Saturday, March 29, 2014

Awash in Frogs

Mon dieu, it's been a French-themed weekend.

The lovely Pru had made reservations for us to attend the artist talk for the new exhibit at Chasen Gallery, notable because the prints being shown had some awfully recognizable signatures on them.

Manet. Chagall. Miro. Cassatt. Degas. Picasso. And while, sure, there were price tags of $44K and $69K, there were also some in the $2K-$5K range, which I have to assume is quite affordable.

But the evening's excitement came courtesy of artist Alexandre Renoir, great-grandson of Pierre Auguste Renoir, and his thickly textured paintings hung in half the gallery space.

Arriving in the pouring rain, we left our dripping umbrellas near the stern-faced security guard, turned around and were faced with a large Picasso drawing.

And about a zillion people. It was slow going through the room to admire the prints and paintings and we didn't get far before the handsome Alexandre took up his place in a paint-stained apron next to an easel with a painting loosely sketched out on it.

His intention was to work on the painting while we milled about, but first he said, he was going to get some wine.

That gave me time to move around, admiring the whimsical Chagalls, marveling at the Rembrandt sketch, coveting a Manet print and discussing with Pru the magnificent framing job on everything. Linen mats and elaborately unique frames showed off each work to perfection.

Alexandre's paintings were distinctively impressionistic yet contemporary, with recognizable imagery and thick applications of vibrantly colored paint carved into the canvas.

The most striking of all his work, in my opinion, was a series he'd done isolating figures from Renoir's masterpiece, "Luncheon of the Boating Party" in individual drawings that owed much to the original but were distinctively his own.

It was like seeing old friends in a new light.

When he was ready to begin his talk, no announcement was made. He just wandered over to the easel and began.

After putting on latex gloves like a proctologist would, he picked up a fat tube of paint and started talking about Winsor-Newton paints and how much he liked them.

Then it occurred to him that many in the room did not have any conception of the link between Impressionism and pre-mixed paints and he laid out the difficulty of trying to paint "en plein air" when you still had to go back to your studio to mix colors, a problem solved by ready colored tubes.

If this sounds dry or boring, I can assure you it wasn't.

Alexandre was not only handsome but humorous, knowledgeable and exceedingly comfortable in front of a crowd. In fact, he played to it, taking questions from lacquer-haired old ladies and cracking wise every chance he got.

One wanted to know his past and present - born in the south of France, grew up in northwest Canada and now living in southern California- while a man asked if he'd always used a palette knife instead of a brush for paint application (no).

Naturally someone asked what he thought of the film "Renoir," which Pru and I had seen at last year's French Film Fest and which Alexandre has yet to see.

One of his complaints about what he'd heard was how the film had compressed information about his father and two brothers, all of whom turned their artistic souls to the newest art form, cinema.

Well, if the book is always better than the movie, surely the real life is better than either.

When asked if he had any of his great grandfather's works or sketches, he explained that his father and uncles had liquidated the entire estate to finance their filmmaking.

"But I got all his furniture," Alexandre said. "And his easel." How satisfying must that be?

Someone asked about his great grandfather's days painting Limoges porcelain and how fast he was at it given his talent, resulting in a hilarious story.

He said when bicycles with gears came out, Renoir ran out to buy one, eager for speed, but shortly fell off and broke his right arm, the one he painted with.

"He immediately began painting with his left hand just as beautifully and delicately," Alexandre said.

Was he ambidextrous, a woman inquired. No, stubborn, his great grandson answered. "During that time he was known as Monet."

Major art lover laughter at that crack.

He talked about what great friends Monet and Renoir were, right down to using a similar curlicue brushstroke and even sometimes helping each other finish a commissioned work to meet a deadline.

The man was full of impressionist gossip and great stories.

After he announced that he was going to stop taking questions and mingle for a while, one more woman raised her feeble hand to ask if he and his great grandfather had ever talked about art.

Patiently, Alexandre explained that Renoir had died in 1919, a fact he'd already mentioned, and that he'd been born in 1974. "I hope I don't look that old," he joked to her.

Don't worry, dearie. It's easy to lose track of time when you're listening to a witty Frenchman talk about art history.

Or maybe that's just me.

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