Homa Taj In Conversation with The PRADO’s Javier Barón on Passion for Renoir

The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute has been a favourite museum, since the late 1990’s, when I began research on my first (undergraduate honour’s) thesis. The paper’s subject? Pierre Auguste Renoir’s Journeys to Algeria, in 1882 and 1883. Naturally, the Clark’s Mademoiselle Fleury in Algerian Costume (1882) was what initially drew me to visit the delightful Williamstown. Set on the edge of the Berkshire Mountains, in Western Massachusetts, Williamstown is home to Williams College whose Graduate Program in the History of Art has trained numerous prominent museum directors, including: Michael Govan (LACMA); Thomas Krens (Guggenheim); Glenn D. Lowry (The Met); Earl Powerll III (National Gallery of Art, Washington); James Wood (Art Institute of Chicago); and, the Late Kirk Varnedoe (MoMA).

My love affair with The Clark continued as I pursued a series of academic and museological adventures researching the spectacular collection of Albert C. Barnes (1872-1951) and the formation of his Foundation (1922), in Philadelphia. It was the Clark’s gathering of thirty-one paintings by the Impressionist master, Renoir, that had set the basis for my appreciation for Dr. Barnes’ 181 masterworks by the same artist, over the next several years. Needless to say, when I heard that The Clark Institute was lending its entire collection of Renoir paintings to < www.museodelprado.es”>Museo Nacional del Prado, my curiosity was peaked!

Passion for Renoir: The Collection of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute is co-organized by The Clark Art Institute and The Prado. The show introduces, for the first time, Sterling Clark’s 40-year pursuit of acquisition of masterworks by an artist whom he considered “the greatest colorist of the modern age.”

Early last month, I had the opportunity to interview Javier Barón Thaidigsmann, The Prado’s Chief Curator of the Department of the 19th Century Painting. In addition to his curatorial work at The Museo Nacional, Dr. Barón Thaidigsmann has studied, catalogued and published numerous institutional collections, such as the Museo de Bellas Artes in Asturias, the Pedro Masaveu collection, the BBVA collection, the Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza collection and the Museo Nacional del Prado collection. His most recent exhibitions inlcude: Turner and the Masters and, Passion for Renoir.

Homa Taj – How would you describe Spanish audiences’ taste for 19th and 20th centuries French art?

Javier Barón Thaidigsmann – The French art of both centuries is of the best quality and importance, and it’s essential for art history. On the other hand, the Spanish public is very receptive to a style of painting such as impressionism, based on color and light.H

T – How would you define the Museo Nacional del Prado’s Renoir exhibition as an indicator of (perhaps, evolving) taste in Spain?

JBT – The excellent acceptance of the exhibition proves that the public extraordinarily appreciates this artist. On the other hand, it is normal that The Prado’s visitors value the work of a painter, such as Renoir, with a great passion for Titian, Rubens and Velázquez, artists which are greatly represented in this museum.

HT –  Do you see this enthusiastic reception to encourage the formation of similar shows at The Prado in the near future?

JBT – It’s understandable that the exhibition, the first monographic devoted to Renoir in Spain, has had a wonderful acceptance. The display in theme sections (portraits, female figures, landscapes, nudes, still lives and flower vases) enables to appreciate the meditation of the artist in each of the main genres of his work, in such a way that you can see in every one of them, the evolution from impressionism until the period after his trip to Italy where the artist dialogues much more with the great masters of the past. So, the public’s appreciation of this exhibition allows us to see both the richness of Renoir’s artistic approaches and to observe his evolution from impressionism towards essentially pictorial solutions.

HT – Discounting his influence on many younger artists of his and later generations, including Picasso, Renoir’s work has been dismissed as too attractive (pretty?) and even kitsch by later (20th century) Modernists. Do you expect this exhibition, in any way, to alter or re-contextualize the artist’s oeuvre?

JBT – I am sure that those who will contemplate it with attention will see how much prejudice lies in those opinions. Most of these obey to a topic supported by the intolerance of certain attitudes of the first half of the 20th century that in order to defend avant-garde art they would attack everything which they considered to be its opposite. On the other hand, many of those who share these beliefs have mainly seen Renoir’s painting mainly in reproductions, without really seeing them…

HT – Which Spanish (if any) artists were (or have been) influenced by Renoir’s works?

JBT – The influence of Renoir after his trip to Italy was mainly reflected on those artists that recuperated the form towards a sense of essential Mediterranean clarity, and in a special way, on Pablo Picasso and the catalan noucentistas.

HT – Somewhat like The Barnes Foundation, The Clark provides a very unique and intimate setting for the exhibition of art works. What is it like to see the Renoirs installed in the physical and historical grandeur of The Prado (est. 1819)?

JBT – Among the numerous possibilities that existed we preferred to present the works in a room with very beautiful dimensions that leads directly to the Main Gallery. We have introduced two panels to create three sections which are very connected one with the other. The blue color of the walls makes it stand out and welcomes in a better way the paintings of the artist. That is why, it seems more like a chamber exhibition in which the viewing of the paintings is much more satisfying.

HT – We cannot talk about Renoir without mentioning The Barnes Foundation’s spectacular collection of 181 paintings (and a few water colors) by the artist. The Barnes’ collection will be moving out of its historic setting, in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania, to downtown Philadelphia, in the very near future. I wonder whether you (as I) have ever fantasized about organizing an über luscious exhibition of Renoir’s paintings based on the collections at: the Clark, The Barnes & the Musée d’Orsay?

JBT –It’s an amazing possibility but there are in fact three collections of very different character perfectly autonomous one from each other.