Review: Renoir at the Frick – The Curatorial and Conservational Photographic Blind Spots
The Frick Collection’s recent temporary exhibition “Renoir ~ Impressionism and Full-length Painting” contained ten pictures and took ten years to assemble. It was organised by the deputy director, Colin Bailey, to showcase the The Promenade, the museum’s sole and “somewhat overlooked” Renoir – “overlooked” because Henry Clay Frick’s entrenched prohibition against loans had prevented the picture from travelling to major Renoir shows such as the 1997-78 “Renoir Portraits” exhibition which Bailey had organised for the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, The Art Institute of Chicago and The Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth. If the Promenade could not join the international party then the party might come to the Frick.
For this celebration of a single work nine major pictures were borrowed from seven museums and Bailey, a distinguished scholar of French art, produced a book/catalogue that contains much illuminating material on contemporary costume and fashionable mores. As delightful as the show itself ought to have been, the experience proved dispiriting and alarming. Partly, this was because such temporary compilations of dream combinations always come with downsides and a common glaring omission. In this case, for several months a gallery-full of important Frick pictures were bumped from view as important works from other, also temporarily depleted, museums were put at risk. The Musée d’Orsay, for example, sent both its Dance in the City, which had been transferred from its original canvas and relined (see Figs. 10-13 and below), and its Dance in the Country, across the Atlantic. The National Gallery (London) sent its already travel-damaged The Umbrellas, and did so at a time when it had lent its brittle, fragile, shotgun-blasted, “never-to-travel” Leonardo Cartoon to the Louvre. The Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio, lent its fire-damaged Madame Henriot “en travesti” (The Page)…and so forth.
The omission that is common to all borrowed compilations was the failure – perhaps for reasons of institutional politesse – to take the opportunity to assess the relative physical conditions of the variously treated and restored cross-section of pictures from within an oeuvre or, in this case, from a specific moment within an oeuvre – “the decade of Impressionism”. This commonly encountered lacuna was the more apparent because Bailey himself discusses conservation matters rather more than most. He does so, however, as a seemingly grateful recipient/beneficiary of museum restoration departments’ technical largesse and their routinely delivered “discoveries”. With his prefatory expression of deep gratitude to an international slew of conservators for “their participation in undertaking technical examination on the paintings in their charge and for allowing me to publish their findings in this catalogue” we knew precisely what critical appraisals not to expect.
Strictly speaking it would not be necessary to call for comparative assessments on such occasions if museums were all, as a matter of course, completely frank about the restoration-injured conditions of individual works. By way of an example of what might be discussed at a time when recollection of the show is still fresh and when armed with Bailey’s book/catalogue, which is as intensively researched and handsomely illustrated as might ever be expected, we consider here the technical history, in so far as it has been disclosed, of just one of the nine loaned pictures – Renoir’s beautiful invention of arrested intimacy-in-movement, his Dance in the City.
The obvious starting point for any appraisal of a picture’s successive states should be the earliest photographic record of the work. With Renoir we enjoy an immense if not comprehensive photographic record. We even have film footage of him painting and sculpting. We have contemporary or near-contemporary photographs that show his paintings in the context of close proximity to other paintings and in a common light (Fig. 1). When the testimony of early photographs differs markedly from presently photographed states (as so often is the case with modern masters – see Figs. 3-7), then, self-evidently, there is an issue crying to be addressed.
When, for example, we compare the very different states of Renoir’s Dance in the City, as seen in Figs. 3 & 4, despite making allowances for photographic variations (such as the great discrepancies of size between the earlier and later images) and being mindful of Bailey’s own thanks to the photographer Michael Bodycomb for having “improved the quality of almost every image”), it is clear that the painting today is not the work that it once was; that its values and relationships have changed. Consider the floor on which the dancers perform: then, it was more varied in its tones; today it is more equal. Then, the floor to the right of the ball gown was darker than the floor to the left of the couple. That darkness served to emphasize the sweeping profile at the back of the trailing gown. Reading downwards from the waist, the shape of two convex masses of material formerly made a leisurely elegant descent towards the train. Today, that “materially” expressive clarity of design in the lower of the two draped forms has been quite disrupted, if not lost, as the now lighter tone of the floor merges with the now diminished shaded tints of the gown (see Figs. 3, 4 & 11).
For all of Bailey’s admirably close (and expertly advised) attentiveness to the dress-making “mechanics” of the gown – “…The skirt is draped in puffed folds (en bouillonée) with a tier of drapery in the front and two pleated flounces at the bottom. The long train is is draped and pleated to form poufs in the back, and a petticoat can be glimpsed beneath it” – he misses the weakened and possibly redrawn profile. Bailey well describes Renoir’s preoccupation with costume. As the son of a tailor and a seamstress, how could that artist have been unaware of or indifferent to the expressive “cut” and sweep of a costume on a swirling, waltzing figure? Previously, the costume of the male dancer was more various in its tones. Today it reads as a uniform black appendage to the female dancer. Previously there had been no hint of the present overly-assertive, sharpened and darkened treatment of the coat tails which pictorially are now as disruptively emphatic as the head of a claw hammer.
For Bailey, the now lighter toned, more equal floor is “immaculate”. To a charlady that might well seem gratifyingly the case, but Renoir, as Bailey acknowledges, fretted greatly about establishing integrated relationships of figures and backgrounds. As Renoir himself put it: “I just struggle with my figures until they are a harmonious unity with their landscape background, and I want people to feel that neither the setting nor the figures are dull and lifeless.” (“Renoir by Renoir”, N.Y., 1990, p. 50). “Harmonious” sometimes seems to be an elusive concept to non-artists. It is not synonymous with “more-alike”. Rather, it describes the uniting through an artistically forged equilibrium of otherwise potentially disparate, disjunctive elements. We constantly see in artists’ preliminary, intimate sketches how their very first thoughts attempt to anticipate and resolve the requirements of such pictorial equilibriums – see Figs. 8 & 9.
Rendering Renoir’s dance floor more homogeneous has had a spatially flattening and pictorially deadening effect. Rendering it both generally lighter and more equal has contributed to the unfortunate effect of detaching the couple from their swirling space and leaving them as isolated and self-contained as a pressed flower in a book. Indication of the painter’s pictorially melding preoccupation is unmissable in the small oil sketch at Fig. 9 that Renoir made for another of his dance paintings. Compared with the earlier state of Dance in the City, the present one resembles an artificially sharpened photograph.
With apparent injuries we must always look for causes and look for them behind as much as within official accounts. As mentioned, and as Bailey euphemises, this picture has “had a complicated structural history”. That is, it has been both transferred and relined. Both operations are highly dangerous. When the paint film was detached from (its presumably original) canvas, the restorers took the opportunity to photograph the painting from the back of the paint, capturing the image in reverse. This image is excitedly presented as having afforded “a rare glimpse into Renoir’s initial preparations…we can see the lines demarcating the back and the train of the womans dress” (but see comments and photograph at Fig. 10). In the same vein, an X-radiograph “shows how enegetically Renoir laid out both his figures and the background elements”. Bailey discusses an infrared reflectogram (Fig. 11) and acknowledges that these “technical” images were made by the Laboratoire du Louvre, C2RMF. Our colleague in ARIPA, Michel Favre Felix, advises that a certain number of paintings coming from the Louvre or from “l’Orangerie”, were “more or less restored” in 1986 on entering the Musée d’Orsay. Bailey confirms that the picture entered the Louvre in 1979 and was transferred to the the Musée d’Orsay in 1986 but offers no details on any restorations of the picture. The pronounced differences in the picture that are evident in Figs. 4 and 13 would however suggest that a restoration took place at some point after 1986.
Needless to say, Renoir painted from the bottom up with overlaid patches of paint and his final, most considered statements therefore formed the upper visible surface of the original paint film. That original, considered and final surface (as was best seen and recorded in the earlier photograph at fig. 2), is no longer to be found in current photographs or in the flesh. Whatever interest penetrative imaging might have, it is secondary in importance to the actual appearance of pictures to the human eye. The current escalating vogue for “technical” imaging that probes beneath the surfaces of pictures serves to divert attention from destructive restoration actions on pictures’ critically important upper surfaces. If the present international museums merry-go-round of borrowings makes the need to address the condition of paintings impolitic, then that is a further compelling reason for curtailing it.
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