People of taste tell us nowadays that Renoir is a great eighteenth-century painter. But in so saying they forget the element of Time, and that it took a great deal of time, even at the height of the nineteenth century, for Renoir to be hailed as a great artist. To succeed thus in gaining recognition, the original painter or the original writer proceeds on the lines of the oculist. The course of treatment they give us by their painting or by their prose is not always pleasant. When it is at an end the practitioner says to us: "Now look!" And, lo and behold, the world around us (which was not created once and for all, but is created afresh as often as an original artist, is born) appears to us entirely different from the old world, but perfectly clear. Women pass in the street, different from those we formerly saw, because they are Renoirs, those Renoirs we persistently refused to see as women. The carriages, too, are Renoirs, and the water, and the sky; we feel tempted to go for a walk in the forest which is identical with the one which when we first saw it looked like anything in the world except a forest, like for instance a tapestry of innumerable hues but lacking precisely the hues peculiar to forest. Such is the new and perishable universe which has just been created. It will last until the next geological catastrophe is precipitated by a new painter or writer or original talent.
Marcel Proust, The Guermantes Way, pp. 338-339
"Such is the new and perishable universe which has just been created."
In my Aesthetic Expressions class we often find ourselves discussing why artists do what they do. Essentially, do people make a conscious decision to become artists or is it a case where they cannot not be artists? As we've discussed, they see the world in a different way and in the end they change the rules, not because they necessarily want to change the world but because they cannot not change the rules. Now, in changing the rules they have then changed the world, which is what I think Proust is getting at in this section. At one time people actively detested Renoir (as well as the other Impressionists) and it was because they were viewing the world in a certain more traditional way. They began to appreciate Renoir when they began to look at his art in a different way, and in the process they began to look at all art and, for that matter, the entire world in a different way. You could never un-see Renoir (although we've discussed Cezanne's desire to paint as if no one had ever painted before). Now, what's also interesting about all this is that although there were many art critics who rejected the Impressionists, there were a few who "got" it and helped the rest of us to understand it. Similarly, although obviously less importantly, I think of the music critics who understood Young's Tonight's the Night and supported of it in the face of a lot of abuse from casual fans. Essentially the critics saw a changing world and helped others get to that point. I think it speaks to the role of the public intellectual. One of the reasons why I'm so active on Twitter is to play that role, even if it's a public pseudo-intellectual.
|Renoir's Two Sisters on the Terrace.|
|Renoir's Woman Reading.|
|Renoir's Dance at Le Mousin de la Galette.|