Too much sweetness / Never enough sweetness

A smiling woman holding up a large black and white sign reading, "reNOir"
Image: renoir_sucks_at_painting (Instagram)

Today: Arwa Mahdawi, columnist at The Guardian, and author of Strong Female Lead; and Diana Moskovitz, investigations editor, writer, and co-owner of Defector.

Issue No. 88

Renoir, Zionism, and Treacle: A Conversation With Max Geller
Arwa Mahdawi

Molang at Night
Diana Moskovitz

Renoir, Zionism and Treacle: A Conversation With Max Geller

by Arwa Mahdawi

My mum came to visit me in Philadelphia recently and I took her to visit the Barnes Foundation. Which, if you haven’t been, is a beautiful museum with one of the greatest collections of impressionist and post-impressionist paintings around. It also has a hell of a lot of Renoirs. So so so many Renoirs. One hundred eighty-one to be exact: the largest collection in the world.

Anyway, turns out my mum hates Renoir—as she would not stop telling me in a very loud voice as we wandered around. “Shhhh,” I told her after her millionth emphatic UGH. “He’s not that bad.”

But he kinda is, isn’t he? Mr. Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919) is a bit of a dud. Not to mention a misogynist, an antisemite, and a generally objectionable painter and human being. The more you look at his sickly-sweet pictures of female faces, all fat cheeks and glazed eyes, the more you get a bad taste in your mouth. But people love him! Donald Trump loves the guy! (He’s got a copy of Two Sisters on the Terrace in Trump Tower). Is there something my—admittedly untrained—eye is missing?

When I went home I asked Google much the same thing. And, as it turns out, Renoir has got a lot of haters. One of the biggest is Max Geller, an organizer from Massachusetts who went viral with a movement called Renoir Sucks at Painting almost a decade ago. The protest kicked off outside the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston with signs like “GOD HATES RENOIR” and with demands that the painter’s work be taken down and replaced with something better. From there it went global.

As I quickly discovered from the Renoir Sucks at Painting Instagram account, Geller isn’t just anti-Renoir, he’s also a Jewish anti-Zionist who has a lot to say about Israel and treacle. (We’ll get to the treacle later). When he’s not causing Renoir enthusiasts grief, he’s working with Palestine Action to try and shut down the U.K. factories of Israeli weapons manufacturer Elbit Systems. Palestine Action also made headlines recently for damaging a painting of Lord Balfour, who helped create the modern state of Israel, on display at the University of Cambridge.

One of the fun things about being a writer is that if someone sounds interesting you can call them up and ask for a chat. I suppose you can do that if you’re not a writer also—but they might be more inclined to say “Go away, weirdo.” So I called up Geller to discuss Renoir, Israel, and effective activism. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity and so no one gets arrested.

Arwa Mahdawi: When I was looking at all the Renoir paintings in the Barnes, I kept thinking: If those paintings were being sold by some rando on the side of the road, nobody would give them the time of day. So why have we displayed them in museums and given them this veneer of genius?

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