Looking at Renoirs, Moving and Still

PHILADELPHIA — On a visit to the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania, well before the museum’s move to Philadelphia’s Center City in 2012, a friend and I paused before one of the collection’s 181 works by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919) to admire how the Impressionist painter intensified his strokes of cobalt blue with daubs of teal. That’s the first time I noticed, after dozens of prior visits, a vase resting on a plant stand right below the painting, which was similarly glazed in cobalts and teals, establishing an implicit chromatic connection between canvas and vessel. Since Dr. Albert Coombs Barnes, when he set up his foundation, was more interested in color, line, and form than in authorship, he did not expressly identify the artists and makers of objects whose works he put on display — a policy that changed only after the move to Center City. Nevertheless, noticing my interest, a smiling security guard momentarily broke Dr. Barnes’s rules of attribution and whispered, “The vase is by Renoir’s son.”

“His son Jean, the filmmaker?” I asked. The guard shrugged me off. I had asked too much. I knew that before Pierre-Auguste was a painter of canvases he was a painter of ceramics. But Jean? The next day I called Kimberly Camp, then director of the Barnes, to see if there was in fact a painting by Renoir the father hanging above an earthenware vase by the son. Yes, she said. There were five such Renoir/Renoir pairings on view.

What she neglected to say was that in storage there were 35 more pieces by Jean (1894–1979). Who knew that the future director of The Grand Illusion (1937) and The Rules of the Game (1939) had, like his father, apprenticed in the applied arts? Were there other confluences and consonances between the two careers? We do know that Pierre-Auguste’s influence on his life and work is something Jean thought about, as he wrote in My Life and My Films (1974). Was that influence perceivable in the works themselves? My gut reaction was yes, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. However this was my first opportunity to test it against the works themselves.

Happily, The Barnes Foundation’s Renoir: Father and Son/Painting and Cinema, a co-production among the Barnes, the Musee d’Orsay et de la Orangerie, and the Cinematheque Francaise, on view at the Barnes through September 3, answers the question. This remarkable show, which intersperses Renoir père drawings and paintings with pottery and clips from the films of Renoir fils, lays out the considerable differences between father and son — for obviously paintings are capable only of implying movement, while movies move — as well as the confluences, consonances and bridges connecting them.

Not only did they share DNA and a facility for decorating ceramics, but also a muse, Andree Heuschling. She was Pierre-Auguste’s last model, subject of more than 100 paintings (many of which hang at The Barnes and the nearby Philadelphia Museum of Art). Andree’s nimbus of strawberry-blonde hair and folds of golden brioche skin are familiar to those who know the painter’s late works. Weeks after Pierre-Auguste’s death, Andree and Jean wed. Under the name Catherine Hessling (and by this time streamlined as an Art Deco hood ornament), she starred in five of Jean’s early films, including Nana (1926) and The Poor Little Match Girl (1928).

“The desire of the son merges with the old man’s fascination with the same object,” writes Pascal Merigeau, the French film critic, in one of the essays in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition. For Merigeau, this is creepy. He asks, “Has there been a more disturbing convergence in the whole history of art?” Unsettling, perhaps, yet how many lovers are brought together by a shared love for a third party?

Second of the painter’s three sons, Jean was born when his father was 54, the age of many grandfathers. Jean posed, not always willingly, for about 60 of Pierre-Auguste’s paintings, many on view at the exhibition, and a few more in the Barnes’s permanent collection. So not only did the father inspire the son but vice-versa. With his round, rosy face and girlish strawberry-blond locks (that his father would not let him cut), young Jean glows like a ripe peach. He appears so blissful that it is disconcerting to read Merigeau’s account that as a boy Jean rarely encountered his father except while posing for paintings. Given that an artist’s model should neither move nor speak, Papa Renoir enjoyed that rare children-should-be-seen-but-not-heard experience.

During World War I Jean was wounded, narrowly avoiding amputation of his injured leg. His mother died soon after. When he returned home, the crutch-dependent son and wheelchair-bound father (crippled by rheumatoid arthritis), united in grief, spent most every day together in the elder’s studio. While Pierre-Auguste painted and talked about the past, Jean listened.

Jean’s younger brother, Coco, in order to stay near Pierre-Auguste after the death of their mother, accepted his father’s offer to work in a ceramics studio built next to the painter’s atelier at Les Collettes, the family home near Nice. Probably at his father’s instigation, Jean also began making and decorating ceramics there between 1919 and 1923. Cobalt blue, teal, and viridian are the dominant colors on the eight examples (vases, bowls, and plates) on view at the Father and Son exhibition. The palette is that of Renoir the elder, but the Arcadian figures painted on some are more obviously Matisse-y than Renoirish. Now that I know that those voluptuous vases are by the son of Pierre-Auguste, I would compare the shape of their tiny “waists” and ample “hips” to the forms of late Renoir nudes. In the catalogue, Margaret Little notes that Dr. Barnes found Jean’s ceramics delightful — in spite of being so porous that they leaked water. Jean sold them for 100 Francs each, about $7 dollars in 1920 currency, comparable to $84 today.

When the elder Renoir enrolled in art school in his 20s, he often lacked money for paint and canvas. Not so his sons, whose bequests from the painter’s estate largely freed them from immediate pressure to make their livings. In My Life and Films Jean, whose elder brother Pierre began his career as a film actor in 1911, wrote that he became a director in order to make Hessling a star. By casting her and Pierre in Whirlpool of Fate (1925), Jean reproduced his father’s pattern of turning his art into a family affair. Pierre appeared in many of his brother’s films, and in the 1930s Claude, Pierre’s son, became Jean’s cinematographer, shooting five of his movies, notably The River (1951), Jean’s first film in color.

One of my impressions of Jean before visiting the exhibition is that he often “quoted” his father’s paintings. And if one compared the elder’s “La Balancoire” (“The Swing,” 1876) with a still from the younger’s unfinished A Day in the Country (1936), the two images would look remarkably similar. But with the opportunity provided by the Barnes exhibition to see the father’s paintings in the same galleries as the son’s film clips, the motifs that Pierre-Auguste and Jean shared are outweighed by the differences in their vision, temperament, and respective medium. To see a painting by Pierre-Auguste is to perceive light, color, and the human form in nature. To watch a movie by Jean is to be drawn into the nature of the human comedy.

In other words, the painter is about sensation and the filmmaker is about story. La Balancoire, in which two men and a child are entranced by a young lovely standing on a swing, is an exhilarating glance at youth and beauty in peak flower. Based on the story by de Maupassant, A Day in the Country ends on the bittersweet note of that young lovely, now much older, looking back upon on that glorious day. While Pierre-Auguste paints intense moments of joie de vivre, Jean tells stories in which joy is one emotion on a spectrum that includes pain and regret, as his masterpieces, The Grand Illusion and Rules of the Game, so powerfully express.

Of Jean’s 30 films, four are from stories by writers of Pierre-Auguste’s immediate circle, like Emile Zola or Octave Mirbeau, or his contemporaries, like Flaubert. Consider Zola’s Nana (1926), Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1934), Zola’s The Human Beast (1938), Mirbeau’s Diary of a Chambermaid (1946). Two more — French Cancan (1954) and Elena and Her Men (1956) — are set in a 19th-century his father knew well. The Montmartre of the former is where the Renoirs lived, and the upscale Paris arrondissements of the latter are where affairs of state, and more than a few affairs of the heart, were conducted. While these two color films by Jean are the ones that I remembered having the most in common with the works of his father, I was mistaken.

Though the films vividly evoke the Paris of the elder Renoir, to see the clips from them playing on monitors near his canvases is to realize that their Technicolor primary hues — I might add, Tricolor hues — have little in common with his secondary palette and atmospherics. According to the catalogue essay by Dudley Andrew, these films , however, were an aide-memoire for Jean, immersing him in Pierre-Auguste’s milieu and helping him complete Renoir, My Father, a book first conceived in 1941 and published in 1962, a family history more poetic than accurate.

Though mostly familiar, the clips from Jean’s films surprised me. Never before had I registered how many of his sequences involve a frame within a frame, i.e., characters in a room looking out a window into one across the way, where another human drama plays out, drawing the viewer into the frame and the narrative. His dramatic use of shadow and deep space in films such as The Grand Illusion and The Human Beast is antithetical to the way his father uses light and color to draw the eye to the surface phenomena dancing on the picture plane. And yet when Pierre-Auguste or Jean contain the movement within a group scene — think Pierre-Auguste’s Bal du Moulin de la Galette (1876) or Jean’s French Can-Can(1955) — both bracket the action in such extreme close-ups that it threatens to spill out of the frame.

Although I walked into to this challenging and unconventional exhibition, as I mentioned above, thinking that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree, it would be facile to say that I left it with the conclusion that the works of Pierre-Auguste and Jean were apples and oranges. The truth is that Pierre-Auguste is the great-branched apple tree and Jean an orange tree planted close to it. There are many convergences and many more divergences. Their roots and trunks are entwined, but one bears sweet fruit while the other’s is tart.

P.S. If you’re like me, you’ll want to see or re-see Jean’s films. You can stream them on Filmstruck and or buy them on its companion site, Criterion.

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