Tuesday, February 27, 2007

More Renoir

The comment debate that raged over my post Getting It Wrong left me wanting to say more. I was confirmed in this view by this article in the Guardian, drawn to my attention by Lilly Evans. So, to expand the Renoir thought, the impressionists wished to paint without any imposed meanings or hierarchies, whether religions, political, social or aesthetic. To the contemporary imagination this seems to mean little more than painting an ordinary world full of ordinary people doing ordinary things. What it in fact means is the transformation of the field of the painting. With no pre-existing values, the question arises: what do we, in fact, see? The answer is a coloured plane to which we impute various seemingly non-intrinsic qualities, perspective obviously. I suffered a panic attack in the Renoir show because his sense that this is all we have is sometimes exhilarating but, for me at the time, it was suffocating. I felt a sort of drowning vertigo. We don't think like this now about the impressionists because they have been so emasculated and normalised by their sheer popularity. Which brings me to Roy Hattersley's drab piece about poetry in the Guardian. In discussing 'difficulty' in Auden and Larkin, all he really has to say is some poems need thinking about, at the end of which process, presumably, they too are normalised as further consoling banalities. No attitude could be more carefully calibrated to marginalise the appreciation of art. Conventional interpretations of impressionism, like Hattersley's view of poetry, simply reflect the fact that we live in the shadow of modernism, of whch impressionism was one crucial aspect. It was perhaps the greatest creative episode in history. But we cannot seem to stand on the shoulders of this giant, we prefer simply to turn our backs and cower, clutching our familiar things and dismissing all else as 'difficult'.


  1. There are many different issues wrapped together here - only one of which is the fallibility of critics and the continuous reinforcement of conventions. 'Impressionism' does seem to be especially encrusted - or are we suspicious of its popularity? I would suggest the problem is this word Modernism - and its repellent offspring Post Modernism. I would suggest that we still live in the long, and fruitful shadow of Romanticism - again understand as something other than its cliches. What distinguishes Romanticism (perhaps itself a product of the Enlightenment although from a cultural point of view Romanticism has precedence) is the foregrounding of self over a variety of constraining apparatuses, including tradition, religion, moral norms. This had crucial formal consequences - say in Goethe, Coleridge and Wordsworth. By placing Romanticism centre stage, we can junk for good artificial differences between say Turner Cezanne and Picasso, between Soane, Wright and even Libeskind. Impressionism was simply the moment the French salon understood the significance of Romanticism.

  2. The realisation that all we will ever see are patches of colour which we rely on our brains to interpret for us - yes a nasty attack of the Nausea. The 'Naked Lunch' moment. I used to get that a lot when thinking about death.

    I was thinking last night about Auden and Renoir and people's reactions to art. Or rather, people's reactions to your reactions about art. I think there is a problem whereby people who just want to look at something and say what they think about it are caught between two types of art snob: the traditional academic ones who look down on you from the lofty heights of the canon; and the reverse snobs who suspect you of faking it if you profess to like something decreed 'difficult'.

  3. "We still live in the long, and fruitful shadow of Romanticism". Chris Hale is right. After all, before the Impressionists there was Turner. Behind the French Symbolist poets who had such an influence on modern poetry is the immense figure of Victor Hugo (and what is Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" if not a Symbolist poem?). Both Eliot and Pound owed a great deal to Robert Browning. "Romanticism has never been properly judged. Who was there to judge it? The critics!" (Rimbaud).

  4. The left is drawn to romanticism; the right to modernism. I, of course, am above all that.

  5. Bryan, my point was to begin the enormous task of removing Modernism entirely as a way of ordering the past. As to Leftism, may I remind you:

    Gentlemen, he said,
    I don't need your organization, I've shined your shoes,
    I've moved your mountains and marked your cards
    But Eden is burning, either brace yourself for elimination
    Or else your hearts must have the courage for the changing of the guards.

  6. I'm a tad thick but a recent and now avid reader of this blog and its comments. I struggle with how to appreciate art and can identify with brit's attitude. Bryan how should we think about art? How do I move from 'not getting it' to 'getting' it, and not normalizing it into a consoling banality? And how do I know if what its 'got' is worth 'getting'? I don't know why but this stuff troubles me.

  7. I came to appreciate Renoir after first being nearly drowned by him: I was writing the (ultimately aborted) first guide to the Galleries of the Barnes Foundation: The museum outside Phila. which happens to own hundreds of Renoirs. At first, one feels that vertigo -- a sea of flesh with the bathers, too much watery air with the landscapes -- but then if you study these paintings, as I did, you begin to see quite a bit more. In the end, I revered Renoir.

    If you want to know him better, the best thing you can do is read his son's memoir: "Renoir, My Father," by Jean Renoir. It is a brilliant book and discusses Renoir, Cezanne, Monet, Degas -- all these guys knew each other -- and their impressions of what they were doing in their own time.

    Here's a snippet, something Auguste said to his son: "All those young girls who do mawkish water colors at least get some idea of what painting is. To appreciate Mozart it does no harm to know how to play the piano. To appreciate old Corot, it's a help to try your hand at a few landscapes. Photography is going to kill the amateur painter and, indirectly, the art lover; and it may even kill the painter since the art lover is his source of livelihood."

    An even better remark on the topic is the one Renoir said Degas made to a society photographer who had said, "I, too, am a painter." Degas retorted: "Va donc, faux artiste, faux peintre, faux...tographe!"

    Knowledge enhances art appreciation. Though P.A. Renoir wasn't right about photography, he certainly was about knowing something of the exhibit you're going to see. Don't diss it until you know what you're seeing.

  8. The biggest way to get art is to go to a gallery after a smoke of hashish or marijuana. And that's not being flippant .Even a glass of wine would probably be very beneficial in loosening up one's perceptions. And don't worry about intelectualising what one experiences.

  9. SB:

    That's a hell of a question.

    Some people are tone deaf and will never appreciate music. I'm 'ballet-blind' - I just don't get the appeal of ballet at all. Or rather, I get why other people get it, but it doesn't push any of my buttons. But apart from these blind spots there's a continuum with the outright philistine at one end and the hedonistic aesthete at the other, and it is possible to progress upwards on this continuum by forcing yourself to read about, and listen to people talking about, art. It helps if they are not too pretentious.

    An appreciation for the blunt beauty of something is perhaps innate, but you can aquire other sorts of appreciations, as people do with whisky, Guinness, olives and 'difficult' classical music. With all of these you just have to keep plugging away until your brain finally gives in.

  10. No, Brit, it's all about the right drugs.

  11. You might be right, Andrew. Next time I go to see The Nutcracker I'll make sure I'm dosed to the eyeballs with scag.

  12. many thanks yous Andrew et Brit. I may lay off the scag though.

  13. Nah, there is never just "a coloured plane." What's the most impressionistic of Impressionist paintings? Perhaps Monet's Impression, Sunrise, which gave the movement its name. That's no mere colored plane; it's what the harbor at Le Havre looked like at a particular time of day, or at least a convincing version thereof.

    Or perhaps you prefer his late painting of the Japanese bridge in Monet's garden at Giverny -- gorgeous and rich riots of color, but again, no mere colored planes. They are accurate, or at least convincing, renderings of the world as seen by an old man with a splendid eye and, by this time, bad eyesight. Don't laugh. Some of the immense emotional power of Titian's latest work is due to the sense it conveys of the insubstantiality of the world, an effect due in large part, again, to the artist's declining eyesight.

    Degas may have directed his remark more at a society fauxtographer's pretensions than at photography itself. Degas, after all, himself became a photographer.

    If you want a real panic attack about the breakdown between colored planes and reality in painting, you need to look at Cezanne's paintings in the last four years of his life. Should you visit Philadelphia, I'm sure Susan and I would be happy to take you to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and park you in front of Cezanne's late, great Mont Sainte-Victoire for a few hours. Here's a preview: http://www.philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/102997.html

    And one of the best of Monet's late Japanese bridge paintings is at the same museum.

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