an activity very much like peeling one of Renoir's beautiful onions.
1. Roger Fry - A Room at the Second Post-Impressionist Exposition - The Matisse Room ,
Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
2. Pierre-Auguste Renoir - Onions
, 1881, Sterling & Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.
3. Pierre-Auguste Renoir - A Girl Crocheting
, 1875, Sterling & Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.