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The Arts Voyager, 3-16: I am not Impressed
When is so much Renoir too much? The Kimbell squanders a golden opportunity

Left: Pierre-Auguste Renoir, "A Box at the Theater" (at the concert), 1880. Oil on canvas. Right: Berthe Morisot, "The Bath," 1885-86. Oil on canvas. Both images copyright Sterling and Francine Clark Institute, Williamstown, Mass.. Note in how many places Morisot uses varying shades of blue. The artistic challenges she set herself and her briliance in meeting them are just one reason the author would have liked to see more of her, less of him.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Text copyright 2012 Paul Ben-Itzak

What should be the mission of a museum focusing on work by dead artists in 2012? To show us something new, not just impress us with beauty we've already seen either first-hand or in reproduction but wow us with and help us appreciate true trail-blazing artistic achievement. There is such a wealth out there of underexposed work by those practicing before, during, and immediately after the Impressionist era -- Maximilien Luce and Berthe Morisot come to mind -- that one has to question the curatorial vision when a museum with major resources like Fort Worth's Kimbell trots out an exhibition weighted with Renoirs that don't reveal anything new -- a stunning 21 of the 72 paintings in the just-opened "The Age of Impressionism: Great French Paintings from the Clark," compared to a paltry six by Monet, clearly the greater master, seven by the father of them all Pissarro, and an appalling two by Morisot, the most under-rated of the Impressionist artists because she had the misfortune of being born a woman. Will the ready and easy appeal of the Renoirs with their idealized (idolized?) conception and execution of female beauty attract audiences and appeal to patrons? Certainly. Will it leave them any more intelligent about art than they were before the exhibition? I don't think so. And even the Renoirs are hardly served by the dreary and drab space of the Kimbell, a dull encadrement for fine art if ever I saw one.


Claude Monet, "The Cliffs et Etretat," 1885. Oil on canvas. Copyright Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Mass.. The author would have liked to see more of him too, the master sans pareil of Impressionism, next to whom Renoir pales.


While there are seven Pissarros in this exhibition -- on a three-year tour, with the Kimbell its only U.S. stop -- I've chosen not to reproduce any of them here because not a single one is a portrait, and because the museum's deputy director, Richard Shackelford, chose not to include the more interesting landscapes and townscapes among those available to the press. (In general those made available to the media are not among the more interesting oeuvres in the exhibition, with the exception of the Morisot.) How can one represent this most humanist of Impressionists without a single portrait? Friends from San Francisco are still raving about the recent "Pissarro's People" exhibition at San Francisco's Palace of the Legion of Honor.


Left: Pierre-Auguste Renoir, "Self-Portrait," c. 1875. Oil on canvas. Right: Pierre-Auguste Renoir, "Marie-Therese Durand-Ruel Sewing," 1882. Oil on canvas. Both images copyright Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Mass..


Morisot, as usual, gets the short shrift, represented by only two paintings, only one of them, "The Bath" from 1885-86, a portrait, her forte. Since the time she was alive Impressionists scholars (usually male) have made the mistake of relegating her to a group of women Impressionists the others of whom are far inferior to her, such as Mary Cassatt, praising Morisot for her "soft," "subtle," and of course "feminine" touch. Shackelford and the Clark's senior curator Richard Rand didn't make this mistake during the press walk-through March 8, but they still missed an opportunity to discuss what separates her from the rest (besides her sex). Take a look at the reproduction here, and you'll see that she uses various shades of blue in just about every object, animate or not, in the tableau. Morisot liked to set herself challenges. She wasn't just interested in pretty pictures. It's too bad the Kimbell in booking this exhibition didn't make that same distinction and present that same opportunity to its visitors, either by insisting on different paintings from the Clark or, if that were not a possibility, booking something else that would actually advance their appreciation and understanding of art, not just sell lots of tickets and win more donations. "The Age of Impressionism: Great Paintings from the Clark" runs through June 17.


Left: Camille Corot, "Bathers of the Borromean Isles," 1865-70. Oil on canvas. Right: Claude Monet, "Geese on the Brook," 1874. Oil on canvas. Both images copyright Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Mass..


Claude Monet, "Spring in Giverny," 1890. Oil on canvas. Copyright Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Mass..


William-Adolphe Bouguereau, "Seated Nude," 1884. Oil on canvas. Copyright Sterling and
Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Mass..


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