26 September 2014

Renoir And The Beauty Of The Ordinary

I grew up with Renoir's On the Terrace.  A framed print was always in its place by my mother's dressing table.  That it was not the original did nothing to keep me from falling in love with it.  In my small world, it was a happy image of a mother and a daughter and I never questioned my assumption.  Nor had I yet heard of Walter Benjamin and The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.  If I had, I would have objected strenuously to any claim that the painting had been deprived of its aura in the process.  But after seeing Renoir's La Parisienne, on tour from the National Museum of Wales and hearing the story behind it, I wanted to know more about my childhood Renoir.

According to Renoir, Chatou was “ the prettiest of all the suburbs of Paris.”  Looking at just two of the pictures he painted there between the summer of 1880 and spring of 1881, no argument seems possible.
Luncheon of the Boating Party (now part of the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.) and On The Terrace also share a specific location: the terrace of the restaurant at the Hotel Fournaise. After his initial discovery of Chatou in 1875, Renoir often stayed at the hotel in the Parisian suburbs.    In those days, Chatou was a popular place for rowing, as Argenteuil was for regattas,  the same leisure activities painted by seemingly every Impressionist.  It helps to know that when Renoir painted what look like portraits to us, to his contemporaries they appeared rather as tableuax, or slices of life. 
When these pictures were painted Renoir had recently exhibited his work at the First Impressionist Exhibition in Paris alongside pictures by Monet, Degas, Pissarro, and Morisot.  At the time they had dubbed themselves teh Anonymous Society of Painters, but that didn't last long.  The exhibition had been arranged by Paul Durand-Ruel, a dealer with galleries in Paris and London, who befriended many of the artists he represented.
The members of the boating party are enjoying a convivial moment. contained by an overhead canopy and the terrace railings.  In On the Terrace, the figures are contained but more subtly, by the railing behind them and the artist's decision to crop the image rather abruptly in front.  In the time between these two paintings, Renoir had traveled to Algeria and critics have asserted a connection between the North African light and the luminosity that suffuses On the Terrace, as the reason that the inclusion of red roofs and blue hills in the distant background appears natural and unforced. The flowers on the child's hat and the balls of yarn in the basket may also have been a veiled personal reference by the artist.  In 1879, one critic had dismissed a picture of Renoir's by saying it “seems to have bee constructed of different colored balls of wool.”

The painting was in progress on Easter Monday, 18 April 1881, when Renoir had the lunch with Whistler where the Frenchman announced that a planned trip to London would have to be postponed, as “I am engaged in a struggle with trees in bloom and women and children and can see no further than that at the moment...The weather is fine and I have my models; that is my only excuse.”

The pretty young woman in the red hat was Jeanne Darlaud, an eighteen year old from Limoges who had come to Paris to become a theater performer.  The little girl in the blue hat has not been identified, but the two were not related, as an examination of their facial features makes plain.  When it was finished, the picture became a favorite of Durnad-Ruel, who played a role in the confusion surrounding its subject.  It was apparently Durand-Ruel who first called it Two Sisters, thinking that title would make it more salable than the one Renoir had chosen: Femme au bord de la Seine (Woman by the Seine).   After  it was shown at the Seventh Impressionist exhibition and the critics ridiculed the title as inapt, the dealer changed its title yet again, to On the Terrace.   Georges Lecomte’s assessment was typical: The insinuating and crafty grace of her sly face is accentuated by the malicious obliquity and alarming smile in her eyes.  She has the look of a modern Mona Lisa who knows all about love and seduction and is shamelessly flirting with you.”   Then, as now, hope springs eternal in the male breast.
Confusion also has a long life, it seems.  The Art Institute of Chicago, owner of On the Terrace, has a has produced a video that gives its title as Two Sisters and elaborates their relationship.  Some stories are too good to let go.

For further reading: Renoir's Portraits: Impressions of an Age by Colin B. Bailey, Linda Nochlin, etal, New Haven, Yale University Press: 1998.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919)  - On the Terrace (a/k/a/ Two Sisters), 1871, Art Institute of Chicago.

21 September 2014

Never Lonelier: Gottfried Benn

"Never lonelier than in August:
Hour of plenitude – the countryside
Waving with red and golden tassels,
But where is your pleasure garden?

Soft skies and sparkling lakes,
The healthy sheen of fields,
But where is the pomp and display
Of the empire you represent?

Everything lays claim to happiness,
Swaps glances, swaps rings,
In wine breath, in the intoxication of things,
You serve the counter-happiness, the intellect."

“Never Lonelier” from Impromtus by Gottfried Benn, translated from the German by Michael Hofmann, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 2013.

When I studied literature in college, the  German writer Gottfried Benn was the author of odd and disturbing short stories, one among several middle European writers (Georg Buchner, Heinrich von Kelist, Ilse Aichinger, Gerd Gaiser) who, taken together painted an unrelievedly dark picture of life.   I still have that collection Great German Short Stories, edited by Stephen Spender.  
Recently, I've been reading, as in picking up and putting down, a new translation of Benn's poetry (who knew?) by the German-born poet Michael Hofmann.  In his introduction Hofmann writes "Benn can scarcely be said to exist in the English-speaking world."    To Hofmann, Gottfried Benn is the most significant German poet of the 20th century after Rilke, and he may be right.  Benn, though, is an entirely different sort  Caught between the highbrow and the lowlife, Benn's first published volume was Morgue and Other Poems (1912), and the selections included in this new collection (Little Aster, Beautiful Youth, Circulation,etc.) are as grisly as you can imagine.  A doctor who specialized in dermatology and venereal diseases, Benn didn't need his stint in the German Army during WWI to view the world through hostile eyes.  That said, his early admiration for the Nazis, based partly on his oppositional bent, was not returned and he lived through WWII in bitter internal exile.
"I would be astonished if anyone were to read them," Benn wrote about his own poems  in 1921, treating himself  as though he were already dead.  The real astonishment in reading a poem like "Never Lonelier" is the thought of how long Benn's work has been away.

Gustav Kampmann, Herbstabend (Autumn Evening,)) 1900, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.
Kampmann (1859-1917) was a German artist who committed suicide by slashing his wrists after contracting an eye infection during WWI that made making art a misery.