When ranting about his profound contempt for Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Max Geller frequently returns to the word “treacle.”
The French Impressionist painter’s renderings of bourgeois leisure are shamelessly “treacly”; his portraits of doll-faced young girls are “fluffy treacle”; his misogynistic portraits of women “traffic in the most treacly pallets”; his entire oeuvre is a “steaming pile of treacle.”
Geller, a 31-year-old Brooklyn resident, began voicing his aversion to Renoir six months ago on Instagram under a humorous account with an unsubtle title: @Renoir_sucks_at_painting. Soon a debate over Renoir’s artistic merits raged in comments on the account, inspiring Geller to take action. This month, he galvanized a group of fellow Renoir haters to confront the art establishments that devote wall space to Renoir’s treacle, beginning with the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
There, members of the grassroots Renoir Sucks at Painting (RSAP) movement hoisted signs that read, “ReNOir,” “Aesthetic Terrorism,” and “God Hates Renoir,” a subversive nod to Westboro Baptist Church protests.
Last weekend, some two dozen RSAP members stormed the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, which houses 19 Renoirs in its permanent collection.
Tensions mounted when counter-protesters showed up, including one man who compared RSAP to another group of people who censored art they didn’t care for: Nazis.
Speaking to The Daily Beast on Tuesday, Geller insisted that, contrary to RSAP’s provocative posters calling for museums to “Remove All Renoir” and their petition to the White House to “Remove all of the literally awful Renoir paintings hanging in the National Gallery in DC,” the group does not want to see Renoir’s paintings banned from these hallowed institutions. Carted away after a “democratic” vote, maybe, but not banned.
“I’m not trying to censor Renoir from any museum; I am trying to get museums like the Met to critically assess the paintings they’re putting on their walls,” he told me.
This brings him to the problem with venerating Renoir’s treacle (or any treacle, for that matter): doing so is “fundamentally contradictory to the mission of fine art museums,” he said. We rely on these cultural authorities to distinguish substantive art from non-substantive art, and Geller believes they’re failing us when it comes to Renoir.
Not that Geller himself respects these cultural authorities. Who are they to dictate what’s valuable, anyway? Why does their educated opinion matter any more than the layman’s opinion?
Given Geller’s passionate distaste for Renoir, one might assume he'd be somewhat of an authority on the subject--that he would have more than an Art History 101 knowledge of the artist and his Impressionist peers.
But Geller told me he “wouldn’t pass that final if I took it today.”
He’s like Max Fischer, the young hero and tireless showman in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, who has hardly any knowledge of subjects he frequently—and often superciliously—references. Neither one would be charming were he not so excessively earnest.
“My contempt for Renoir stems from the poor quality of his work that’s uniformly bereft of any emotional force whatsoever,” Geller said. Indeed, one doesn’t need a Ph.D. to convince others of his (un)informed opinion.
Geller studied social movements in college and works as a political organizer in New York City, though, excepting RSAP, he declined to say who he organizes for.
Despite his disdain for cultural authorities, Geller is rather impressed with himself for managing to engage them in debate. “I will say that I have been denounced by two Pulitzer Prize-winning art critics,” he told me, including the Boston Globe’s Sebastian Smee, who called the MFA demonstration “sophomoric.”
But Geller insists he’s “very committed to the democratization of beauty”; that he has been misinterpreted as a “smarmy art nerd” when in fact he’s out to challenge the smarmy art nerds.
“It’s all well and good for an art scholar to agree with me that Renoir isn’t very good,” Geller said, referring to The Atlantic’s Kriston Capps, “but he’s still on the walls of every museum.”
After the Met, Geller’s next target—the crown jewel for the movement—is The Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, which houses “more than 140 Renoirs, room after room of fluffy Renoirs, none of which are fit for human consumption,” he said.
One need only glance at Geller’s RSAP Instagram account to see that his Renoir hatred is partially motivated by his progressive political views. Renoir, he writes in various captions, was a “white supremacist,” an “Orientalist,” and a “misogynist.”
“There are 19 Renoirs on view at the Met. I don’t think there are 19 paintings by any single female artist [in their permanent collection],” he told me. (The Met did not respond to requests to fact-check the second figure.)
It would be an “orgiastic victory” for the RSAP movement if the Met removed just one of Renoir’s paintings from their collection, Geller said.
And what should go in its place, I ask.
He suggests a work by Tamara De Lempicka, the Polish Art Deco painter--or anyone who isn’t a “white male painter.”
As much as Geller has it in for Renoir, dismantling his revered position in the art canon is just the beginning.
“In a Leninist tilt, I would say it’s the first in the Long March towards addressing cultural hegemony, which is a long-term ambition of the movement,” he said, making sure I understand I’m meant to capitalize the L and M of “Long March.”
“That’s what cultural justice means to us.”