Published: December 18, 2018
By James D. Balestrieri
FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. – I suppose every artist suffers a fall from grace at some point. Not long ago, I read the words “muscle-bound” in reference to Michelangelo’s figures and then, not long after that, I overheard a group of self-styled art pundits assure one another that the “Mona Lisa” “isn’t all that good.”
As the old song goes, “To each his own.”
At the moment, it is Renoir’s turn in the hot seat, his time to take a bit of a beating. In 2015, as the catalog for the exhibition “William J. Glackens and Pierre-Auguste Renoir: Affinities and Distinctions,” at the NSU Art Museum in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., recounts (in order, swiftly, to refute the criticisms) “a group of anti-Renoir protestors demonstrated in front of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston,” and the critic in the Boston Globe endorsed their disdain, writing that he found the artist “syrupy,” with “a falsified take on reality.”
This is Renoir we’re talking about, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, beloved French Impressionist whose work evolved through the end of the Nineteenth Century and into the Twentieth, whose works are coveted, whose palette and approach to depicting the figure, hearkening back to Old Masters and classical forms, were avidly studied and discussed by Picasso and other key Modernists.
Given the current art critical bearishness in regard to Renoir, what then do we do with William Glackens, American painter, unabashed Renoir acolyte, and – this is crucial – assistant to Albert C. Barnes, the Philadelphia tycoon who, under Glackens’ influence, would amass one of the most extensive collections of modern art, including 181 works by Renoir?
If you are down on Renoir, I suppose you would dismiss Glackens with half a breath as a mere copycat. But as the exhibition unfolds, you would find that you were, perhaps, quick to judge: quick to judge Renoir, and even quicker to judge Glackens.
From our vantage point, what the French Impressionists accomplished seems quite tame; it is important to remember that at the time it was nothing short of revolutionary. Their approach moved away from studio realism, from representation and verisimilitude as the most important aesthetic qualities, toward subjective, immediate renderings of quotidian reality, toward bolder colors, bold compositions and bold applications of paint. But then, in his late works, Renoir would, in some measure, repudiate immediacy, revisiting and being inspired by classical figurative and landscape forms I mentioned. These, in turn, as the catalog states, would inspire the next generation of painters: “Renoir’s late works were revered by members of the European avant-garde. Picasso, Matisse and Braque all had Renoir’s late paintings (or reproductions) hanging in their studios.” (p. 39)
In 1912, on a Barnes-funded expedition to Europe, Glackens would purchase the first five Renoirs for his employer, patron and friend, igniting Barnes’ passion for the artist’s late works, pastoral idylls like the famous “Bathers in the Forest” with its nudes in a state of natural innocence, works painted using “color (rather than light and shade) as a structural element to build convincingly solid forms.” (p.. 38)
Glackens had none of what literary critic Stanley Bloom calls “the anxiety of influence.” Renoir did not sit on his shoulders and give him the sweats at night. Glackens loved Renoir because he wanted to learn from Renoir, not because he wanted to copy him. In truth, Glackens was quite proud of his association with Renoir. “When questioned by a critic about the influence of Renoir on his work, a seemingly embarrassed Glackens shrugged it off, supposedly stating: ‘Can you think of a better man to follow than Renoir?,’ knowing full well that the sources of his work were far more extensive than his debt to Renoir and thus not imitations of the French master’s art.” (p. 28) The quickest glance at Glackens’ “Reclining Nude or Back of Nude” shows his debt to Renoir, especially in the idea of using color to create form, yet you can see him pushing out and away from Renoir, incorporating the line of Ingres and even Caravaggio in the greens that outline the woman’s back muscles.
If we break Modernism down into at least some of its constituent parts, we find in it a look back to the Classical past and the Old Masters (and away from Nineteenth Century realism, which is far more radical than one might think); consideration of non-Western artforms (decorative and spiritual); a move toward mundane, popular and ordinary subjects; new ways to represent movement; and an emphasis on materials, colors and brushwork. Art itself, as Modernism takes hold, becomes ever more overtly formal rather than subject-driven. This overview is simplified, but Glackens’ trajectory, from successful illustrator to member of “The Eight,” a group of American artists who painted “scenes of ordinary daily life in the modern city, people of varying social and economic status, including immigrants, beggars and figures from the demimonde” (p. 43), to organizer of the American artists at the 1913 Armory Show, to follower of Renoir who also took a profound interest in Asian art and design (see “Artist’s Daughter in Chinese Costume” and “Indian Series [Flautist on Peacock]”) tracks well with Modernist tenets.
What artists owe the past, what they owe to themselves and to their times, was very much in the air in the years surrounding the cataclysm of World War I. Isms proliferated. Fauvism and Divisionism broadened the Impressionist brushstroke and palette. Synchronism and Vorticism sought the new in color theory and geometry. Cubism appropriated and melded classical and indigenous cultural arts – African masks and Gothic stained glass, for example – in powerful collage arrangements. Futurism in Italy and Dadaism in France insisted on a radical break with the past – Futurism favoring a sensual embrace of the machine; Dadaism finding inspiration in the unconscious and the antirational.
In his seminal 1921 essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” poet T.S. Eliot grapples with this writing: “[W]hat happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered…”
Glackens negotiates Modernism with the help of Renoir’s multiform reds and his swirling delineation, against line, that wants to erase itself in a thick expressionist variation on sfumato. These aspects of Renoir’s style attach themselves to Glackens, but only for a time. Glackens evolves his personal style through Renoir, and becomes, at the end of his career, someone else entirely.
Take, as a pair, Renoir’s 1910 “Portrait of Mme. Thurneyssen and Her Daughter (Mère et enfant)” and Glackens’s 1935 oil “Soda Fountain.” Both are late, figurative works; beyond that, little connects them.
The viewer’s eye moves restlessly over the “Portrait of Mme. Thurneyssen and Her Daughter,” fidgeting – even as the child fidgets on her mother’s lap – over the agitated folds of cloth and the fussy rose pattern on the wallpaper. The only real stillness resides in the mother’s tired eyes – gravity seems to tug them down and to our left – and in curve of her heavy breast, her gown pulled away from it as she struggles to keep her daughter still for the painter. The work is fleshly and spiritual without being at all psychological. It exposes a truth – the hard work and exhaustion, the purely physical toll of parenthood – beneath the otherworldly and utterly false serenity of the “Madonna and Child” trope in Western art.
Barbara Buhler Lynes’ essay for the exhibition catalog outlines the debt “Soda Fountain” owes, not to Renoir, but to Giotto’s pastel panels in the Arena Chapel. In contrast to “Portrait of Mme. Thurneyssen and Her Daughter,” “Soda Fountain” is psychological. The claustrophobia of what Lynes calls the “interlocking geometric shapes” of the painting heighten the existential isolation of the work as the woman in yellow, facing us, turns away from the social aspect – and aspect is a good word here, in the sense of face or mask – dabs at her lips daintily and loses herself in thought. Is it introspection that draws her inward gaze, or projection? Is she imagining a past or a future? Her dress is yellow, but so is the hat worn by the woman beside her; so, if it comes to that, are the lemons on display. Her eyes are a beautiful emerald green, but so is the glass in the row of bottles on the back bar. Who she is and how difficult it will be for her to remain, be, and become herself in this loud, closed-in world is the basso continuo theme of the painting. Glackens echoes Hopper, seeing him and raising him with this tight arrangement of shapes. Glackens echoes his old compatriots in “The Eight:” John Sloan and Everett Shinn, depicting restaurants, bars and sideshows, and the anxiety of women making their way in a world where they are on display. Guy PÃ¨ne du Bois’ demimonde of dirty money and poor decisions is not far off here, and the late-night blood red intimidation of Oscar Bluemner’s small industrial gems.
And yet, “Soda Fountain” is its own masterwork, a product of a personal style. What’s more, Glackens here confirms Eliot, making us see Renoir’s late paintings in a new light. The strange greens in Renoir’s flesh, descended from Caravaggio, become more lurid and symbolic in Glackens and appear in the full flower of their carbuncular putrescence in the figurative paintings of Ivan Albright and throughout Surrealist practice. And Renoir’s red, red becoming pink as flayed flesh in Glackens? That pink surfaces again in Pop art, in, to take a single example, Tom Wesselmann’s nudes, paintings Pierre-Auguste Renoir and William Glackens could hardly conceive.
The exhibition continues through May 19. The NSU Art Museum is at 1 East Las Olas Blvd. For more information, http://nsuartmuseum.org/ or 954-525-5500.
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