LACMA's "Renoir in the 20th Century" is founded on a paradox: The modernists we love loved the Renoir we love to hate. That's the late, post-impressionist Renoir, from about 1890 to his death in 1919. The art trade's shorthand for this period is "icky Renoir." Yet Matisse credited the aging Renoir with "the loveliest nudes ever painted." Picasso appropriated Renoir's beefy physiques for his classical period. And it wasn't just artists, who might admire a fellow painter for technical reasons obscure to the rest of us. The smartest avant-garde poets and critics praised Renoir to the skies. To Guillaume Apollinaire, Renoir was simply "the greatest painter of our time." This from a man who ran with Picasso and Duchamp.
The show's most astonishing statistic: French steel tycoon Maurice Gangnat owned 180 Renoirs. All dated from after 1905. (Many were sold to Philadelphia collector Alfred Barnes and aren't in the show.)
But by late 20th century, everybody who counted had discounted late Renoir. Monet's late style was said to prefigure Pollock and was avidly collected by museums. Meanwhile, late Renoir set curators' deaccession trigger fingers itching. It was "bad" art overvalued by a vulgarian market. The Museum of Modern Art and Metropolitan Museum each sold late Renoirs (the Met's reject, liquidated to buy a van Gogh, is on view).
In recent years, Renoir's nudes have acquired a cult following, almost as if he were a newly discovered "outsider" artist. Another point of reference is the post-feminist, post-modern painters of the human body. The proportions and distortions of Renoir's late nudes have parallels in the art of Lisa Yuskavage (right) and John Currin. Unfortunately, Yuskavage and Currin aren't in this show, despite the fact that it's on the second floor of the so-called Broad Contemporary Art Museum. ("BCAM" is becoming more and more like Voltaire's definition of the Holy Roman Empire: "neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.")
"Renoir in the 20th Century" hews to the economic constraints of ticketed-blockbuster programming. The street banners say simply "Renoir," with no indication that this is the artist's bad self. Many visitors will not know the difference. The show delivers massive quantities of Renoir's late style, not only the nudes but the portraits, the landscapes, the costume pieces, and the collaborative sculptures. The few comparative works by early modernists don't add much. There's just one painting apiece by Picasso and Matisse; two by Bonnard, and several sculptures and drawings by Malliol. If the Picasso boosts Renoir's reputation, it's by demonstrating that the Spaniard could be just as boring as Renoir. One of the Bonnards, a Mediterranean landscape, has the opposite effect: It puts to shame a whole wall of Renoir's mild-mannered landscapes. "Renoir in the 20th Century" ends up demonstrating the "icky" theory as much as challenging it. But the nudes are something else again. In a perfect, non-blockbuster world, the nudes might have been the show.
The most thought-provoking work in the exhibition is the last, The Large Bathers from the Musée d'Orsay (pictured). It's easy to read it as comic: Plus-size nudes, ruddy and lumpy as hard-drinking Marseilles dockworkers, inhabit a sketchy landscape, a parody of impressionism. Incredibly, Matisse rated it Renoir's masterpiece. Yet when the family gave to the French national museums, it seems they accepted only for lack of a graceful way of saying no.
The path to The Large Bathers began nearly 30 years earlier, with paintings like Bather Sitting on a Rock (at top, 1892). It's got an erotic charge not associated with Impressionism. The pouty, pixyish facial expression remained a trademark, even as the bodies grew more Rubenesque, and it applied to Renoir's rare male nymphettes too. It was clearly a successful formula, comparable to Margaret Keane's goggle-eyed waifs, another variety of para-modern activity.
The nudes employ multiple perspectives. You see 51 percent of the bather's body, that with a flattened perspective. It's like a map peeled off the globe, or Tim Hawkinson's flayed self-portraits. Cezanne was doing that with apples and ginger jars, but Renoir took the idea into new emotional territory. The zoned-out, pretty faces on borderline grotesque bodies anticipate Leger and even surrealism.
That brings us to the show's greatest omission, Rene Magritte. During the wartime 1940s, Magritte channeled his depression over Nazi advances into a Renoir period, producing some 50 paintings of sunlit cheeriness. His appropriation was both more literal than any other big-name modern's, and also more original.
In Favorable Omens (above, 1944), a late-Renoir bird excretes a bouquet of beautiful posies. Magritte used Renoir's idiom as a vehicle for the irony that some post-moderns are now trying so hard to read into Renoir himself.