Renoir: Tradition and Innovation

This is the title of the exhibit in the National Art Center in Tokyo which we recently saw. Renoir is of course the artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir (February 25, 1841 – December 3, 1919). What a special treat it was.

We went on a drizzly Saturday taking the express bus from Itako and then by train to the museum. There is an exit from the subway station that goes directly to the museum. I couldn't help but note that a bicyclist could have made the trip from Tokyo Station in less time, without the rush, but such is modern life - until the energy runs out anyway.

Anyway, we have seen several paintings by Renoir - some in Shibuya-ku four years ago and there is one in our prefectural art museum in Mito - but this was the first all-Renoir exhibit for us. There are a surprising number of his works in Japan, most of which are at the Pola Museum in Hakone near Mt Fuji, but there are many others in private collections, prefectural and other small museums around the country. This exhibit included eighty five (85!) of his works gathered from around the world and spanning his entire career.

The National Art Center is Japan's largest public art facility, but interestingly, it is not a museum and does not have a permanent collection. Rather, it is used to display exhibits from other museums and to host a broad range of art events including music, dance, sculpture, and so on, in the form of exhibits, classes, and participatory experiences. The building is a large rectangular block which can house a wide range of events of every size. (One artwork currently on display is a grove of 90 bamboo trees). To make the building more interesting the front is covered with a wavy glass facade and there are huge cone-shaped structures with the foyer which support the restaurants. A wide balcony fronts each floor, open to the atrium with elevators near the center and escalators on each side. It all looked very modern and dazzling from the ground floor, but the functionality proved to be a different story.

When I originally wrote this post over a week ago, it a had several paragraph long rant about "starchitecture" - buildings designed by famous names that are really just for "shock and awe" looks, rather than to be user friendly comfortable places for people to use. In this case, the culprit was the late Kisho Kurokawa. I'll leave it at that and spare you the details. After all, this post is about the exhibit, not the building.

We had lunch atop the tallest cone, the at Brasserie Paul Bocuse Le Musée. It was very pricey, but the food and the service were excellent and what could be more appropriate for a Renoir exhibit than a eating at a French restaurant for lunch? N'est-ce pas?

There were a lot of people there to see the exhibit, but it wasn't so crowded as to mar the experience. Many of the most popular of Renoir's works were included. As usual with me, I was mesmerized by seeing them in person and surprised at things like size, colors, and brush strokes when viewed up close or from across the room. It was busy in there, but by pacing ourselves, we could let groups of people go by and have the chance to get up close or see a painting from further out without much hassle.

Within the exhibit there was a special section with video (in Japanese of course) about recent x-ray, ultra violet, and infrared examinations of Renoir's work and what that revealed about his choice of paints and techniques over time, but I skipped ahead at that point since I really just wanted to spend my time looking at his paintings rather than learning which pigments he chose or how they looked under different wavelengths.

And the paintings did indeed look wonderful. One of the things about his work that I love is that for the most part he painted times of happiness. This is perhaps best illustrated (pardon the double entendre) in the painting " Dance at Bougival". I was surprised at how big the painting is, at 182 x 98 cm (about 3 feet by 6) and standing before it, I could feel the joy of the people dancing as if I were witnessing it live. How does an artist convey emotions like that? I surely don't know, but Renoir did. The man in the painting was a friend of Renoir and he also knew the woman, a model. I have read he didn't like the woman so she is not shown smiling. Regardless of accuracy of that story, to me the image conveys a joyful time.

He was also a chronicler of his times of sorts and through his paintings can see what life was like then - the things people did, what they wore, how they enjoyed their leisure time. And then there were many portraits of clients, friends, and children - including his own. His son Claude was his third child born when Renoir was already sixty years old and inspired him anew.

Some of his bronze works were also on display. When he made them, in the last year of his life, he was not able to do the physical work, and so had help from a man 20 years younger - Maillol - who worked under his direction to create the pieces.

In the 1880s he visited Italy, doing some soul searching I think, as he didn't like where his own impressionist painting was going at the time. From then, his painting took on a slightly more classical influence and his subjects were more full, the women more Rubenesque.

Renoir died at the age of 78, and though he suffered from arthritis in his later years, he lived to see his paintings hanging in the Louvre.

It was wonderful to be able to see such a large and diverse collection of his work in one exhibit. K got a second look last Sunday when she went on a "girls' day out" meeting with a friend from her college days. I'll try to get back before it closes, but time is running short as it only runs through April 5.


Arkonbey said...

I've always liked Renoir. What amazes me is that, at first glance, he's a decorative painter. His works are just pretty and slightly meaningless. But, they have an indefinable something that elevates them far above 'sofa paintings'.

Isn't it amazing to see things in person? I remember hitting MoMA and seeing how small Dali's "Persistence of Memory" really is.

I also could go on at length about how much I dislike 'starchitecture'.

HappySurfer said...

Wow! 85 pieces! What a treat. Thanks for sharing the experience and images here, PandaB. Enjoy the second visit.

Pandabonium said...

Hey Arkonbey - interesting points. and yes it is amazing to see something in person vs on the web or in a book.

Happy Surfer - thank you. I hope I get to go again.

ladybug said...

This is really wonderful! Thank you for sharing. You've included several paintings I had never seen before. I like Renoir even more now... Although the "new" Musee d'Orsay (well it was maybe only a few years old when I visited it) at first seem interesting. The more time I spent in it I just wanted to get away and felt very uncomfortable. I finally just left. As for crazy "starchitecture" I would say the rust bucket of the San Fransciso de Young is a perfect example. Here's a pic of the holey rusty thing...http://tinyurl.com/yae358u

Pandabonium said...

That's an excellent example, Ladybug. It is copper clad, like the famous ship "Old Ironsides" the USS Constitution. And it looks like a Darth Vader-esque space battle ship. Designed by Herzog & de Meuron - who are indeed "starchetects" known for a whole host of equally disturbing structures.

The Moody Minstrel said...

Quite often "modern art" and "disturbing" mean the same thing.

Peceli and Wendy's Blog said...

Nice to be reminded of Renoir and his optimism and joyfulness in his paintings. Hardly modern in our sense of the word though at the time he and his kind got rid of the darkness in paintings and used bright colours. Of course many people are still stuck in the mind-set of the Impressionists and we have moved far away from that these days.

Pandabonium said...

Thanks, Wendy. I am one of those stuck in the mind-set of the Impressionists I suppose. Some more modern styles appeal to me, while others leave me cold.