Exotic and compelling, Clark displays Renoir’s work in Algeria

After several decades of French colonial control, Algeria in the late 19th century was a well-established connection point between continental Europe and the exotic cultures of the “Orient.” The colony was well-controlled and relatively peaceful. The capital city of Algiers had a population that was 80 percent European. At the same time, the country retained a good deal of cultural flavor from its previous occupier, the Ottoman Empire, as well as the customs of its indigenous tribes and the extensive influence of Islam. Being both safe and familiar, but also exotic and foreign, it was a perfect place for European tourists to experience the wonders of the Orient in relative ease and comfort.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) traveled to Algeria twice during this period, in 1881 and 1882. One of the central figures of the Impressionist movement, he was known for his genial and sensual paintings of landscapes and people at leisure. Renoir painted with a focus on the play of light and the immediate visual impression made on the viewer by a particular scene, while usually abstaining from any deeper psychological or social agenda. This pleasing and deliberately superficial style of painting was in many ways well-suited to reflect the 19th century European vision of Algeria and the Orient in general – a lush land populated with strange but generally benign natives, living a life of exotic opulence and sensuality.

Yet, Renoir was an independent artist, not an employee of the colonial tourism board, and although he was often temperamentally inclined to choose subjects that were cheerful and appealing to a certain tourist sensibility, his main concern was to capture pure visual impressions of people and scenes, and render that experience in all its fleeting and necessarily superficial immediacy. Although there is an undeniably saccharine quality to many of his paintings (a holdover, perhaps, from his early job as a painter of collectable porcelain), Renoir’s work has both a vitality and a visual honesty that makes it more than just pastel-colored eye candy. Nonetheless, it is occasionally tempting to dismiss him as a well-intentioned precursor to the Thomas Kincaids of this world.

In exploring the relationship between Renoir and a particularly exotic and picturesque environment, the exhibit “Renoir and Algeria,” now on display at the Clark Art Institute, demonstrates the ways in which Renoir both succumbs to purely decorative impulses and at the same time transcends them to create art more worthy of a museum than a doctor’s waiting room. The exhibit consists of Renoir’s paintings done in Algeria or inspired by his time there, as well as numerous collectable photographs of Algeria that were being produced for sale to European tourists at about the same time. Although the Renoirs are the focus of the show, the photographs provide a critical contextual frame by demonstrating what Renoir manages to avoid doing.

Most of the photographs are extremely well done and very visually appealing: beautiful albumin prints of grand Moorish estates, lush palm groves and old-world streets winding between white stucco buildings, plus several studio portraits of “native Algerians” (actually often European models) wearing their sumptuous native attire. Yet, the longer one looks at these photographs, the more uninteresting they become; the lighting and composition are very well done and the subjects are charming, but there is nothing else to them. Although there are a few exceptions, most of the photographs seem highly posed and edited, with no sense of having captured the image of something alive or real. The photos betray no particular artistic voice or personality.

The Renoirs, on the other hand, have a clear artistic presence and personal engagement with the subject matter. His subjects are very similar to those in the photographs: a botanical garden with an estate in the background, a dense grove of banana trees, a lush ravine and several paintings of female models dressed in exotic Algerian attire.

Renoir’s skill lies in his ability to take these pretty, but rather uninteresting scenes, and make them compelling to the viewer without compromising their initial decorative appeal. While the photographs on display here give only a mechanical view of a scene, Renoir’s Impressionism can effectively convey the human experience of the same subject, making it much more enlivening to look at. At the same time, he keeps this experience general and accessible; whereas a painter like Van Gogh conveys an intensely personal subjectivity, Renoir’s subjectivity is open to all. This serves to preserve the feel of the scene while avoiding (for the most part) easy banality.

The Algerian context in which Renoir is working makes the achievement even more remarkable. At that time, Algeria was in some ways the 19th century equivalent of Disney Land, especially for those tourists who were guided away from any unpleasant scenes of poverty and violence on the streets of Algiers or out in the countryside; it was a place where the Orient of the European imagination could be produced and enjoyed. Renoir’s paintings acknowledge all the attractions, but they get past what is constructed and fake to what is genuinely real and yet still enjoyable.

The paintings of women in native garb may be studio reproductions using European models, but their purpose is not to sell an Arabian Nights fantasy; rather, he focuses on the way the light plays off of the silks and how the cloth flows over the bodies. The banana groves and fern-lined ravines may be carefully tended tourist sites, but Renoir’s attention is to how the shapes of the leaves and the colors of the plants seem to swirl and jump across structure and space. A picture of a local Arabian festival might seem paternalistic or at least touristy, but Renoir is focused on how the whites and reds repeat throughout the crowd, drawing the viewer’s eyes around and up the hill. The subjects are not exciting or particularly meaningful, but these paintings still manage to be compelling.

Indeed, this exhibit, while rather limited, does an excellent job of helping the viewer appreciate what exactly the Impressionists were able to accomplish. Renoir’s subject matter was never very sexy or deep, but he wasn’t concerned with any of that. Rather, he captured the feeling one gets looking at something like a sunset or a beautiful landscape – it doesn’t mean much, but that doesn’t matter: it’s real, and it’s worth looking at.