The fight against Renoir’s paintings and their established presence in museums is far, far from over. Members of the Renoir Sucks at Painting (RSAP) movement rallied this weekend in New York City, following their recent protest at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston against its display of the Impressionist’s works on the basis of “aesthetic terrorism.” Their target this time: the Metropolitan Museum of Art, whose walls currently display 19 paintings by Renoir — all of which RSAP members consider “indefensible swathes of poorly rendered treacle” and want removed.
On Saturday from noon to 2 pm, over two dozen protestors stood on the front steps of the Met, chanting and waving some of the same signs they held at the MFA Boston, which included “ReNOir” and “God hates Renoir.” Like the MFA Boston, the Met largely ignored the movement, although RSAP founder Max Geller told Hyperallergic that it had “plainclothes museum guards with walkie-talkies in their pockets following us, just watching.” Police also arrived on the scene although they, too, simply observed. Aside from snapping photos, museum visitors mostly sat back as well, many amused once they realized war was actually being waged over aesthetics. Some, as Geller recalled, spoke with the demonstrators, telling them they agreed that the Met exhibits too many Renoirs.
“It was an overwhelmingly successful protest,” Geller said. “There were many people I know, but there were also 10 complete strangers who also showed up with their own signs to protest.”
What he had not expected, however, was a counter-protest: a handful of Renoir-lovers met RSAP on the steps, wielding their own signs that read, “You couldn’t do BETTER,” You can take our Renoir when you pry them from our cold dead hands,” and “Je suis Pierre-Auguste.”
According to Geller, one man who took severe offense at RSAP’s cause approached demonstrators, shouting at them, “You know who else tries to ban things they don’t like? Nazis! That’s what you are! Nazis!”
RSAP entered the museum after two hours of demonstrating, whereupon they were tailed by museum security guards Geller described, with heavy emphasis, as “flinty-eyed.
“They made a really strong, silent case for me not doing anything at all,” he said. As he received his ticket for entry, he told the vendor he would not make a donation until the Met addressed “the Renoir situation.”
The Renoirs, to no one’s surprise, still hang on the museum’s walls; RSAP, remaining optimistic, has already found a potential home for them: Massachusett’s Museum of Bad Art, a “community-based, private institution dedicated to the collection, preservation, exhibition, and celebration of bad art in all its forms and in all its glory,” has agreed to shoulder the burden of acquiring some of the works.
The protests, as silly as they are, have nevertheless renewed spirited debate about a long-dead artist, reinvigorating anti-Renoir sentiment that dates to the painter’s own days. As Kriston Capps notes in the Atlantic:
Then and now, critics complain that Renoir was promiscuous with color. That he paid no heed to line and composition. His works were never formal explorations of light and shadow, like Monet’s, or social critiques of the turn-of-the-century era, like Manet’s. One of Impressionism’s fiercest critics, Albert Wolff, a writer for Le Figaro, wrote in 1874 that what Renoir did with paint was unnatural, maybe even unholy. “Try to explain to M Renoir,” he wrote, “that a woman’s torso is not a mass of decomposing flesh with green and purple spots that indicate the state of total putrefaction in a corpse!”
Even New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl has weighed in, acknowledging the trolling at play but still taking the time to deliver reasons why Renoir appeals, describing in particular his affinity for “Dance at Bougival” (1883), which is on view at the MFA Boston.
“There’s been a long historical current of Renoir hatred,” Geller said. “But I do think one of the crowning achievements of our movement has been to start a worldwide conversation. This was [in] Le Monde. We started a worldwide conversation about addressing this question: Does Renoir suck at painting?”
Museums probably won’t answer that question with direct action, but RSAP isn’t backing down from its cause. As Geller cautioned: “If you make the decision to put Renoir on view in your fine art museum, you can expect us.”