Renoir, Rodin and Matisse in Paris

Posted by HC in Art / Spirituality on 11 December 2009

An amazing pair of shows in Paris have if possible made me love Matisse more than ever. The greater surprise was that Matisse was inspired by the previous generation represented by Renoir and Rodin.First, the bad news. The Rodin museum holds a rather scruffy collection of sculptures. They mostly seem a little grotesque. It’s an impression which arises from works which are alternately overly allegorical, faux classical, dottily expressionist. One or two – especially the famous young girl in the hat  - are actually quite ghastly. How come then that the museum is hosting a “Matisse and Rodin” show? (More in a second.)

My Paris host booked me into the “Renoir in the 20th Century” show at the Grand Palais and I wandered round it early in the morning, quite alone, which was a great luxury. But the paintings, late in the master’s career, seemed gorgeous but fatally sentimental. They seemed to be the motherlode of French sentimental imagery. So it’s fascinating to see how the show’s creators make the case that Matisse (and plenty of other younger painters) were inspired by them?

I suppose the essence of the thing is that one can’t see old works of art with the eyes of the people who first saw them, let alone withthe eyes of innovative genius. The Rodin-Mattisse show was most revealing – helped one most see the connections – when it paired drawings by Rodin and Matisse. The surprise was that Rodin’s sketches had the same cartooning effect – the same flourishes and ellipses – as we are familiar with in Matisse’s work. That made them instantly recognisable and lovable. And Matisse’s little sculptures often seemed to be mimicking Rodin’s, and that gave pause for thought too.

It wasn’t until the end of the Renoir show that one saw (as well as Picasso’s) paintings by Matisse which were designed to show how there were echoes of the older man in the latter’s work. It worked: the reduction of a leg to a basic, vigorous bulge; the pattern of a fabric or wallpaper rendered as a suggestive smudge of colours. There are plenty of traits which Renoir plucked from the ether for the younger people to pick up. I trekked back through some of the Renoir rooms trying to reverse engineer some enthusiasm for the rather simian, stolid creatures with whom Renoir was trying to express something ethereal, fantastical, even spiritual.

I should perhaps add that the Rodin museum remains one of the greatest Parisian pleasures. The garden (entry one Euro) contains some splendid big Rodin pieces, including the Thinker. (They seem far more successful than most of the smaller pieces inside.) And it is one of the  loveliest public city gardens I’ve seen.

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