WASHINGTON, D.C. — An enchanting couple twirling in each other’s arms greets visitors to the Corcoran Museum. The dancers, a sculptural rendition of Renoir’s “Dance in the Bougival,” offer a towering, but whimsical welcome and introduction to the new J. Seward Johnson Jr. exhibit inside.
In Beyond the Frame, Impressionism Revisited, Johnson takes 19th-century masterpieces and transforms them into three-dimensional tableaux. Johnson’s interpretations are life-size scenes beckoning you to explore. Each piece has a “sweet spot,” marked by a pair of footprints, allowing viewers to see a close estimation of the original painting in three dimensions. Move from that spot, and the works are sheer Johnson invention. With the help of a team of artists, he has continued the sculptures beyond the borders of the framed paintings, imagining the scenery and details that might have surrounded the original artwork.
By taking artistic license with the details “beyond the frame,” Johnson, for better or worse, makes each sculpture his own. Some additions are historical, most are humorous. He has quite literally painted himself into Renoir’s “The Luncheon of the Boating Party,” seating himself and three of his contemporaries at a table that would not be visible in Renoir’s original (invisible from Johnson’s “sweet spot”). In the reincarnated version, which Johnson has renamed “Were You Invited?,” one of the partygoers looks down sternly on Renoir’s inebriated group of party crashers.
He also has fun with Manet’s “Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe.” Johnson recreates a nude woman sitting among two fully clothed men, having a picnic in the forest. While walking through the sculpture, a book opened to a picture of Manet’s original becomes visible in the grass. Only then is it clear what Johnson is doing, and the title of Johnson’s work makes sense: “Dejeuner Déjà vu.”
Rendering masterpieces in three dimensions is a tough task, however, and many of the sculptures lack the mystique of the originals. In addition, some of Johnson’s inside jokes fall flat. The artist’s sense of humor is bawdy and his sex-laced insertions are often heavy-handed. Following Johnson’s lead, we are to suppose that Manet missed that the discomfort of one of his sitters was caused by a man’s hand on her backside, that Renoir did not capture one of his models playing footsie with a suitor under the table, and that Monet’s wife was slyly exposing her thighs while allowing her husband to paint her Japanese robe.
For the most part, though, Johnson’s humor works-especially in regard to perspective. Johnson warps and distorts the sculpture to produce the original perspective in the “sweet spot.” The outcome is amazing. The artwork changes as you move through it. Shapes and bodies that seemed perfectly normal head-on become surprisingly twisted out-of-shape.
Despite it’s flaws, Beyond the Frame is worth a visit. Moving through Johnson’s perspective trickery is truly fascinating. The freedom to walk through these pieces, examining — and touching — the artwork up-close, puts Johnson’s work in a unique league. In a way, with the absence of velvet ropes, it is an anti-museum experience. Adults should enjoy seeing these Impressionist masterpieces come to life, and kids will love the rare hands-on opportunity in an art museum. The exhibit will run through the end of the year, but anyone with children might want to take advantage of “Free Family Day” this Saturday from 10-5. (One note to parents: True to the originals, there is some nudity.) Though his work is much more well known then his name, with this show added to his tremendous opus, J. Seward Johnson Jr. has (literally) made a place for himself at a table among some greats.
(Beyond the Frame, Impressionism Revisited will be showing at the Corcoran Museum of Art from September 13 through January 5. The museum is located at 1701 E Street, N.W. Washington D.C. For general information, call (202) 639-1700.)