09 October 2015

Who Decides ?

"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 was painted in 1912 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, Cezanne, etc.
The spectacle 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 CrochetingDespite 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 art. 

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.
Revised 10/11/2015.
1. Roger Fry - A Room at the Second Post-Impressionist Exposition - The Matisse Room , 1912, 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.


Hels said...

Fry organised the Manet and the Post-Impressionists exhibition in London in 1910 and again in 1912. I totally agree that for the rest of the pre-WW1 world, these artists were hardly radical any more... but in Britain Fry was a brave risk-taker. Certainly he had the support of his Bloomsbury colleagues, but two elements of Fry's venture were fraught: French culture and modernism. I can imagine British newspapers warning parents to cover their children's eyes, when approaching a riske' painting.

Jane said...

The title as question speaks to your point. Fry's interest in art was primarily aesthetic, whether or not one agrees with his ideas. I hope that by not trying to answer my own question, but give a few examples of how things work when art meets $$$, it offers some food for thought - and even amusement.