We probably all can imagine that little boy or girl at a fair, a carnival, or an amusement park, who seeing an enormous pompadour of pink or blue cotton candy (spun sugar to some of you) insists on getting the largest size. We can see further the sticky stains upon their faces, the crazed shock of sugar in their eyes. And we can empathize with them and their queasy stomachs that a night filled with cotton candy is certain to produce.
That’s how I feel about Renoir and his nudes.
I spent more than three hours at the Barnes Foundation last Friday night. And as always, it is a mind-boggling collection of early modern art, African sculpture, and American furniture, decorative and industrial arts. I could spend a lifetime looking at the Modglianis and Mattisses. I am fascinated by Chaim Soutaine and George Seurat. And Henri Rousseau I find thoroughly relaxing and amusing.
But it is the Renoirs that I find cloying.
Barnes owns 181 Renoirs that encompass the span of the artist’s career. Now, there is much that I like about Renoir: his early works, the group portraits and the early nudes. But the more famous nudes, those cotton candy swirls of creams, oranges, pinks and yellows, I find difficult to look at.
By contrast, one of my favorite paintings in the collection is also a nude: Amadeo Modgliani’s Reclining Nude from Back. Is it lifelike? No. But it is sensuous and intriguing and narrative and appealing and pleasing. And what more could a person want from a work of art?
Modgliani’s attenuated figures with their mask-like visages, I find fascinating. I find a story in each of their stony faces. Likewise, I delight in the classical innocence of Picasso’s Girl with a Goat or the bold outlines and patterns of Mattisse’s Reclining Nude with Blue Eyes. Each is so distinct in itself, so original in its view of the human body.
Renoir’s nudes, on the other hand, I find distracting in their busyness. I find them tiring and I tend to pass over them quickly.
To me, they look like how Barbie would decorate a bordello if she ever became a Madam.