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Renoir: unashamedly out for prettiness. His untroubled views both shocked and enchanted critics of his day

``We have to go back to Watteau to find a painting with the charm that pervades The Swing,'' wrote Georges Rivi`ere in 1877. He was a critic who favored the Impressionists. But when this painting by Renoir (in London through April 21 as part of the first major retrospective of his work here for 30 years) was originally exhibited in Paris that year, it had a mixed reception. Another critic took exception to its ``violent'' use of ``blue.'' Yet another was shocked by the dapple of sun and shade, which, filtering through the foliage, plays over everything -- the path, background figures, two men in the foreground paying court to the pretty young woman about to stand lightly on the swing, and the small child by the tree trunk, looking on in fascinated innocence. This patchy light is an extraordinary and highly adventurous painterly achievement, realized with deftness.

Yet the said critic observed that ``the sunlight effects are combined in such a bizarre fashion that they look like spots of grease on the models' clothes.''

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Most critics today -- and, as is shown by the exceptionally large crowds (130,000 people in the first 29 days) visiting the Hayward, just about everyone else in the world -- would feel that Rivi`ere came closer than the others: ``The Swing'' is indeed pervaded by charm as well as softly modulated sunlight, and harks back to 18th-century French painting -- if not precisely to the gentle, romantic melancholia of Watteau, then to the delightful frivolity that issued from the brushes of Boucher or Fragonard. Renoir himself would have felt perfectly happy with Rivi`ere's assessment: He was unashamedly out for prettiness and enchantment, and he found them above all in the lovely appearance of women. His painterly treatment of women at the time of ``The Swing'' was both as modern subject and modern style. Here was no trace of academic nostalgia.

It is his affection for an 18th-century theme brought up to date.

Renoir's unpretentious world, however -- part and parcel with a deplorably chauvinistic attitude to women that is, in 1985, hard to take even with historical perspective -- at least perplexes some of today's critics. Lawrence Gowing's essay in the show's catalog (a veritable book that amounts to the most thorough examination of the artist yet published) illustrates this paradox confusingly enough. It swings from a description of Renoir's paintings as out-and-out hedonism and sensual indulgence (he even exaggeratedly claims a blatantly erotic motivation for an art that is discreetly unemphatic in this respect, even though Renoir can hardly be accused of being deliberately salacious) to a display of his own pleasurable appreciation of what he terms the ``abundant . . . fruits of Renoir's sentiment.'' And on one hand he calls Renoir a ``great artist,'' while on the other he dismisses him as not one of the ``serious impressionists.''

This paradox was partly Renoir's own. He complained that ``they don't take people seriously who smile,'' and contrasted himself with Pissarro, another Impressionist, by saying: ``When Pissarro painted views of Paris, he always put in a funeral: I would have put in a wedding.'' His persistently untroubled representation of a lighthearted, and even trivial, subject matter does make it hard for a critic who feels that art should be a profounder affair, but who still cannot avoid the fact that Renoir, in his own terms, and in a traditional context, is unsurpassable.

It is said he has had little effect on 20th-century painting, though this may depend on how one rates Bonnard and even Matisse. Boucher had arguably little influence over 19th-century painting in general, but Renoir did not forget him.

Gowing writes that ``what lingers is not cloying sweetness but a freshness that is not entirely explicable.'' The Hayward exhibition persuasively suggests the truth of this, with one or two exceptions. And freshness is not a bad criterion for art.

Even in his late ``heroic'' paintings of women, nude or clothed, entirely serious in their commitment to a long artistic tradition reaching back to Titian and Veronese -- works that a 20th-century sculptor of the basic solemnity of Henry Moore could praise for their ``sculptural grandeur'' -- Renoir's liking for the positive, fruitful sentiments of humanity, for, in fact, the ``female principle,'' overrode anything depressing. He still painted his view of woman as though she has little more intellect than a feline, but she is overtly now a creature of myth, and in these late works he has certainly graduated from earlier kittens to full-grown cats -- perhaps even big cats....

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Though ambitious and extensive, this Renoir retrospective suffers more than most major exhibitions from a difficulty encountered by shows with an international and therefore lengthy schedule. The catalog illustrates every painting to be shown at the exhibition's three venues. But each venue will lack quite a sizable number of various key works. In London we are not shown the fine ``Madame Charpentier and Her Children'' or the supreme ``Luncheon of the Boating Party.''

``Bather'' of 1885, from Williamstown, Mass., a significant work of Renoir's so-called ``sour'' period, will be seen only in Boston (where the exhibition will be staged from Oct. 9, 1985, to Jan. 5 1986). The famous ``Ball at the Moulin de la Galette'' will be seen in Paris only (where it already belongs), which is the retrospective's venue after London, at the Grand Palais from May 14 to Sept. 2.

There seems little doubt, however, that there will be plenty to please Renoir-lovers at all locations. In London this painter, who has been described as loving ``everything that is joyous, brilliant and consoling in life,'' seems very fully represented despite the omissions.

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