Graphic novel: a dreamlike double biography leaves a strong impression

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Renoir: Père et fils is a richly illustrated double biography that tells the story of the famous French painter and his famous director son. It is a wonderful book to look at.

It transported me to another place and another time with its soft, dreamy hues, and did a solid job of balancing the personal history of these two artists with the political contexts in which they developed their talents.

Probably the funniest treat I’ve learned is how the term “impressionism” came about.

Although we consider Pierre-August Renoir – who dated Monet, Cézanne and Degas – to be a legendary artist today, his work has not always been so celebrated. In fact, after a disastrous group exhibition in 1874 in Paris, a critic ransacked their work, calling them “impressionists.”

In what must count as the ultimate act of artistic revenge, they ultimately adopted the term. Their paintings have proven to be immortal.

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Of course, it’s probably not difficult to be an artist when you grow up in the idyllic French countryside.

Throughout the book, the painter describes his evolutionary process. “My technique oscillates between meticulous precision and spontaneous sensation,” he explains at one point. “For me, a painting should be something pleasant, happy and beautiful.”

I especially liked a four panel page without words at the heyday of the book where the creative team of Eddy Simon and Jak Lemonnier bring the French countryside to life – it’s a similar technique to that used by our own Jeff Lemire in his county of Essex.

My only complaint is how sections of the newspaper, like that of a scene where Jean Renoir shoots a film in India in 1950, remain in the original French; my high school language skills are not good enough for me to fully understand these pages.

If there is one common thread running through this volume, published by Pegasus Books, it is the fatherly conception of human beings as a cork floating in a river, tossed by the current. While it doesn’t fit my personal model of human nature, it hasn’t stopped me from appreciating Renoir: Father and Son enormously.

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