Filmmaker Jean Renoir Inherited An Artist's Eye For Images

May 14, 2018
Originally published on June 4, 2018 3:54 pm

It's not often that a parent and child become masters of two different art forms, but an exhibition at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia proves it's possible: Renoir: Father and Son explores the work of 19th-century Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir and his 20th-century filmmaker son, Jean Renoir.

Like many fathers and sons, they had a loving, but complicated relationship. Take, for example, the fact that in 1920, the year after his father died, Jean married his father's last model.

It's almost "too intimate" to interpret, says Matthieu Orléan, from The Cinémathèque Française in Paris. But there's no doubt Catherine Hessling was "a very important link" between the two men.

Renoir's paintings of Hessling are timeless. "She's very sensuous," says curator Sylvie Patry. "In Jean's films she's very experimental. She's very adventurous in what she's doing. She's a modern woman."

In all his paintings, Renoir's women are pink, zaftig, joyous. His son's heroines — in films such as Nana, The Little Match Girl, The Rules of the Game and Grand Illusion — are darker. His first work, a 1924 silent film, is called Catherine or A Life Without Joy.

In a memoir, Jean wrote: "I have spent my life trying to determine the extent of the influence of my father upon me."

That influence can be seen on the walls at the Barnes. A clip from a film Jean made in 1936 is projected on a wall near an oil painting his father created 60 years earlier. In the painting, a pretty, sun-dappled, young blonde woman stands on a swing. She's wearing a long, white dress with a row of blue bows down the center.

The painting is "very much about light, colors and the impact of natural light on the colors and on the shapes," says Patry. She points out that Jean Renoir's film A Day in the Country has a similar summertime scene. His camera follows a young woman happily swinging in a garden. She's wearing a dress much like the one in the color-drenched painting. (You can see that scene here.)

Clearly his father's painting influenced this scene, but Jean made some changes. His film is in black and white and it's a moving picture — not one fixed in a frame. More than that, there are no bows on the slim swinger's dress – instead the director moved the bows over to the girl's portly mother. What was he thinking, transposing the dress bows? Associate curator Cindy Kang has a theory:

"[This] is such an obvious: I'm going to evoke my father's work and then turn them around and turn them on its head," she says. "I'm going to subvert your expectations. ... This is how he was dealing with his father's legacy."

Renoir set many of his films in his father's century — with its lovely long dresses and long, leisurely days. But he also used his moving pictures to tell more modern stories. Renoir's films often appear on lists of the greatest of all times. The legendary French directors who followed him — François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard — called him "Le Patron," (the boss), which is the same title that painters gave his father.

Film curator Matthieu Orléan heard a revealing story: In the 1950s, an actor went to Jean's Hollywood house, where the director offered to show one of his movies. A Renoir hung on one wall and when Jean pushed a button, a screen came down from the ceiling, hiding the painting. Still ... on the opposite wall, another glorious Renoir painting remained in full view.

Growing up in the shadow of genius, loving the genius, and adapting it to a modern medium. Those are the themes of Renoir: Father and Son, at Philadelphia's Barnes Foundation through early September.

Vincent Acovino and Shannon Rhoades produced and edited this story for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

You know, it's not often that a father and son both become masters of very different art forms. An exhibition at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia proves that it is possible. "Renoir: Father And Son" shows paintings by the father of impressionism and also films his son made years later that became classics. NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg explores how their art connects.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: They had a loving but complicated relationship, like many fathers and sons. Between these two, the father was 19th-century painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir; the son was 20th-century filmmaker Jean Renoir. The complications were artistic and personal.

What do you make of the fact that Jean, a year after his father dies, marries the father's last model?

MATTHIEU ORLEAN: It's too intimate maybe to get interpreted. I don't know.

STAMBERG: Too intimate to interpret, says Matthieu Orlean from the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris.

ORLEAN: It was, of course, a very important link, this woman, between the father and the son.

STAMBERG: The son put her in his movies. The father painted her about a hundred times in his final years. He died in 1919. In the paintings, she is timeless.

SYLVIE PATRY: She's very sensuous. And in Jean's films, she's very experimental; she's very adventurous in what she's doing. She's a modern woman.

STAMBERG: Curator Sylvie Patry.

Auguste Renoir's women are pink, zaftig, joyous. Jean's heroines - "Nana," "The Little Match Girl," and in his classics "The Rules Of The Game" and "Grand Illusion" - they're darker. His first film, a 1924 silent, is called "Catherine, Or A Life Without Joy." There were other differences, as well as similarities. In a memoir, Jean wrote, I have spent my life trying to determine the extent of the influence of my father upon me. The Barnes demonstrates the influence by projecting a clip from a film Jean made in 1936 on a wall near an oil Auguste created 60 years earlier. The father paints a pretty, sun-dappled young blonde standing on a swing.

CINDY KANG: She's wearing a white dress.

STAMBERG: Associate curator Cindy Kang.

KANG: ...A long white dress that has a row of blue bows that are descending down the middle of the dress. And we read it as white even though when you actually look at the colors of the paint, they are not white.

STAMBERG: They're quick strokes of yellow, pink, blue, greenish.

PATRY: It's so, so very much about light, colors and the impact of natural light on the colors and on the shapes.

STAMBERG: A girl, sunshine, colors.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A DAY IN THE COUNTRY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (Speaking French).

JACQUES BRUNIUS: (Speaking French).

STAMBERG: Curator Sylvie Patry says Jean Renoir's film "A Day In The Country" has a similar summertime scene. Jean's camera follows a girl happily swinging in a garden.

PATRY: It is an outdoor scene, as the painting was.

STAMBERG: And she's wearing a dress much like the one in the color-drenched painting. But Jean's movie is black and white, and unlike the radiant painting, the cinema sunshine doesn't last.

PATRY: It's the beginning of a love story between two characters. It will go nowhere. I mean, she will not be happy. I mean, she will get married to somebody she doesn't like.

STAMBERG: No happy ending?

PATRY: No, no happy ending.

STAMBERG: You have to go, for that, to the Renoir paintings.

PATRY: Absolutely.

STAMBERG: Clearly, his father's painting "The Swing" influenced this scene, but Jean made some changes. There are no bows on the slim young swinger's dress. The director moved the bows over to the girl's portly mother. What was he thinking? Cindy Kang has a theory.

KANG: In the context of this exhibition, this move that Jean does with transposing the bows from the dress of the young woman in the white dress to that of the mother next to her, it's such an obvious - you know, I'm going to evoke my father's works, and then turn them around and turn them on its head. I'm going to subvert your expectations - because this is how he was dealing with his father's legacy.

STAMBERG: And deal he did. Jean Renoir set many of his films in his father's century, with its lovely long dresses, the long leisurely days, but Jean told modern stories with moving pictures that often appear on lists of the greatest films of all times. The legendary French directors who followed him - Truffaut, Godard - called him Le Patron, the boss, just what painters called his father. Film curator Matthieu Orlean heard a revealing story about legacy, father and son. In the 1950s, an actor went to Jean's Hollywood house. The director offered to show one of his movies. Something pretty symbolic happened. An oil by Jean's father hung on one wall. Jean pushed a button, and just in front of the painting, a screen came down from the ceiling.

ORLEAN: ...Hiding Pierre-Auguste Renoir's painting.

STAMBERG: So the Jean Renoir film covers...

ORLEAN: Exactly.

STAMBERG: ...The Pierre-Auguste Renoir painting.

ORLEAN: Exactly.

STAMBERG: But still, on the wall just across from the film screen, another Renoir, a glorious painting, remained in full view. Growing up in the shadow of genius, loving the genius, extending it into a modern medium - that's the theme of "Renoir: Father And Son" at Philadelphia's Barnes Foundation through early September. I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAKENOBU'S "CANALES (DREAMS ADAPTATION)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.