Looking Twice at Renoir and O’Keeffe (Ida, not Georgia)

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Poor Pierre-Auguste Renoir. On the centennial of his death, his achievements are still something art historians, feminists, artists and critics argue about. His work has not settled quietly into the canon, especially not his nudes, and most especially not his late nudes. There is something invigorating about this state of affairs, which I don’t think can be claimed for any other leading Impressionist painter.

With “Renoir: The Body, The Senses,” the Clark Art Institute here — in partnership with the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Tx. — wades fearlessly into the fray and, accompanied by well-argued positions in the catalog, emerges from it largely intact, and in fact in new territory.

The show constitutes a vigorous back and forth: Its 70 works are predominantly paintings, sculptures and drawings that create a nudes-only review of the entire career of Renoir, the erstwhile Impressionist turned classicist turned modern mannerist. But they’re joined by nearly two dozen nudes by other artists from Rubens to Picasso, providing cross-talk of context and contrast.

Nearly everywhere you look in this show, the male gaze is looking back, imbuing the female person with degrees of objectification and passivity. In the first half of the show it is often other painters’ efforts that hold the eye; in the second, Renoir takes over, working his way toward his strange but powerful late style, in which his nudes become progressively abstract. At the end, he painted large canvases from a wheelchair, brushes strapped to hands crippled by arthritis. With the help of a younger artist, he even broke out into monumental sculpture. Like Monet with his waterlilies, Renoir created a new world for himself at the end of his life.

There are advantages to seeing this show at the Clark. When all the nudes start to get you down, there are many more Renoirs — clothed men and women, landscapes, still lifes — in the permanent collection galleries. Early and middle Renoir were great favored by Sterling and Francine Clark who, fearing nuclear apocalypse, moved their collection from New York to this bucolic college town in 1950 and opened the museum in 1955.

There’s also an antidote to be found in the Clark’s smaller summer exhibition, “Ida O’Keeffe: Escaping Georgia’s Shadow,” a resurrection of the complex life and convincing art of Ida Ten Eyck O’Keeffe (1889-1961), the star-crossed younger sister of Georgia (1887-1986). The show, which originated at the Dallas Museum of Art, presents in highly specific terms the challenges a female artist could face in the first half of the 20th-century. Armed with talent, determination and integrity, hobbled by economic and social constraints, Ida also endured Georgia’s jealousy and consequent estrangement, as well as the predations and manipulations of her brother-in-law, Alfred Stieglitz, the revered photographer, art dealer, and, of course, Georgia’s husband.

The Renoir show’s organizers are ready for criticism. “All reactions are relevant,” write Esther Bell, the Clark’s chief curator, and George T.M. Shackelford, senior deputy director of the Kimbell. They acknowledge the artist as “a man of contradictions and imperfections.” And in her essay on Renoir and 18th-century Rococo, Ms. Bell pulls no punches, quoting the artist’s praise of François Boucher’s exquisite “Diana Leaving Her Bath” (lent to the show by the Louvre). Renoir concludes: “A painter who understands nipples and buttocks is a saved man!” (In Boucher’s painting the masculine is evoked by the hind quarters of Diana’s hunting dog.)

Renoir may have come by his obsession naturally, growing up the son of a tailor and a seamstress in what must have been a body-conscious household and then apprenticing as a china painter, adding female forms to to porcelain cups and plates.

The first half of the show is often pleasantly interrupted by other artists — in reality or spirit. The flat simplification of the figure in Renoir’s “Boy with a Cat” (1868) seems inspired by Manet (who is not in the show); the slim, nude youth is seen standing, from the back, peeking seductively over his shoulder, snuggling one of the most beautiful felines in Western painting.

But Renoir’s Classicism was only a phase. By the late 1890s, his figures depart from both reality and the ideal, becoming heavier, longer of torso, shorter of limb and smaller of head. “Large Nude” or “Cushion and Reclining Female Nude” resemble large stuffed dolls in boxes whose backgrounds of casually painted red stripes and green grids, that are among my favorite passages in the show.

In the last years of his life, Renoir’s figures are bronzed and even more outrageously distorted, proto-Botero. But figures and background are united in an intensity of paint-handling, achieving a kind of blazing artifice and an irony that seems implicitly modern. They are at once tributes to Classicism and mannered parodies of it and extremely pertinent to the renewed interest in the figure among younger contemporary painters.

The main example of this conflation is Renoir’s “Two Bathers” — at once magnificent and hard to take — finished, in 1919, the year he died. It hangs in the final gallery, among the nudes of a new generation: Picasso, Matisse, Bonnard, Léger and Suzanne Valadon, the show’s only female painter. Her blunt account of two women toweling off offers some sweet revenge.

After Renoir, “Ida O’Keeffe: Escaping Georgia’s Shadow” is at once sad and inspiring. It pays tribute to Ten Eyck O’Keeffe’s persistence despite little recognition and to her quietly insistent art, some of which survived long enough to be rediscovered.

The artist, like most of the five O’Keeffe sisters, had art lessons through high school. But she started teaching herself to paint only in 1925, when she was 36. Her changes of style reflected a life spent following jobs, working mostly as an art teacher or a nurse with little chance to paint full time. But she added something confidently her own at every stylistic stop: whether realism, social realism or abstraction. In a series of paintings from 1931-32 she adds curves — and a radiating, organic ease — to Precisionism’s often brittle, refracting geometries in a group of semiabstract paintings based on a lighthouse.

Admirably she initially exhibited using her middle name (her mother’s maiden name) to escape the fame of her older sister. She did not always escape her influence, but she had a way with paint that Georgia either lacked or suppressed, as intimated by the toothy white and browns of “Toad Stool,” a small painting from around 1932.

This show and its catalog reflect the exceptional scholarship of Sue Canterbury, American art curator at the Dallas Museum. The story she tells is one of loss, subterfuge and bad luck. Around 1925, Stieglitz, whose advances Ida had rebuffed, thwarted her relationship with the critic Paul Rosenfeld (1890-1946) and would later discourage New York dealers from showing her work. In the early 1930s, Georgia demanded that Ida stop exhibiting, creating a rift that never healed. In addition, more than two decades after her death in 1961, a great deal of Ida’s work was stolen from her survivors.

It will never be known how Ida Ten Eyck O’Keeffe’s art would have developed had fate, and her relatives, been kinder. But what remains is cause for celebration.

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