Cezanne's Ordinary Brilliance

Welcoming one pensively to the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s marvelous exhibition “Cézanne and Beyond” is the French master’s “The Bather” (c. 1885), familiar for many years as the first painting one saw at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (and still in the first gallery of Yoshio Tanaguchi’s new building). Shown next to it in Philadelphia, though, is Marsden Hartley’s “Canuck Yankee Lumberjack at Old Orchard Beach, Maine” (1940-41), a burly, suntanned object of desire by the sea. The homoerotic Hartley piece, almost as large as its neighbor, has the effect of turning Cézanne’s tentative young man, who had always seemed rather to walk on the water than to put his foot into it, now into an innocent boy—and to show clearly the difference between a good painting and a very great one.

“Cézanne and Beyond” is not a complete survey of the master of Aix-en-Provence’s presence in 20th-century art.  (How could it be? Entire museums strain to show the range of his influence.)  Instead, it is a selective, often rapturous conversation between some 50 paintings and 20 works on paper by Cézanne (1839-1906) and more than 100 pieces by 18 Modernists (Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and Piet Mondrian, among them) and later artists (Arshile Gorky, Ellsworth Kelly, Jasper Johns, Brice Marden, for example) whom he liberated and inspired. Proceeding thematically rather than chronologically, it treats seated figures, still lifes, pictures of women, studio paintings, bathing scenes, landscapes trees and meditations on mortality.


The show’s organizers, Joseph J. Rishel and Katherine Sachs, dedicate its handsome catalogue to the beloved late director of the Philadelphia, Anne d’Harnoncourt, and the introductory essay admits that there are obvious lacunae (with regard to Latin American art in particular). Still, with marvelous loans from the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, the National Gallery in London and many private collections, the exceptional Cézannes alone would carry the show—and there are another 69 at the nearby Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania.

The first thematic grouping, of seated figures, soars, with Cézanne’s “Card Players” (1890-92), “The Smoker” (1890-92) and “Man in a Blue Smock” (1892 or 1897). Ingeniously, the curators have placed Fernand Léger’s “The Mechanic” (1920), a muscular worker with a cigarette, so that his profile directly faces “The Smoker,” whose dignity and strength are rendered with what can only be called reverence. Across the room Ellsworth Kelly’s “Larry” (1947), an oil on paper, presents a smoking young man as the exact reverse of Cézanne’s. Meditatively responding to the other figures in the room are Alberto Giacometti’s three small bronze busts of his brother Diego and an oil portrait of Diego in a red plaid shirt that takes the visual and emotional sense of transience in Cézanne to its existential limit.

Not a natural draftsman, Cézanne could nevertheless evoke personality hauntingly, and never more so than in 40 studies of his longtime companion, Hortense Fiquet. Around “Mme Cézanne in a Red Armchair” (c. 1877), from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the show has gathered women painted by Matisse, Picasso, Max Beckman and another later portrait of Hortense (c. 1886). Pride of place is given to Picasso’s “The Dream (Marie-Thérèse)” (1932), a much-reproduced but rather facile exercise in vivid color and sensuous form lent by Steve Wynn. Equally luxuriant but more expressive is Matisse’s “Woman in Blue” (1937), in which rich decorative patterning surrounds a figure who beautifully commands your attention. Max Beckmann’s strong portrait of his second wife, “Quappi in Blue and Gray” (1944), is hard to imagine without Cézanne’s example.

In another curatorial coup the later painting of Mme. Cézanne is hung on a wall opposite Matisse’s mystery-laden “Mademoiselle Yvonne Landsberg” (1914), done almost in grisaille, with half circles of white springing from her slender body to intimate an undefined presence. (It is puzzling that the exhibition does not include at this point Willem de Kooning’s “Seated Woman” (c. 1940), which is in the Philadelphia’s own collection and is one of the artist’s finest pieces.)

Still lifes and studio paintings relate to each other fluidly, especially since Cézanne, and no painting in the show makes the point more vividly than Matisse’s “Fruit, Flowers, and the Dance” (1909) from the Hermitage, in which the still life on the table in the foreground interacts with the famous painting commissioned by Sergei Shchukin in the background. Matisse’s “Geranium” (1910) pays delicate, luminous hommage to Cézanne, who is honored also by Ellsworth Kelly’s elegant pencil drawings of geraniums (from 2002) and, nearby, three exquisite still lifes by Giorgio Morandi in his typically pale and subtle palette. Two of the greatest paintings in the exhibition, Piet Mondrian’s “Still Life with Ginger Pot 2” (1912) and Georges Bracque’s “Studio V” (1949-50) likewise pay joyous and earnest tribute, respectively, taking Cézanne’s rendering of fragmented and colored form to new heights and expressing artistic sensation through imaginative rather than naturalistic representation. 

You’ll be forgiven, though, if you spend most of your time in this section of the show before Cézanne himself, above all with “Curtain, Jug, and Compotier” (1893-94), from a private collection in Chicago, and “Apples and Oranges” (c. 1899) from the Musée d’Orsay, the former in a cooler color scheme, the latter radiantly warm, each a tumble of form and color that rights itself only to tumble again.

You scarcely have a choice, though, except to be thrilled, on entering the center of the show, a great open space displaying two of Cézanne’s “Large Bathers,” one from Philadelphia (1906), the other from London’s National Gallery (1894-1905), with the smaller but compelling “Bathers” (c. 1890) from the Musée d’Orsay between them. A third “Large Bathers” (c. 1895-1906) is in the Barnes Foundation, and when its treatment of the great traditional theme was shown at the Salon d’Automne retrospective of Cézanne in 1907, it had a profound effect on Matisse, Picasso, Bracque, Léger and many other artists, including the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who went daily to the show and wrote ecstatic letters about it to his wife. The freely drawn, monumental figures and their harmony with the trees and landscape beyond them seemed a wholly new vision of the human body in nature.

Henri Matisse bought a small “Bathers” from the dealer Ambroise Vollard in 1899 and wrote almost 40 years later, “it has sustained me morally in the critical moments of my venture as an artist; I have drawn from it my faith and perseverance.” Three Matisse paintings in the show, the puzzling, mythic “Bathers with a Turtle” (1908), the sculptural “Bather” (1909), and “Le Luxe” (1907), along with the magnificent bronze “Back I” (1909), look particularly strong here.  Picasso’s “The Bathers” (1956), on the other hand, a group of six bronze figures, seems routine and distracting. Jasper Johns’s “Fall” (1986), from his Seasons series, also seems contrived. But Brice Marden, who called Cézanne “the greatest realist and the greatest abstractionist at the same time,” elegantly evokes both his formal ingenuity and rhythmic color in Marden’s own “Red Rocks (1)” (2000-2002), whose proportions are based on the National Gallery’s “Large Bathers.”

No exhibition of Cézanne would be complete without the presence of the painter’s beloved Mont Sainte-Victoire, and Philadelphia offers a full six views of it, including the museum’s grand, and especially abstract, version from 1902-04, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s off-center view including the Viaduct of the Arc River Valley (1882-1885), and the Courtauld Gallery’s endearing version with a large pine tree in the foreground caressing the profile of the mountain in the background (c. 1887).  The paintings are hung around a Jasper Johns “Map” (1963), which has never looked better. Along with scenes of “The Bay of Marseille Seen from L’Estaque” (c. 1878-79 and c. 1885), they evoke representational responses from Max Beckmann and highly abstract ones from Ellsworth Kelly and Brice Marden, with the Canadian photographer Jeff Wall, one of the younger artists in the show, offering one of his transparencies in a light box, “Coastal Motifs” (1989), which shows a harbor near a mountain under clouds. 

Closely related to these scenes of land, sea and sky are images of trees in a gallery devoted to that theme. There are some grand paintings here, as well as an absurdity by Francis Alÿs (a small Cézanne in bubble wrap). It would have been the right place to include Joan Mitchell, whose “La Grande Vallée” series would more than hold its own. But nothing compares to Cézanne’s “Large Pine with Red Ground,” from the Hermitage, on which he worked for five years from 1890 to 1895. 

In a deceptively simple view from his sister’s home into the Bellevue Valley, Cézanne conjures up a sturdy trunk, off center in the foreground, with myriad branches reaching to the sky, red earth and rooftops behind it in the middle distance. But the distinction between foreground and background keeps collapsing. The foliage is substantial, but it isn’t, regularly becoming a glittering haze. The tree grows from the red earth, but it doesn’t. The palette is restricted, yet as rich as creation. You can see the vertical brush strokes, like colored rain from painter’s heaven, but they shimmer away. The marvelous, mysterious painting is entirely there and real, but also entirely elusive, a vision. “It’s a living being,” Cézanne wrote of the tree. “I love it like an old colleague.” 

How can Paul Cézanne make you weep as only great sorrow or great joy can, or the sight after a long absence of someone you love? Is it the fullness of reality, the hard-won but never-ending struggle to see and show things as they are, the simple sense that “this is the way it is”?  (Never, ever, “Look at me;” always rather, “Here it is.”) This young bather, this smoking man, someone’s pensive wife, apples on a tilted table; a pine tree in red soil. How can they possibly affect us as deeply as they do?

Cézanne painted no “Lifting of the Cross,” no “Night Watch,” no “Las Meninas,” as did Rubens, Rembrandt and Velázquez. He painted the daily and the ordinary, which then appeared as sacred, even holy. Matisse saw him as “a sort of god of painting” and said, “if Cézanne is right, then I am right.” “He was like our father,” said Picasso, “my one and only master!” Fernand Léger wrote: “One feels that for Cézanne painting was a matter of life or death; he risked everything—yes, even his life—each time he embarked upon a picture. That’s why I have learned more from him than from anybody.” Through shimmering patches of shaped color he struggled to render his sense of the world—its fields and forms and figures—simply as present, changing the course of painting for a century and more and anxiously helping us all to accept the unfinished and imperfect state of our human condition.

“Cézanne and Beyond” remains at the Philadelphia Museum of Art until May 31.  It will not travel.

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