(Royal Academy, London, until 23 September 2012)
The current exhibition at the RA presents a selection of 19th-century French paintings from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, MA. The marketing department clearly chose the title to focus on the most popular aspect of the show, but there are also works from the Barbizon School and a handful of Orientalist paintings at the end. The show’s main purpose is to give us a glimpse of the collecting taste of the Institute’s founders.
Sterling Clark inherited a fortune from his grandfather’s share of the Singer Sewing Machine Company and, when he moved to Paris in 1910, his first forays into collecting were in the fields of Old Master paintings and drawings. It was only in 1920, after his marriage to the former actress Francine Clary, that Sterling turned to collecting the Impressionists and other 19th-century artists, which became the couple’s real passion. They had the chance to buy some very significant pictures in the aftermath of the Wall Street Crash, when many other collectors were forced to sell their art; and they opened the Art Institute in 1955.
The show presents a series of works from the collection and there is no other real overriding theme: the selection is too heavily weighted in favour of the Impressionists to give a real sense of the development of art in the 19th century, and there are not enough works to give an in-depth look at Impressionism as a movement. However, as you’ll remember from my post on Master Drawings from the Courtauld Gallery, I don’t necessarily believe that exhibitions have to have a theme or a greater educative purpose. It can be enough simply to present a series of beautiful things and say to visitors: ‘Go. Enjoy!’ This approach does have one disadvantage, though. In an exhibition which has a narrative, you can enjoy and appreciate it even if you’re not terribly keen on the art itself. In a show which simply presents a series of pictures to savour, one’s enjoyment does come down very much to whether or not you like what you see.
Speaking objectively, the exhibition is worth a visit to see good examples of pictures by some of the major 19th-century French artists and, if you’re a fan of Renoir in particular, there are things here to make your mouth water. Personally – let me lay my colours on the line – I’m not a great aficionado. The Impressionists have been spoiled for me by overexposure: too many chocolate boxes, jigsaw puzzles and cheap framed prints. The Water Lilies, for example, have become as iconic, as ubiquitous and as dull as the Mona Lisa, their conceptual brilliance suffocated by cultural over-saturation. But I’m sure that a large part of my indifference comes from insufficient understanding. I have friends, whose tastes I respect a great deal, who are ravished by the sight of a good Monet. And there were pictures in this exhibition which caught my eye for their technical skill or psychological insight.
The Summer Exhibition has only just finished and so From Paris has been consigned to the Sackler Galleries, which work very well for drawings and smaller works, but are just too small for this kind of show – especially considering the number of people. The pictures are arranged by theme, beginning with Still Life and moving on to Landscape, Genre, Figures, Portraits and the Exotic. Many of the still lives were flower pictures, which I’m not keen on, but there was also a striking painting by Renoir of Apples in a Dish (1883; cat. 65), where the robust vigour of the brushstrokes seem to intensify the colours, and bold dashes of white impasto suggest the flush of light on the side of the porcelain bowl. In the Landscape room there were a few dark paintings from the Barbizon School, with their muted greys, greens and browns, and their resigned, monumental peasants. Relief was offered by the nearby Banks of the Seine by Sisley (c1880; cat. 81), where the summer sun warms the greens and blues to a vivid intensity; and Geese in the Brook by Monet (1874; cat. 12), in which sunlight dances on a stream suddenly broken into shards by a flock of geese. There was a similar play of broken light shimmering on the water in Monet’s Cliffs at Etretat (1885), where dawn shadows give way to layers of pink and rose. With Monet’s and Renoir’s landscapes, it seems to become more and more a case of the image being refracted, as if seen through a myriad of prisms.
And yet, though I can appreciate his landscapes, Renoir’s paintings of women provoke me: they are the essence of kitsch. His pictures show neat, round-faced, pretty girls, decoratively arranged with fans or flowers or parasols. Even though the models were different, the results all look the same. There is no sense of psychological exploration; the woman is as ornamental and sentient as the vase of chrysanthemums or dahlias beside her. All is pink and white and trite; and yet, judging by the number of people loitering around Girl with a Fan (1879; the painting on the poster), that’s what is popular. People like this kind of sweetness, which obscures any deeper meaning as oil floats on water. Fortunately, the exhibition juxtaposes Girl with a Fan with Toulouse-Lautrec’s Waiting (c1888; cat. 71), which is its polar opposite. Here there are no pretty flowers or vapid, rosy blondes. The woman is seated in a shabby bar, her back turned to the viewer. There is an air of self-consciousness about her; an uneasiness. Who is she waiting for? A friend; a lover; a client? Or is she waiting for life itself to bring her something better?
One other Renoir that caught my attention for the right reasons was his Portrait of Madame Monet (c1874; cat. 49), which paradoxically I liked so much because it didn’t look like a Renoir. Madame is comfortably installed on a sofa, absorbed in a book; the eye scampers across the play of fabrics in pinks and blues and the very technique is more precise, more miniaturist, than Renoir’s usual pictures (I prefer this to his other portrait of Madame Monet Lying on a Sofa, in the Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon, where she clutches a paper but is not allowed to read it; propped in a very uncomfortable pose, she almost glares out of the canvas).
However, in the following room he returned to his usual form with a female nude in the guise of A Blonde Bather (1881), who simpers into the distance. Her lush blonde-and-pink profusion made me think of Rubens, but the difference is that Rubens really relishes flesh-painting, revelling in its folds and creases, flushed cheeks and reddened elbows; while the flesh of Renoir’s nude is primly airbrushed, sans imperfections, sans texture and consequently sans any kind of artistic force. In that same room there was a painting by Berthe Morisot (one of two paintings by her in the exhibition), The Bath (1885-6; cat. 69), in which a girl wearing a shift finishes putting up her hair. This is one of the very few paintings in this exhibition which shows the female model engaging with the viewer as person to person, rather than as object to viewer. Morisot’s brushstrokes are confident, dynamic and rather sparse; and the girl’s small brown eyes spark with intelligence and resolution.
The final room presented a flash of Orientalism, including Jean-Léon Gérôme’s painting of The Slave Market (c1866), in which a prospective buyer examines the teeth of a slave girl as if she were a horse, while the girl is conveniently exposed in all her nakedness to the viewer of the painting. By this point, having had a surfeit of objectified women, I silently urged the slave girl to bite the man’s fingers off. My overriding impression of the exhibition was therefore one of frustration. I admire Sterling and Francine Clark’s generosity in collecting these pictures and making them available to the public; and I hope that in time we’ll have the opportunity to see highlights from other American collections in London; but I can’t say that I share the Clarks’ taste. Fortunately I’m not the only one to have come away from this exhibition feeling that there was too much sweetness and not enough depth: I’m pleased to discover that Martin Gayford, over at Bloomberg, feels much the same way.