Theater & art

Sebastian Smee | Critic’s Notebook

Renoir protest at MFA is funny, but sophomoric

One of Renoir’s greatest paintings, “Dance at Bougival” (1883), is at the Museum of Fine Arts.

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

One of Renoir’s greatest paintings, “Dance at Bougival” (1883), is at the Museum of Fine Arts.

Is it worth getting worked up about Renoir? I often wonder. He is an artist I detest most of the time. Such a syrupy, falsified take on reality. Everything he painted — especially toward the end of his career — was homogenized and pasteurized, transposed into the same pictorial language, which was essentially fluffy, flickering, and cute, like one of those ubiquitous YouTube kittens seen through color-enhancing sunglasses.

But all that’s only until I see the next great Renoir. And the thing is, there are plenty of them.

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Pierre-Auguste Renoir was not, as they say, “a very nice person.” He was an anti-Semite who, at the height of the Dreyfus Affair, renounced his Jewish patrons — the very families who had helped lift him out of crushing poverty.

But he was undoubtedly one of the most gifted, innovative, dedicated, and prolific artists of his dazzling generation.

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One of his greatest paintings, “Dance at Bougival,” is, as almost everyone knows, at the Museum of Fine Arts. (Many more great Renoirs are at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, where they hang in the company of rather too many of his sicklier, schlockier productions.)

“Dance at Bougival” is a work of genius, full of life and color and amorousness, a painting so bold and life-loving you give yourself over to it without even thinking.

Which is why even a Renoir skeptic like me knows it’s sophomoric to stage an anti-Renoir protest outside the MFA, as a small group did on Monday.

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They held homemade signs reading “God Hates Renoir” and “Treacle Harms Society” and ate cheese pizza when they took a break.

The whole thing was quite funny, of course. Anyone who has felt as I have (and I know for a fact there are many of you) in front of yet another lousy Renoir landscape or rosy-cheeked, plump-breasted nude cavorting pointlessly in a stream will feel a surge of sympathy.

But let’s be (briefly and boringly) real: The “protest” was not so much a protest as a coordinated cry for attention. Welcome (if you’ve been away) to our new social media ecosystem, which magnifies effects without causes, encouraging the hyper-dramatization of the pettiest, most fleeting notions and a psychological enslavement to clicks, likes, and catty comment threads.

If you don’t like Renoir, fine, don’t like him. You and I have plenty of other pictures to choose from at the MFA. If you want to stage a protest about Renoir, you clearly have other motives. Or no meaningful motives at all.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @SebastianSmee.
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