In the first room after ascending the grand staircase at the Art Institute of Chicago, a young woman turns her back to the wall on the right, which is covered by multiple canvases bearing the oil-painted signature of Pierre Auguste Renoir. Renoir, one of the most noted and prolific members of the French Impressionist movement, is also currently one of the most debated.
“I like it when it’s interesting art, not this random stuff,” she mutters, with a final dismissive gesture toward Lucie Berard (Child in White), an 1883 portrait of a child who the informational plaque adjacent to it describes as “a picture of innocence.”
With this disdainful declaration, the young woman has unknowingly supported a cause that Max Geller, a political organizer from Boston, would be thrilled to see her join.
Geller said he began the “Renoir Sucks at Painting” movement on Instagram after a “private complaint amongst friends”. The account posts photos of Renoir paintings captioned with criticisms, such as the tentacle-like fingers of the subjects and eyes that he says looks like they were drawn in with Sharpie.
The Instagram account “renoir_sucks_at_painting” boasts over ten thousand followers and has posted photos of people making profane gestures at the artwork. Alongside these posts are photos of protestors outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, as well as the Art Institute of Chicago. They hold signs emblazoned with sayings such as “God Hates Renoir” and “Aesthetic Terrorism”.
“Have you looked at his paintings?” asked Geller after being questioned as to what is classified as ‘aesthetic terrorism.’ “Well, then you know what I’m talking about.”
Geller acknowledged the humorous nature of his anti-Renoir views.
“Protesting anything on aesthetic grounds is a great joke,” he said. “I’m already on board with whatever the protest is.
Geller explained why “good art” hanging in museums is important. “The thing I really like about art museums is that no matter what it is, whatever it is you’re feeling in life, really good art can provide you with an insight into those feelings and maybe help you process and reflect on them,” Geller said. “But when I see a Renoir painting, I don’t feel anything at all. This sort of treacle, the empty calories, the saccharine tripe, it deadens your insides, takes away your ability (and) it impacts critical brain function and shuts everything down. You don’t think at all. You just let the cotton candy dissolve in your mouth and drip down your throat.”
Geller describes treacle as “a metaphor for stuff that will give you cavities. It’s syrupy, sugary (and) not very substantive. There’s a lot of treacle out there that’s currently being exalted and I consider it the wake of Renoir in which we’re currently drowning.”
Geller’s ideal outcome would be more diversity within the institute’s collection. If a majority of the Renoir paintings were sold, then the museum could buy more pieces created by women or people of color. Geller pointed to Orientalism and misogyny in Renoir’s work as one of the major reasons for his loathing.
“I think what’s important to understand is that Renoir actually does suck at painting, and there are plenty of female artists who never get hung in fine art museums because they’re dominated by males,” Geller said. “And if you’re going to dominate, territorially speaking, your walls with white male artists, I think you should make certain that they are good artists.”
The Art Institute’s website shows a record of 65 drawings and paintings by Renoir in its collection. Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot, two of the most celebrated female Impressionists, have 55 and 20, respectively. This could be due to an abundance of Renoir’s work. According to Geller, Renoir has painted ov 4,000 pieces.
“It’s fine if you like Renoir,” Geller said. “Anyone can like whatever they want, but not everyone can have what they like be considered fine art or the best art. I think the function of a fine art museum is a warehouse of the fine points of culture, and Renoir isn’t that.”
Geller also clarified the movement has nothing to do with Impressionism in general. He was offended when NPR asked whether he had the same hatred for other well known Impressionist artists.
“Claude Monet and (Edgar) Degas and Mary Cassatt, they painted hands that had five fingers on them, not tentacles,” Geller said. “They painted eyeballs that resembled human eyeballs.”
Genevieve Renoir, great-great-granddaughter of the Renoir in question, has openly disagreed with the movement. She commented on a “renoir_sucks_at_painting” Instagram post, saying “when your great-great-grandfather paints anything worth $78.1 million (which is $143.9 million today), then you can criticize.”
Reached over Twitter, Ms. Renoir, who graduated from University of Alberta with a minor in art history, was evasive when asked if she agreed with Geller’s critique of a lack of diversity and elitism within fine arts museums.
“I don’t think Renoir was successful solely because he was a French man … I suppose there may have been fewer female artists throughout history as well due to societal conditions,” Renoir said, “but I would like to research that topic more before arriving at a conclusion.”
All security guards interviewed from the Art Institute were familiar with the protests against Renoir that occurred on Oct. 26, but said even though there were a large number of people, there was no real concern on the part of the museum. Most simply expressed confusion.
“All his paintings are beautiful,” said Jenelle Grooms, a security guard posted in the Impressionism wing of the Art Institute.
Another security guard who didn’t wish to be identified said that the museum was on high alert because of rumors that protestors had attempted to destroy the Renoir paintings, but that it “wasn’t a huge deal.” She said no patrons asked about the protests as they happened.
Followers participating in the protest have hinted there may be more to the movement than performance art, or a hipster’s cry for attention, but any extended amount of conversation with Geller only serves to prove this is the case. While the protest brings to light some serious critiques of the art world’s racial and academic elitism, it also capitalizes upon the humor behind the idea of “social justice warriors” to do so.
One of the signs present at all of the Renoir protests and the profile picture for the “renoir_sucks_at_painting” Instagram account says, “God Hates Renoir”—a clear reference to the extremist rhetoric of the Westboro Baptist Church.
In many of his interviews, Geller repeated some key terms, such as the previously defined “aesthetic terrorism” and “treacle” when discussing Renoir. By humorously sticking to such an extremist script, Geller can both draw attention to the root of his cause and provide commentary on the society around him, which are two things all great art should do.
“Until I started, I would have said ‘no, no way am I an artist.’ But one of the sort of oddest things has been the pygmalian nature of Renoir Sucks at Painting,” Geller said. “Like, all these people seeing whatever they want to see in it, and a lot of people were just like ‘oh, my god! This is really good performance art!’”
Call it a joke, call it performance art, but anyone who thinks Renoir Sucks at Painting is nothing more than a tongue-in-cheek movement is putting his foot in his mouth.
A review of Renoir’s “Fine Art” pieces
Reviews by Jaycee Rockhold | The DePaulia
Young Girls at the Piano
Not only am I confused by the seemingly ghost hand of the girl playing piano (is that even a hand, or the infamous tentacles Geller talks about?), but I’m also bewildered by the fact that she can read sheet music without even opening her eyes. The muted colors of “Young Girls at the Piano” are almost as drab and dull as Renoir’s “aristic skills.”
Seriously, Renoir has a problem with those pesky little hands. Besides the tips of her fingers, it appears as if Renoir has also missed the mark with the foliage behind her. Trying to fingerpaint a Bob Ross masterpiece would be hard for anyone. The woman in the painting looks just as bored as any person looking at this painting.
Sunset at Sea
It took me a moment to realize what I was looking at, but after a few moments I finally understood. Renoir has captured the beauty of the sea by spilling whatever oceanic colors he had onto the nearest canvas he could find. It doesn’t matter that the water is literally blending into the sky, it’s all for artistic quality, right?
Portrait of Victor Chocquet
Cause of death: two soulless, unblinking black holes boring holes through heads. Besides an appointment with an eye doctor, it also looks like this guy could use a quick haircut too. It appears as if the subject of the painting is deep in thought, perhaps wondering why he even allowed Renoir to paint him in the first place. I’m sure any person in Renoir’s works have thought the same thing.