BOSTON — The venerable Boston Museum of Fine Arts has a blockbuster on its hands and seems a trifle flabbergasted thereby. The matter is nearly 100 paintings by Pierre Auguste Renoir, the largest survey of his work in over a decade. It arrived here via London and Paris for its only U.S. appearance. Ever since, proper Bostonians and improper visitors have lined up to see it with an enthusiasm elsewhere reserved for rock concerts and lotteries. Attendance is topping 2,800 visitors daily and ticket sales ensure that some 450,000 souls will have trooped the galleries by the time it all folds up Jan. 5.
A visiting critic catching up with the show was ushered in by a museum factotum. "Oh, you are lucky it's not so bad right now," she remarked brightly, causing the critic to wonder how much worse it gets. Renoir's radiant paintings were visible only in small patches behind a wall of people shuffling along like patient zombies on a conveyor belt. Something vaguely offensive hovered about some gray-painted wooden room dividers disguised as planters when their clear purpose, like cattle chutes, was to funnel traffic inevitably in the direction of the gift shop with its Renoir T-shirts, notepapers and totes.
Back in the galleries it was at least still possible to identify the whereabouts of Renoir's most popular pictures. That was where the crowd gummed up five bodies deep in a kind of human gridlock.
This is no way for civilized people to look at art, even though only civilized people have the necessary patience, tolerance and grace to do it this way. One rather wishes they would be more rebellious and stay away in droves, forcing exhibiting institutions to devise tactics for less claustrophobic viewing.
So much said, it still must be admitted that one finally does experience the art, quand meme , and that there is a certain perverse justice in the glut of people at this particular event. Renoir, is after all, the most crowd-pleasing practitioner of the most popular art style in the Western world, the dappled dabblings of the French Impressionists whose world consisted of endless sunny weekends strolling the Seine or picnicking in the company of beautiful young people who had no qualms about lolling naked on the grass.
Impressionism has, in fact, grown so generally celebrated that scholars appear to be embarrassed and have been working hard in recent years to read tougher meanings into the style. Pissarro is accused of propagandizing for socialism because he put a factory in a landscape background. Manet is seen as social critic and the lovely girl he painted behind the bar at the Follies Bergere is alleged to be a hooker. Degas--and the whole lot for that matter--are cast as male chauvinist swine.
Renoir has tended to be immune from this sort of revisionist view, protected by an image of a simple man with a sunny disposition who painted contentedly away to the very end of his 78 years. The politely unstated subtext to this profile is that the fellow was just not very bright. The pointly stated critical caveat is that, for all the affection he inspires, he was a bad painter.
Catalogue essays for the present survey put a new twist on the known facts of Renoir's life, casting him as a complex, troubled and troubling soul. John House characterizes him as nervous and unstable, restlessly unable to commit himself emotionally and perpetually alienated from his bourgeoise and aristocratic artistic peers by his working-class roots. Lawrence Gowing sees him as a sensualist whose paintbrush was a substitute phallus. In short, Renoir's serene, happily satiated art is seen not as a direct expression of his temperament but as compensatory fantasy. A Californian is rather oddly reminded of Beach Boys mastermind Brian Wilson composing ditties of idyllic adolescent surfer bliss in order to stave off devils gnawing within.
This revised view of Renoir may cast some light on a slight air of artificiality that dogs his art, but it does not explain either the moving, luminous resolution of his best work or the perfectly ghastly way his worst efforts could either collapse into flaccidity or stiffen into formal paralysis. Regrettably, this highly touted survey shortchanges us by not including either his greatest masterpieces or his most notorious clinker. No "Luncheon of the Boating Party." No Thyssen "Bathers."
Well, never mind, there are compensations including a gratifying breadth of evidence. A brace of earlier masterpieces including the 1866 "Cabaret of Mother Anthony" and the Courbet-like "Bather With a Griffon" of 1870 demonstrate clearly that there was nothing wrong with Renoir as a straight academic painter. OK, suppose he did lose the form a little when he painted white-on-white into drapery; he could do almost anything else. He was particularly skilled in blending wet paint, a knack that served him well all his career and accounts for the soft reflected light that make his nudes so creamy and all-of-a-piece.