Art Appreciation

by Randy Munch

The Joy of Writing Club members were presented with a color photo of Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s painting The Luncheon of the Boating Party. The assignment was to write an art appreciation essay on the masterpiece. However believing me, a linear thinking professional engineer, can write an intelligent dissertation on a Renoir masterpiece is as absurd as thinking that masterpieces are painted on black velvet canvases. But what the hell – engineers are known for thinking that with a little study of the subject they can figure out how most everything works …. So here goes!

I like paintings that are realistic. The perspective must be accurate. Walls must be portrayed as vertical planes that intersect at right angles and parallel lines must extend to the same vanishing point on the horizon. I expect water surfaces to lay flat reflecting the sunlight as opposed to standing straight up and down like a window pane. I suspect that my preferred style is realism and “the Luncheon of the Boating Party” is an example of impressionism. Art historians write that Renoir’s preferred style in his early years was realism. One of his early works was a most realistic study of a buxom nude. The picture was considered improper by the French – by the French no less! So he put a hunting bow in her hand, a dead dear at her feet, and the skin of an animal across her lap to make her nakedness less blatant.  He then named the painting Diana – Goddess of the Hunt. While the subject was hardly realistic in that only a fool would go hunting in the woods completely naked, his adaptation to produce a work that could be placed on sale in a public gallery was economic realism. That painting went on to become one of the great figure paintings of nineteenth century realism.

I like art work that induces you to think about the subjects and a possible sub-plot. Art historians write that the “Luncheon” is an actual party with Renoir’s friends and over the years each person has been identified. There is a story there amongst the guests. They are of the upper class evidenced by their top hats, bowlers, and yellow straw boaters and the fact they are attending a party on a deck overlooking the Seine. Were there really six people at the party wearing yellow hats? In France yellow signifies betrayal and weakness. Had some of them lost favour with Renoir? Or does Renoir just take direction from Van Gogh – “How wonderful yellow is”?

I like art works that contain various peculiarities scattered across the canvas. In many of Renoir’s paintings there is an uncanny amount of portrayals of the hands of his subjects which are painted most realistically. This is evident even in his impressionistic works. In the “Luncheon” there are 12 hands clearly evident. Such a strong focus on hands is ironic in that toward the end of his career he suffered from severe crippling rheumatism in his hands. Art historians expound on how Renoir changed his style of painting throughout his life concluding that during this period he changed his preferred style to reflect different brush strokes with less definition. Seems to me that being so handicapped that the fact he couldn’t pick up his brush on his own would dictate a different quality to his work and not some preconceived  change in style.

Questionable observations of this nature by art historians and art critics are all too common. Recently while visiting our nation’s capital city and touring the National Gallery of Canada we came upon a large room that displayed a highly recognized piece of art. The room was empty except for a piece of string that was connected at the floor in one corner of the room and that extended kitty corner across the room to be attached at the opposite corner on the ceiling. I was infuriated that my tax dollars funded a National Gallery that would display such a worthless piece of junk; that my tax dollars paid the salary of a curator, presumably an art aficionado, who would actually approve the display of such a waste of rental space in the building, let alone suggest that it was art. I appreciate that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder but there was nothing to behold but the utter stupidity of including the string as a work of art.

In 1990 that same Gallery purchased an 18 foot tall canvas with nothing more than a vertical red stripe between two blue stripes for $1.8 million. At that time Canadian tax payers were infuriated. The purchase has since been justified by the fact that the value of the painting, and others by the same artist, have inflated over 20 times the original purchase price. Which in of itself is ludicrous?

 The demand for this type of art and the gullibility by the art community and the art critics that promote these pitiful works confirm the message in Hans Christian Anderson’s nursery story that embraces authenticity. The public feared being seen as stupid if they were to assert that the emperor wore no clothes and thus they cheered him along his route. But his lack of beautiful new garments was clear to the eyes of an innocent child.