Bienvenue au Musée Renteria

Like many modern painters, the extremely famous Renteria had issues with women. Our writer shares a guide he picked up at Renteria’s museum.

‘I am the greatest painter of the kind of paintings I like to paint,’ Jose Maria Renteria said with typical bravado in the summer of 1916. Although it caused a stir across Europe at the time, that claim was never more true than in the middle 1970s, when the master was working primarily in the medium of uncooked fish and Fonzie stickers.

When Renteria died in Provence in 1978, he left 34 heirs spread among 11 wives and almost 90 mistresses. A devout Communist for most of his life (until 1974, when he joined the board of Monsanto Corporation), the prolific Renteria never allowed a single painting to be sold during his lifetime and so left his loved ones penniless—penniless, that is, except for his work, worth a fortune on the international auction market once Renteria was dead and unable to threaten his children with lighted matches and tequila.

Enter the French government, according to whose calculations the suddenly marketable Renteria estate owed over seven billion francs in taxes. A generous settlement was negotiated, armed guards confiscated all of the artist’s possessions, and the Musée Renteria was born.

Whether you are an educated scholar of modern art or an American who wandered in thinking this was a quaintly appointed Virgin Megastore, we hope this Visitor’s Guide will help you understand how Renteria became such a towering 20th Century figure and will enhance your appreciation of this treasured collection.

Girl with Glass in Face
April 1908

Often when looking at one of Renetria’s more experimental works, you will hear a comment by the ignorant or the foolish: ‘My nine-year-old could paint better than that.’ Such flippancy is refuted by the technical skill in this early painting, done in the style of Velasquez. Completed when he was only 17 (and some seven years before he moved permanently from Spain to France), this oil-on-canvas depicts a delicate young señorita, her lavender dress suspended as if by a marionette’s wires from her slight frame. She holds a fan in her left hand, perhaps to cool her at the afternoon bullfights Renteria so dearly loved, and her face is horribly and permanently disfigured by protruding shards of colored glass. Note that at this nascent stage of his career, the master was still signing work with his clown name, Humpy.

Seated Nude
Summer 1924

Arguably the two greatest mysteries in Western art are ‘Why is the Mona Lisa smiling?’ and ‘Why are the Seated Nude’s ears bleeding?’ The first question may never be answered and experts are generally of two minds about the second. If the model for Seated Nude was Renteria’s mistress Jacqueline, then it is probably because of a cochlear infection that tormented her since childhood. If the model was his second wife Michelle, however, it’s no doubt because earlier that day he had hit her in the head with a stocking full of shoe buckles.

Lovers on Rue de Rivoli
December 1939

Renteria often said he considered the perfect representation of man to be the bull—fearsome, virile, and prone to outbursts of rage—while the perfect representation of woman is a disemboweled woman.

Hooray for Stalin
March 1944

Of the 3,000 paintings, sculptures, ceramics, and collages Renteria created in his lifetime, he disavowed almost 2,500. In this, one of many explicitly political works from his ‘Uncongenial Period,’ we see a self-portrait of the artist offering the Soviet dictator a baby to eat, and a frowning Stalin pushing the baby away. The artist’s head is turned smugly toward the viewer as if to say, ‘See? Stalin does not eat the baby even when the baby is placed right in front of him.’ Over the years, Renteria not only expressed regret over this painting, he produced a series of clarifications including Still Standing by Stalin (1947), Stalin: The Least of Many Evils (1953), and finally in 1965, the famous watercolor Stalin’s $4.99 All-You-Can-Eat Baby Brunch.

Marie with Pillow
Spring 1955

This portrait of Renteria’s sixth wife Marie depicts her as a nude reclining on a settee under an open window in their Rhone Valley cottage. Her image is idealized—fleshy thighs, rounded calves, long fingers—so one assumes this is Marie as she appeared when Renteria fell in love with her, the young libertine he first met in Holland in 1952. In fact, the only evidence this was painted near the end of their marriage is the presence of the artist’s hands entering from the left side of the canvas to smother her with a pillow.

The Purser, His Wife, and His Wife’s Slutty Friend from Ceramics Class
November 1969

Renteria explored the subjects of passion and lovemaking with gusto in the 1960s. Some speculate this was a sign of his advancing age, recognition of his mortality and, perhaps, the specter of impotency (he was 78 when this work was completed). However, in the master’s own correspondence (available by appointment in the museum library), he points to a more practical reason: ‘Playboy now costs over five francs,’ he wrote to Picasso in 1964. ‘Plus, you can’t purchase just the Playboy or you look like a big perv. You have to buy the Time Magazine, the breath mints, a copy of Le Monde…Not that I don’t find your Seated Woman with Hat sexy, but sometimes you put the boobies in the wrong place…’

The Crucifixion
Spring 1971

At this stage in his career, it’s surprising to see Renteria working with a religious subject. In fact, most of his works during this period concerned the television show Adam-12. Renteria was never really known as a ‘reader,’ and his ignorance of the Bible is evident throughout this piece. Note that the Roman soldiers are beating Jesus with a phone book and are playing the board game Clue. Also, Christ is nailed, not to two perpendicular boards in the shape of a cross, but to an absurdly expensive gift pen.

Water Pitcher, Tin Can, Ian Fleming Paperback, and Dice
July 1978

Although this became Renteria’s most famous installation (as his final work, it has been widely celebrated in textbooks and traveling exhibits), it’s unclear whether it is a carefully arranged tableau in the Dadaist mode, or just things he had on the bedside table when he finally succumbed to syphilis. Likewise, Head Of Snarling Woman (macaroni on paper plate, 1964) might not be ‘the master’s most realized expression of his gender-related angst’ (as claimed by the Art Institute of Chicago), but possibly something a desperate Renteria, home alone with his children, slapped together frantically with glue in an attempt to stop babies from crying.