Now through early September, The Barnes Foundation will explore the works of acclaimed director Jean Renoir and the influence of his father, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, in the exhibition Renoir: Father and Son/ Painting and Cinema. Recently, Freemans Senior Vice President of European Paintings & Old Masters, David Weiss (DW), sat down with Barnes Foundation Associate Curator, Cindy Kang (CK), to discuss the exhibition and the influence Pierre-Auguste had on Jean’s life and art.
DW: Jean once wrote, “I have spent my life trying to determine the extent of the influence of my father upon me.” How do you suppose Jean’s work as a filmmaker was influenced by the work of his father? What elements of their relationship do you think become evident in both of their work as artists?
CK: The exhibition Renoir: Father and Son/Painting and Cinema explores the shared aesthetic concerns between the artist and filmmaker. Jean’s approach to natural light, for example, and the way it plays across water or through tree branches, filling the visual field or engulfing figures in dappled light, is very much taken from his father and Impressionist painting. Jean’s way of working with a close-knit circle of family and friends also echoes the practice of his father – they both sought to create a harmonious community through art. They shared many other motifs and strategies – the symbolic importance of the river, the illusion of informality and spontaneity – which the exhibition addresses.
Jean and his father also shared an important muse, Andrée Heuschling, who was Pierre-Auguste’s last model and Jean’s first wife and star of his first films. In Pierre-Auguste’s paintings, Dédée (as she was known as an artist’s model) is consistently represented as a recognizable “Renoir” with ample hips, a small head, and rosy flesh. By contrast, in Jean’s films, she takes the screen name Catherine Hessling and appears in many varied guises, which perhaps speaks to the more collaborative nature of working in film and her own artistic agency.
DW: Jean Renoir said, “I have spent my life trying to determine the extent of the influence of my father upon me.” How true would the opposite be? Are there any elements that may indicate Jean influenced his father’s late works?
CK: Jean posed for many paintings by his father, so he influenced his father’s late works in his role as a model. Renoir worked assiduously from the model, his models were a key part of his artistic process and practice.
DW: How would you describe the relationship between Pierre-Auguste Renoir and his son? For example, how to you explain that Jean Renoir, a frequent subject of his father’s paintings, never filmed his father in return, and yet spent almost 20 years writing his father’s biography?
CK: Well, one practical reason is that Pierre-Auguste Renoir died in 1919, before Jean really began exploring film as a medium of artistic expression. However, it’s interesting to note that the painters that appear in Jean’s films are often hampered, like the amateur painter Maurice Legrand in La Chienne or the blind painter Tod in The Woman on the Beach.
Jean’s written portrait of his father, his biography Renoir, My Father, is also in a sense an autobiography. Writing it over 20 years, as you can imagine, was part of the process of understanding himself and his father’s place in his life, both personally and professionally. Their relationship was one of deep love and respect, though of course as the son of one of the greatest artists in the history of western art, Jean did exhibit a certain amount of rivalry and resistance to this towering influence.
DW: It is little known that before becoming a film director, Jean was an active ceramist. Can you speak to this era in the artist’s life?
CK: Pierre-Auguste began his career painting porcelain and greatly valued craft and the artisanal professions. He encouraged his sons, Coco and Jean, to take up ceramics, building them a kiln on the family property in Cagnes. Jean was quite serious about his work as a ceramist. When he left Cagnes and moved to Marlotte, he had his own kiln built on his property. He sold his ceramics both through Durand-Ruel as well as in other galleries in Paris.
DW: How did Albert C. Barnes come to acquire the largest holding of Jean’s pottery in the world during the 1920s? What reactions do you expect or hope for from those visiting this never before displayed collection?
CK: Barnes purchased Jean Renoir’s ceramics through Durand-Ruel. He undoubtedly appreciated their handmade, “country” aesthetic and tried to create a market for them here in the US. We also know, however, that Barnes was interested in purchasing Renoir paintings that the Renoir sons had inherited after their father’s death, so there may have been a dual motive behind his bulk purchases of Jean’s ceramics.
Nevertheless, these objects are truly interesting, especially in the way that Jean used and appreciated flaws and mistakes for their aesthetic effects. His approach to ceramics was very open and experimental so while they are very well executed, they also incorporate elements that a traditional ceramist may not have. We hope that seeing a broad selection of the best of these works will bring more information about them to light.
DW: Jean had compared cinema to ceramics, believing chance and accident both played critical roles. How does this idea of chance and accident translate to good art? Are we to believe that many of the world’s best-known artists were operating on theories of chance?
CK: Without getting into John Cage, Rauschenberg, etc., Jean’s approach to art making allowed for the possibility of chance and accidents to be productive rather than undesirable. Sometimes what is caught on camera or happens in the kiln, though unplanned, can be embraced and elaborated upon.
DW: How do the creative processes of filmmaking and painting mirror each other? What elements can we find in both?
CK: Both are of course primarily visual media and require acute attention to composition and framing, and eventually with film, color as well. However, it’s not surprising that Jean chose cinema as his art form as a way to rival and surpass painting. The moving image provided such exhilarating possibilities not available to the still image.