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On Monday, beginning around noon, Max Geller led six friends and a couple strangers in a protest at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. The target of their ire? The art of the celebrated French Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, who’s been dead since 1919.
“Rosy cheeks are for clowns, do your job take them down,” they chanted as they stood at the end of the museum’s horseshoe driveway on Huntington Avenue for about an hour. Signs they held read: “Treacle harms society! Remove all Renoir Now,” “God hates Renoir,” “Renoir sucks!”
“When you think about what a fine art museum is and what it’s function is in society, the people in charge of choosing what paintings belong there and what paintings don’t have lost their way,” Geller, who’s from Boston but presently lives in New York City, says afterward. “This is about treacle and its harmful effects on society. I’m certainly not the first one to warn about treacly art being elevated to the fine art museum, but I think I’m the first one to bring it to the fine art museum’s doorstep.
“I would say that every painting in the Museum of Fine Arts is really beautiful,” Geller adds, “except the Renoir ones. … Curators lack the courage to say, ‘Hey, wait, everybody’s been wrong this whole time.’ They’re not looking at the paintings.”
Geller means it all as a joke, of course, but a pointed one.
The beginning of the whole thing, he says, roughly coincides with a visit he paid to the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, a museum sometimes said to have the largest collection of Renoir in the world, at some 181 artworks.
“All the eyeballs look like they’re colored in by Sharpie,” Geller says. “All the backgrounds are very similar and all look like rotting vegetation.” Renoir painted “ugly squiggly lines, but in real life trees are beautiful. That guy sucked at painting.” Ultimately, “When you look at a Renoir painting, you feel nothing at all. It’s just so unnourshing.”
Geller decided to do something about it. So he launched the “renoir_sucks_at_painting“ Instagram account and filled it with cheeky insults of Renoir and photos of people standing in front of Renoir paintings looking sick, or ready to cry, or giving the finger. It’s attracted 1,165 followers. Along the way Geller apparently picked fights over the value of Renoir with the notable New York critic Jerry Saltz and a woman who may be Renoir’s great-great-granddaughter.
In April, he launched a petition at the White House’s website calling on President Obama to “Remove all of the literally awful Renoir paintings hanging in the National Gallery in Washington DC.” Unfortunately, the White House website reports that the petition was “archived” because it only received 12 signatures.
With all the problems in life, why spend your time fighting (even as a joke) to rid the world of Renoir? When he’s not hating on Renoir, Geller says, he’s a political organizer. Basically, this Renoir stuff is a hobby, a way to blow off steam.
Amidst the satire are provocative questions: Who gets to decide what gets featured in museums? What sort of standards should museums follow? How does the judgment of art change over time?
If you probe Geller’s dislike of Renoir, he says Renoir was not only a mediocre painter, but also a bad, anti-Semitic person. He alleges that wealthy, powerful people collected Renoir’s art to whitewash dirty deeds they committed to amass their fortunes—hiring private police forces to violently suppress union organizing, real estate practices that excluded African-Americans from neighborhoods. “They use Renoir to placate the public into not taking action against their usury and avarice,” Geller says. “I want people to know that’s not going unnoticed.”
But to make that point, Geller accuses the Museum of Fine Arts of not being elitist enough.
The Museum of Fine Arts did not reply to an email on Monday seeking its response to the protest. Though as word began to spread about the planned protest a few days ago, the museum posted this comment, attributed to its newly arrived director, Matthew Teitelbaum, to its Instagram account: “Renoir's ‘Dance at Bougival’ on view again at MFA. Joyful leisure. The pleasures of modern life.”
Coincidence? Geller thinks not: “I would consider that pretty provocative.”
The museum hasn’t been shy about its support of Renoir in the past. In 2012, it promoted a chance to see two Renoir paintings temporarily loaned to the museum as “the experience of a lifetime.”
“Do I think it would have been the experience of a lifetime?” Geller asks. “I do not.”