on 12 May 2015
This film is framed as though it were a Renoir painting. The light is soft, suffuse, golden. The landscapes and people in them look harmonious, even Edenic. It's as if Renoir in old age had found an earthly paradise in which to live and paint, a place among olive groves, fields, flowers, streams and gardens at a high lookout point above the Côte d'Azur and Mediterranean. The place was called Les Collettes near the village of Cagnes-sur-Mer, the estate he built for himself and family.
In a way it was perfection. Here, surrounded by beauty, he experienced his final burst of creativity (1915-19), painting naked nymphs in bucolic splendour. Flesh and sensuality came to dominate his mind in the end, forming the basis of beauty and rapture for him. He had become a modern Titian, the artist whom he revered and worshipped above all others. Of his last model, muse and love Andrée Heuschling, he says to his son Jean:
“Her skin soaks up the light. I need living, breathing material, the velvety texture of a young girl's skin.”
So he remained consistent to the end, a sensualist and hedonist, a lover of feminine form and beauty. And for this he was defiantly unapologetic, celebrating beauty without shame.
But there is a dark sad side behind this bliss. Renoir in old age was infirm and in pain. Rheumatoid arthritis had swollen his joints. The pain was so bad he could barely stand and walk, nor could his gnarled and deformed hands hold a paint brush. Those who attended him (servants, models, family members) tied the brush to his hand with gauze. He was carried from place to place in a sedan. He was bathed, fed, put to bed. Active as he had been in life, he was now an invalid in the care of others. Yet gruff, determined and stubborn, he refused to quit, pushing himself on, absorbed in his obsession, his senses overpowered by colour and light.
Some have said that the film lacks narrative structure, that it has little action and tension, that the characters are not developed well enough. Who am I to say they are wrong? But there could be more happening here. The film could have higher purposes. It is unashamedly aesthetic. It asks questions about the nature, purpose and processes of art. It shows a true artist in a true life setting working with his materials — his paints, his brushes, palettes and canvases, his light and shadows and models, his ideas and ambitions, his demons and desires. As such, it is tremendous. It is truthful, brave and good. We do not see Renoir the great Impressionist here. We see Renoir the man, the ordinary yet extraordinary man who wrestles with his pain and past and ideas. To the extent we ever can, we enter the mind of the creator. We see his visions and understand what he struggles to show through his ideas of beauty. And in the end, humbled by his sensitivity and honesty, we see him as heroic.
His son Jean, who later became the renowned filmmaker, said his father never accepted the Great Master label the world gave him. He was instead a craftsman, artisan, ordinary worker. As a lad of 14 he had begun by painting flowers on porcelain plates and vases. The steady hand and patient eye were his stocks in trade. Yes, trade. He was a tradesman. And he kept this attitude to the end, even though, utterly paradoxically, he gave the world such remarkable visions of beauty.
Next to a stream on his estate Renoir is painting a scene of nude bathers, all of them women of course. His son Jean, looking at the canvas over his father's shoulder says:
“How about some black?”
His father replies:
“Dear boy, the Renoirs refuse to paint the world black. A painting should be something pleasant and cheerful. There are enough disagreeable things in life. I don't need to create more. Poverty, despair, death. They're not my concern.”
Instead he gave us summer boating parties on the Seine, dances at Le Moulin de la Galette in the Montmartre moonlight, beautiful children and mothers, flowers and gardens, cats and corgis, and always the bare pure-white flesh of his beautiful young Titian nymphs. Beauty, life, creation. These were the subjects he celebrated.
Heroic indeed, which is why we go on loving him.