Renoir at the Theatre, Courtauld Gallery – the Sunday Times review

    The Courtauld’s Renoir exhibition reflects an era when the real drama at the theatre took place off stage

    Have you ever gone to the theatre specifically to find someone to seduce? Me neither. And I don’t think that’s because we are sexual retards, or refuseniks d’amour, incapable of orchestrating a campaign of conquest while Connie Fisher warbles on about her edelweiss. I could do it if I had to. No, the modern theatre simply isn’t somewhere conducive to love-fishing, is it? A Gordon Ramsay restaurant, yes. The Azteca Latin Lounge, yes. An art evening class, indubitably. But not, any more, the theatre.

    I tussled with the reasons why this might be as I walked the Courtauld Gallery’s sweet and telling tribute to La Loge, by Renoir, one of the most enticing masterpieces in the gallery’s collection and a picture concerned chiefly with sexual shenanigans at the theatre. What Renoir has done here is to turn the binoculars around so that, instead of the audience staring down at the cast, the cast, as it were, stares up at the audience. The focus of attention is not the drama on the stage, but the intriguing acting going on in the box above the stage.

    La Loge, which means “The Theatre Box”, was unveiled in 1874, at the first impressionist exhibition – where it caused a stir. Who is she, asked the critics of the self-absorbed beauty in the skunkily striped dress. Who is he? And what exactly is going on between them? Today, of course, the audience has no hope of stealing any of theatre’s thunder from the cast. Actors have grown far too precious and remain too fully in awe of their own art to tolerate the public aspects of a night at the theatre. If a man scoured the balconies with binoculars these days as intently as Renoir’s fellow is doing, Richard Griffiths would stop the play and demand that he leave. One of the smaller reasons, therefore, why I admire Renoir’s exquisite raid on the box is that it describes an era when actors knew their place, and the real drama, the serious drama, was unfolding among the paying customers. Bravo, audience.

    Renoir was an uneven artist. The final two-thirds of his career were spent churning out podgy pink nudes and a huge tonnage of vaguely elegant French countryside, dialled up from prêt-à-porter‘s landscape division. Wind back to the beginning of his watch, however, to those first exciting days when the impressionists were inventing themselves, to the moment when La Loge was painted, and you find yourself in the presence of a musketeer with magic fingers. Look at the flurry of extra-quick brush strokes that has created the roses on the bodice of the woman in the box, or the busy string of pearls around her neck. Think of a flock of starlings coming in to roost, darting this way and that, seemingly heading everywhere, but actually heading for the same place. Vermeer, too, was a great painter of pearls, but he was happy to capture the light glowing within them. Renoir captures that light as it flickers around a moving neck. Wow.

    The Courtauld’s show has set out to give La Loge a context. It’s the kind of exhibition that used to be mounted a lot. The National Gallery, for instance, used to run a series of shows called Painting in Focus, whose specific purpose was to single out a masterpiece in the collection and lift it out of the melee for inspection and appreciation. All this useful enlightenment was blasted out of the water, however, when the era of the blockbuster arrived. And today, as the gallery world complains endlessly and annoyingly about its inability to afford new treasures, our national collections belch with old treasures that remain poorly understood. All of them have fascinating stories to tell, if only we would listen.

    Certainly, La Loge is one of those. Renoir may have been the first impressionist to paint the audience at the theatre, but he was definitely not the first Frenchman to take a keen interest in events off stage. A helpful, and sometimes hilarious, archival preamble makes clear that the theatre boxes of Paris had long been a source of wide-scale social fascination. Cartoonists made jokes about them. Fashion illustrators set their displays in them. Magazine writers investigated them. For fully half a century before Renoir’s arrival, the theatre was recognised as a nocturnal playground for the aspiring middle classes. Where today’s newly enriched commodity trader might wander along to a car showroom and pick out a Porsche, in Paris in the 19th century, his equivalent would set off for the theatre and buy a box. To which he invited his wife, or his mistress, or both.

    Renoir’s action is set in a type of box called l’avant-scène, the most expensive box on offer in a typical Parisian auditorium because it was the one nearest the stage. L’Avant-scène was, indeed, this picture’s alternative title, so it’s immediately obvious that money has played a key hand in the scene we are witnessing. The man at the back, who has invited the beauty in the striped dress to share his box, is now ignoring her as he scours the upper galleries with his binoculars. To anyone viewing this picture at the time, it would have been clear that he is looking at other women, because that is what went on in the theatre. The surrounding cartoons speak as one on this subject: men went to the theatre to look at women.

    Renoir was good at painting the kind of woman we see here: a rosy-cheeked country girl ensnared by the city. His model was an artist’s plaything from Montmartre called Nini, whose typically charmless Montmartre nickname was gueule de raie, or “fish face”. She would have been recognised at once as someone not highly born enough to warrant a seat in an avant-scène, as a usurper in the box. This, I suggest, is why there is introspection and sadness in her eyes. She has come with him, but he is looking elsewhere. And you, the audience, staring up at them, know exactly what is going on. La Loge is flanked here by some smaller Renoir sketches on the same theme, and various lesser attempts made by his contemporaries to trap the same elusive theatrical story lines. Mary Cassatt gives us a beefy blonde in pink, gormlessly showing herself off from the theatre’s top row. And there’s a lovely Degas pastel of a woman’s head popping up mysteriously above an ornate parapet.

    Renoir himself returned to the theatre in 1880, to observe a mother and daughter sharing a box at the opera, but by now his touch has grown flaccid and mannered. It’s only four years later, but already this exquisite painter of instants has found that his instant has passed.