Thursday, May 21, 2009


If you grew up in the Philly area like I did, you had the good fortune of living in proximity to some great Cézannes -- in the collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, at the Barnes Foundation, in NYC at the Met and MoMA, in DC at the National Gallery -- so the notion of going to a show like Cézanne and Beyond (at the Philadelphia Museum of Art) might give you a certain ‘been there, done that’ feeling. Not so. I saw the show yesterday and fell in love again with the man who invented modern painting.

The show sets thirty to forty Cézannes against works by later artists who can claim the Master as a major influence. There are some great pairings, à la those Art History exams where two slides are set side-by-side and your task is to identify both and write an essay comparing them. My favorite, on that score, was Mondrian’s Ginger Jar still-life next to a Cézanne which also prominently featured a large jar. And the Jasper Johns painting on a table drawer took on extra aura situated next to a Cézanne still-life with a similar drawer, and a Giacometti painting of a table with drawers, topped by a solitary orange. (The Giacometti, by the way, was stunning and is in the possession of the Met, though I can’t recall ever seeing it on exhibit before.)

On first entering the exhibit, I was primarily interested in the painters other than Cézanne (didn’t I already know all I needed to know about the latter?), and learned that, in the 1920s, Arshile Gorky was able to knock-off still-lifes of fruit and views of buildings that were dead-ringers for Cézanne’s style of the 1870s-80s, no mean feat (and so I’m looking forward to the Philly museum’s Gorky retrospective, coming this October). But not engaging immediately with the Cézanne paintings may have had more to do with the fact that I entered the exhibit at about 11:30, when a drove of people did, most of whom sported headphones and devices allowing them to listen to commentary, which meant they pretty much stood en masse in front of whichever painting they first came to that was included on their walky-talky thingy. Eventually, intrepid art admirer that I am, I was able to doubleback and get a gander at paintings formerly obscured by thick crowds of staring listeners. (The funniest moment, to me, came when I’d spent ten minutes or so fully engaged by a Cézanne landscape only to turn from my corner perch to find a dozen or more people all looking at my painting.)

My favorite area of the exhibit was a little corridor identified on the brochure as “Toward Abstraction,” featuring a Cézanne landscape I’d never seen before in person (though it’s owned by the Baltimore Art Museum). No paintings in this area had ‘talk’ symbols and so were largely ignored. The Baltimore St. Victoire was a standout with its abstract layering of planes of space in the foreground; not yet become a mosaic of broken planes as in the later St. Victoire paintings, the areas of this landscape read like distinct painterly treatments, risking here and there stylized incoherence that was offset by naturalistic color overall and patches of naturalisitc rendering, particularly in the sky and in the distant mountain. The overlap of those distinct areas produced a fascinating landscape that, like the wonderful still-life (from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris) with piles of fruit and energetic, mountainous swatches of cloth, was a wonder of emerging and receding forms and of effects of color. In the d’Orsay still-life the contrast between the colorful drape (a background that contained the entire display, but for a small glimpse of table) and the white tablecloth bunched and draped beneath stray fruit and a display plate lifted against an abyss of colored shapes (including what seemed to be a house in the distance) was a disquisition on the relations of forms to color in painting. Also not to be missed is “Large Pine and Red Earth” from The Hermitage in St. Petersberg, a painting the like of which I’d never seen, where the bravura treatment of foliage (always remarkable in Cézanne) renders tight, mosaic-like patterns irradiating from and framing a central tree that literally bridges earth and sky.

In the furthest room were a number of landscapes, from the 1870s to the 1890s to the 1900s, most from the area of St. Victoire. The Jasper Johns paintings placed in this room helped to underscore a point that I seem never quite willing to relinquish: to some degree, mastery of the art of painting is about the skill of applying paint, is about the touch in handling the brush. The Johns paintings looked like hamfisted mockeries -- as indeed they are, mockeries of Abstract Expressionism -- and so rather out of place in a room with canvases where the Master takes apart painting, while still painting masterfully.

After leaving the exhibit, I went over to the museum’s permanent collection to revisit again that great story in the history of painting (specifically French painting) that takes us from Corot’s lightly feathered trees and chalky landforms in the 1860s, to the groundbreakingly flippant brushstrokes of Manet in the 1870s, to Monet’s miraculous decade, the 1880s, where the rendering of light in painting is re-invented, all of which served to underscore that the paintings I’d just seen in the Cézanne exhibit showed that, in the 1890s, the only game in town was Cézanne.

By the 1900s, Cézanne begins to look too much, for my money, like Matisse, so shamelessly did the later master crib from him, but I had emerged from the exhibit thinking, ‘conjure up what fin-de-siècle fulminations you will, the only reason the 1890s matter, for art, is because that’s when Cézanne achieved his full method.’ Et tout le reste n'est que l’histoire de l’art.

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