” a true Realist exhibition “
Posted by horasio on May 2, 2009
Cézanne and Beyond at the Philadelphia Museum of Art shows a collection of works of art of staggering quality.
Not many exhibitions can be said to change the way you think about art, but Cézanne and Beyond at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the US is one of them. As powerful a show as you are ever likely to see, it brings together 50 paintings, watercolours and drawings by the painter from Aix-en-Provence to hang alongside the work of 18 20th-century artists who fell under his spell.
The roll-call is highly selective but fully international – from Picasso, Braque, Léger and Matisse to Giacometti, Mondrian, Morandi, Gorky, Kelly, Johns, and Marden. Curators Joseph Rishel and Katherine Sachs bring the story up to the present day with photographs by Jeff Wall and a touching conceptual piece by Francis Alÿs. The quality and importance of the works of art they have gathered together in these galleries is so staggering that no private collector or public institution would have loaned their treasures to more than one venue, which means the show won’t travel.
Thematically, the exhibition begins with Cézanne’s memorial exhibition at the Salon d’Automne of 1907 when Braque and Picasso turned away from Fauvism and Primitivism to embark on the exploration of pictorial space that resulted in the first Cubist pictures one year later. In a series of comparisons so convincing that no explanatory labels are necessary, we see Picasso and Braque learning from Cézanne’s landscapes and still lifes to approach a flat canvas as if it had three dimensions. From him, they learn to treat pictorial space as though it were as solid as the stone surface the sculptor carves in high relief. Following Cézanne’s lead, they use parallel brush strokes to build up the innumerable faceted planes out of which volumes and forms mysteriously emerge in early Cubist paintings.
Both artists adopted Cézanne’s slightly elevated viewpoint and his tendency to draw the eye into a picture, then abruptly to flatten the middle distance in order to block spatial recession and so bring the viewer back to the reality of the flat canvas. But the most profound lesson was internalised: the artist’s obligation is to represent as fully as possible the appearance of things not by slavishly copying nature but by capturing the physical sensation of seeing a world that is at once static and eternally changing. For Cézanne knew that the eye registers not only colour, volume and shape but also less tangible realities such as weight, texture and movement.
Another visitor who absorbed the lessons of the landscapes and still lifes he saw in the 1907 exhibition was Matisse. He was also the first major artist to react instantly and passionately to Cézanne’s late images of bathers, especially the giant nudes who fill the large canvases now in the National Gallery in London and in Philadelphia. In the two years 1908 to 1909, he returned to these strange, lumbering creatures with bodies as massive as tree trunks in his Bathers with Turtle and again in the monumental bronze reliefs showing a nude woman from the back. That the work of the Fauvist who painted Luxe, calme, et volupté in 1904-05 did not decline into the decorative inconsequence of his contemporaries Derain or Dufy comes down to his head-on encounter with Cézanne’s monumentality, and in this exhibition we see this happening before our very eyes.
You could easily argue that modernism (or one strand of it, anyway) begins with Cézanne’s struggle to balance pictorial illusion with the need constantly to re-assert the integrity of the picture plane – and so to remind the viewer that the physical surface of the canvas is flat. In his Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair of 1877, the figure sits so close to the picture plane that her hair and feet are cut off by the top and bottom edges of the canvas. She is at once fully three dimensional and curiously flattened, because although we know that her legs are closer to us than her lap and torso, the vertical stripes of her gown don’t give us any indication of where recession into pictorial depth starts.
Picasso was so fascinated by this picture that in his sublime canvas of 1932, The Dream, he flattens the sleeping figure of Marie-Thérèse Walter radically, then goes further than Cézanne by refusing to provide the shadows, receding diagonals or modelling which would indicate that the red armchair and patterned wallpaper (both remembered and quoted from the Cézanne) are further away from us than the figure. Even so, we viewers put space and depth into the picture because, as Cézanne also demonstrated time and again, we see with our minds as well as with our eyes, and we know they must be there.
Cézanne always thought like a sculptor, in three dimensions, which may be why so many painters who also sculpt, such as Matisse, Picasso, Giacometti, and Johns, are fascinated by him. Take, for example, the motif of the slightly open drawer seen from straight on, which in several of Cézanne’s still lifes and in the Card Players from the Metropolitan Museum of Art forms our point of entry into the picture’s fictive space. Both Picasso and Giacometti realise that Cézanne uses the drawer as a formal device through which he can suggest a precise degree of depth that the mind knows is there but the eye cannot see. Jasper Johns finally took the motif to its logical conclusion by inserting a “real” three-dimensional drawer into a canvas of 1957, but because it can’t open – and even if it could it would only be as deep as the canvas – it is only slightly less imaginary than the drawers of Cézanne.
More than any other artist in the show, Johns is fascinated by the pictorial sleights of hand that are so much a part of the infinite mystery of Cézanne’s art. But, along with the American Marsden Hartley, he is also the one who has seen and explored the sensuality of the later nudes. To take one example, in a remarkably explicit series of tracings in ink after a version of Cézanne’s Bathers in his own collection, he transforms one of the figures into a male, whom he shows lost in sexual reverie as he imagines the nudes in the clearing behind him.
You’d think, wouldn’t you, that abstract artists would not have been as fascinated by Cézanne as representational ones. But as Brice Marden said, Cézanne is “the greatest realist and the greatest abstract artist at the same time”. Marden’s three horizontal bands of grey-green and grey-blue were inspired by the almost palpable weight Cézanne gave to the body of water sandwiched between the earth and sky in his view of the Bay of Marseille, Seen from L’Estaque. Ellsworth Kelly lifts a single passage from a Cézanne landscape showing an irregularly shaped patch of blue water, and then enlarges it to create a minimalist canvas in an achingly pure shade of blue, that is at once wholly abstract and not abstract at all.
As you walk through the show, the original insights of Rishel and Sachs keep stopping you in your tracks. They observe, for example, that in painting Mont Sainte-Victoire so frequently, Cézanne created a motif that became so familiar that it functioned like an armature over which he could explore effects of light, texture and colour. In one late view in this show, the whole foreground is a medley of dark green blue and ochre brush strokes that would be incoherent had we not known that he is painting the landscape beneath the mountain we’ve seen so often in other pictures. And here’s the corker: next to it hangs one of Jasper Johns’s maps of the United States, where, just as with Cézanne’s mountains, the image is so well known we don’t have to think about what we are looking at but can concentrate on the wonderful colours and the sensuous brush work.
It is particularly painful to have to leave out Léger and Mondrian in this all-too-superficial overview, but I have to stop writing. Let me just say that this is one of the most important shows I’ve seen in two decades of reviewing for this paper.