Jean Renoir parle de son art

I copied down these words of Jean Renoir, originally spoken in French of course, from the subtitles accompanying an interview that Jacques Rivette did with Renoir in the 1960s. The program was called, “Jean Renoir parle de son art.”

We know that in the history of all the arts the arrival of perfect realism coincided with perfect decadence. Earlier I used the example of Greek art. There are many examples. That one came to mind. Forgive me if I repeat myself. Fr example, the art of tapestry. The first known tapestry was the Bayeux Tapestry. Queen Matilda and her ladies passed their time weaving a tapestry while her husband William conquered England. Obviously the wool she used was very primitive, probably greasy. The dyes were very primitive, probably vegetable based, some maybe mineral based. Only a limited palette of colors was used in this tapestry, yet this tapestry is probably one of the most beautiful in the world. Moving ahead several centuries, tapestries are still very primitive. For example, the Apocalypse tapestries of Angers. We see before us a marvelous world, not a dream world but a real world. The characters in the tapestry are modern. Every day on the street you meet people like the saints, kings, queens, sinners and angels in the tapestry. And god knows the technique was primitive! One fine day, good King Henry IV makes a huge blunder and kills the art of tapestry, kicks it in the head, with Sully. Which makes me wonder if the legends aren’t complete fibs. Henry IV’s stupidity about tapestries makes me doubt all the legends about his goodness. This is what he did. High-warp tapestry was invented, replacing low warp, and it became possible to interweave the threads in a more subtle manner. At the same time, enormous progress had been made in dyes. The king decided to fund and elevate those making high-warp tapestries. The art of tapestry advanced, increasingly capable of imitating nature. Soon it was no longer necessary to simplify patterns for tapestries. They copied paintings, almost perfect likenesses of paintings by Boucher or Watteau. Today, tapestry is capable of total realism. Every shade is possible. Ten shades of green. All the shades of blue in the sky, from that of a pale cloud to deep blue. All types of nuance. The outcome? Tapestry is finished. Now, artists like Lurçat try to artificially revive tapestry by shunning realism. Alas, something tragic occurs. It’s an artificial attempt. It doesn’t give us the Bayeux Tapestry. It sometimes makes me wonder whether man’s gift for beauty isn’t in spite of himself. His intelligence — what a devastating force! Intelligence is terrible. It makes us do stupid things. What if intelligence pushes us towards ugliness? What if intelligence makes us slaves, admirers of all that is ugly? What if our tendency to imitate nature is simply a tendency towards ugliness? The things we choose to imitate in nature aren’t the most beautiful. I wonder whether in primitive times all objects, not just art, were beautiful. It’s a disturbing question. When we look at ancient Etruscan pottery, it’s all beautiful. And don’t tell me that every Etruscan potter was a genius! Why is it that when technique is primitive, everything is beautiful, and when technique is perfected, almost everything is ugly — except things created by an artist talented enough to overcome technique? It’s a disturbing question. This makes me wonder, in relation to our discussion on the performing arts, I wonder if our technical advances don’t simply herald complete decadence. Technical perfection can only create boredom, because it only reproduces nature. Imagine we are able to perfectly recreate a forest with cinema. We can recreate the thickness of the bark on the trees. The screen is even larger. It surrounds the audience. We are really in the middle of the forest. We can touch the trees and smell the scent of the forest. There will be machines to emit the subtle odor of moss. What will happen? People will ride a scooter to a real forest and not to the movies. Why the hell would anyone go to a movie when they could have the real thing? So imitating nature can only lead to the death of an art form.


I can only regret that film grain becomes finer. We are filmmakers, so let’s admit one thing. Study the photography of primitive films. Study The Great Train Robbery, the first American western. Study the phtoography in Max Linder’s films. In general, it’s superb! The contrast is a great success. I regret the advances in film stock. When I was young, I fought to film in panchromatic on the set. I was the first to use it, I made my own equipment. At the Vieux Colombier theater, I had made a studio in the attic to shoot The Little Match Girl on panchromatic film stock. At the time, panchromatic was used outside, and orthochromatic inside. Studio lighting was designed for orthochromatic film: arc lamps and mercury vapor tubes. I wondered, why not use panchromatic, which is more subtle? It produces a range of grays that translate intermediary colors and reds. It avoids the ugly contrasts of orthochromatic, which could veer from white to black. Why not try panchromatic inside? It wasn’t used because the lamps didn’t emit the right wavelengths. They didnt emit the spectrum to which panchromatic film is sensitive. So I studied the problem — rather vaguely, because I’m not very scientific. Finally I came across someone from Philips, who produce lamps and electrical systems, and they advised me to slightly boost ordinary light bulbs. So I tried it. I made the equipment with friends. We had reflectors cut out of sheets of zinc. We made rheostats out of bits of twisted metal. We regulated the current by moving the contacts. Finally, we shot The Little Match Girl, and the photography wasn’t bad. It was good. We developed the film ourselves. We were amateurs, but it was very interesting. Today I realize that I was acting against my deepest beliefs. Back then, I believed in progress. Now i don’t at all. At present, the photography of many films is very beautiful, very clean, very real, but absolutely boring and banal. you can be bored phtographically when watching a technically perfect film. Today the most perfect films are also the most boring photographically. How can this be explained unless, as i said before, progress works against art and artistic expression? It’s the only explanation. How else can you explain the thrilling photography in primitive films?

It’s extremely troubling that when we examine the history of art, we discover that the average object in a technically advanced era is ugly. The only exceptions are the great artists. This means we live in an era when one must be a great artist or nothing. That’s terrible, in my opinion. It removes from everyday experience the possibility of artistic creation that can be present in every action. In ancient times, it existed in daily actiities, in the way a fire was lit. Now we don’t have the time. We have to rush to the office to earn a living. Obviously we had other problems before: no hospitals or anesthesia, and childbirth was painful. Now it’s not. Thats a big difference. Fine. But we’re not discussing the pros and cons of progress in general. I’m talking about the way progress affects art. It’s possible that in a nontechnical era, each action was an artistic act. To light a fire, one had to arrange the wood to draw air correctly, and if it wasn’t done well, using a process that resembles tha of artistic creation, the fire simply wouldn’t light.
…we’ve finally arrived at the big question, intelligence and the senses….

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