A makeover show — without ground force

    Renoir said a terrible thing once. “The purpose of painting,” he announced, “is to decorate the walls. Therefore, it has to be as rich as possible.” It’s a terrible thing to say, not because it is entirely untrue, but because it betrays such a cynical and pragmatic cast of mind. There are plenty of artists around who believe the purpose of art is to change the world, and perhaps they are being foolish in the opposite direction. But what would you rather see? A high-jumper who falls on his head going for a world record, or a high-jumper who looks superb clearing the same height he always clears?

    Not that the National Gallery’s examination of Renoir’s landscapes confronts us with any choices as clear-cut as that. What a messy show. Its defining moment arrived, for me, as early as the fourth picture. At last, some clear originality, I hummed to myself, as I homed in on a relaxed bathing scene in which dappled sunlight was falling on a gaggle of chattering Parisians, larking about by the Seine. Then I looked at the label. It was a Monet.

    Heaven knows what it is doing here, but as the only intrusion by a foreign artist in this blurred and confusing display, it manages to make immediately clear what Renoir’s landscapes had been lacking – and, more worryingly, would continue to lack in the rooms ahead. Form would be the stern art-historical word for it. Shape might be the colloquial version. No matter which language you prefer, with landscape, you need to know where you are. And with Renoir, inevitably, you don’t.

    His default mode is to be all over the place. Whether he’s painting a bather or a tree or a field of sweet peas, it seems not to matter. Those tiny flashing brush strokes of his dart busily this way and that, changing direction as abruptly as a school of sardines. And, unfortunately, the lack of focus that is Renoir’s abiding shortcoming is exaggerated here by factors beyond his control.

    This is supposed to be a chronological survey of Renoir’s landscapes between 1865 and 1883. But the chronology jumps wildly between pictures. One moment, you’re in 1879. Two pictures later, you’re back in 1876. Then it’s forward to 1881. It is not pedantic to complain of this lack of resolve. These are the critical years of impressionism. Everything changed in these years; and sometimes the minute shifts in direction, as Monet did this and Renoir did that and Pissarro did the other, were only days apart, even hours. So to be as cavalier as this event is with whole slabs of decades is shoddy exhibition-making at best, and worthless exhibition-making at worst. The reason they’ve done it, of course, is that some Renoirs look better over here than they do over there. To hell with the chronology: design considerations have overwhelmed issues of scholarship and sense. This is not, after all, Neil MacGregor’s rigorous National Gallery of old, but Charles Sau-marez Smith’s appearance-mad National Gallery of today. Alas, Renoir’s colour schemes are just as fidgety as his chronology. Colour-wise, the show also darts about maddeningly. And the extreme sensitivity of the impressionist landscape to situation and lighting makes for some grizzly tonal mismatches.

    If a landscape has, for instance, belonged to a collector who smokes, then it will have across it a cataract of nicotine staining that creates a completely different effect from the crisp colour contrasts of a perfectly preserved museum flower piece. So glaring are some of the leaps in tonality, you can hardly believe they are the handiwork of the same artist.

    Thus, the whole show skips here and there as inconclusively as – well, as a Renoir. It wasn’t, of course, supposed to be like that. The stated aim of this wonky parade is to “return attention to the artist as a linchpin of modern painting at its most audacious”. To which I say: dream on.

    Renoir learnt his surface skills early in life, when he went to work in a china factory at the age of 13. He painted flowers onto plates and profiles of Marie Antoinette onto cups. The experience filled him with an assortment of skills and attitudes he never abandoned. That sense you always get with Renoir that he’s incapable of real breadth because the brush he uses is too tiny is surely a legacy of the porcelain factory. Some of his most interesting colours, the really acid ones, are definitely porcelain colours. Occasionally, he works on a pure white ground to give the paint extra luminosity: a porcelain trick. Most important, his instincts as a decorator seem so often to be at odds with the need to tell the truth about the place he’s looking at. The lack of substance at the heart of Renoir, the feeling you get that all he really wants to communicate is casual optical pleasure, was born, I’m sure, in the porcelain factory.

    Renoir himself was rather unfussed about landscape painting, seeing it as a lesser activity than his figure painting. But this display disagrees, and has set out to prove how far ahead he was of his impressionist comrades in his inventiveness and his audacity. Interestingly, even though this arrangement makes it difficult to be certain where and until when he is an impressionist, I think I’m right in claiming that he’s at his most compelling when he isn’t producing classic impressionism.

    Landscape at Wargemont is, for me, the show’s most remarkable image. It doesn’t show boating on the Seine or the apple trees in his garden, but a field near Dieppe, where he was staying in a chateau in 1879. Renoir has climbed a hill that looks down on a snaking rural path and beyond it towards an unworldly purple horizon. The spatial confusion that can be so annoying with him serves here to give the scene an unnatural, even cosmic air. You don’t quite know where you are in this ecstatic expanse. You might even be flying across it towards a mauve ocean. It’s a remarkable painting, not because it evokes a specific place, but precisely because it doesn’t.

    Back at the start of the show, the reason Renoir emerges so slowly is that he is such an obvious mimic. The first landscape is clearly a reworking of Corot, the second slavishly follows Courbet, Renoir Landscapes, National Gallery, WC2, until May 20 and so on. Once I’d overcome my confusion at the unexpected Monet, I noted that the adjacent view, which really is by Renoir and which was painted on the same spot and the same day, is trying to copy Monet’s brush strokes. At the other end of the show, Renoir turns to Cézanne for guidance, and some substantial geometry briefly enters his landscape and gives it shape. The startling picture next to it, from 1882, is a crashing close-up of a wave, worthy, in its swirling expression-istic blobbiness, of Van Gogh. It’s a great picture, and certainly proves Renoir was adventurous.

    But there aren’t nearly enough such pictures here. On this evidence, Renoir was an inconsistent and casual talent who does not deserve his lofty impressionist reputation. He must have had some inkling of this, because, after the events presented here, he turned almost exclusively to figure painting. With various impressionist shows coming up this year, this might be a useful occasion on which to reexamine our understanding of the entire movement. From this display, it’s clear that impressionism was – shock horror – a hit-and-miss affair.