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Cézanne and America
by N.F. Karlins
The Montclair Art Museum, a museum devoted to exhibiting American art, has had something up its sleeve for a while, for about ten years in fact. But now its riveting exhibition, "Cézanne and American Modernism," has arrived and has proven to be well worth the wait.

"Cézanne and American Modernism" focuses on the years from 1907 and 1930, when American artists in France discovered the work of Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), who was not yet well-known even in France at the beginning of this period. It tells the story of how the work of this seminal artist, the link between Impressionism and Modernism, was seen by and revolutionized the work of American artists in France and how they carried back Cézanne’s work to other artists, collectors and museums in this country.

The importance of Cézanne may be a given today. But it’s worth recalling Paris-based collector Leo Stein’s comments after Cézanne’s large 1907 Salon d’Automne retrospective. "At the Autumn Salon of 1905," Stein wrote, "people laughed themselves into hysterics before his pictures, in 1906 they were respectful, and in 1907 they were reverent."

Grounded by 18 key works by Cézanne borrowed for the occasion, a first for this museum, "Cézanne and American Modernism" makes every painting, drawing, print, photograph and bit of archival material count. Following the wall texts, you can journey to France and share the excitement of 34 young American artists seeing this master’s work for the first time.

The show starts with a bang. A wall of three related yet wildly dissimilar works greets gallery goers. Flanking a late self-portrait in oil by Cézanne (ca. 1898-90) is an almost electric copy of an earlier self-portrait by Morgan Russell (ca. 1910) and a black-and-white photograph of another Cézanne portrait, part of an album of photographs (from ca. 1907-08) purchased by Max Weber. The subtly colored, thinly brushed blues and grays of the Cézanne erupt into neon-like colors in the Russell, while the photograph’s gray tones only hint at what a Cézanne painting is like.

But the photograph proves to be important. It underscores the exhibition’s emphasis on the role of reproductions in the acceptance of Cézanne’s work in the United States. Weber, for example, seems to have exhibited his album of photographs of Cézanne works at Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 gallery, possibly even before the gallery’s first public showing of works by Cézanne in this country as part of a group exhibit in 1910.

Maurice Prendergast, the first American artist to name Cézanne as his mentor, constantly talked of his master to other American artists on his return from Paris. You can see a portfolio of Cézanne paintings that he owned. Better still are his many paintings, including nude bathers and still lifes, both subjects he was inspired to tackle on seeing Cézanne explore them. His Bathers by the Sea is hung not far from a wonderful small Cézanne of Bathers from 1898-1900 that was in the collection of Gertrude and Leo Stein, a painting seen by many American artists in the show.

The exhibition makes a strong case for Cezanne’s influence on photographers, too. Five Apples by Cézanne, another painting of the Steins’, entranced both painters and photographers. Andrew Dasburg and Morgan Russell borrowed the painting and made copies of it. Dasburg called the small oil "infinite." Painter and photographer Edward Steichen, one of Stieglitz’s Paris advisors, seems to be remembering the same work in his gelatin silver print Three Pears and an Apple from around 1921.

Arshile Gorky, that arch imitator, whips up a landscape very much like those of Cézanne’s, except that his pictures a site in Staten Island rather than the south of France. A selection of works by Marsden Hartley shows him borrowing from Cézanne as filtered through Matisse some of the time and at others through Picasso, something he has in common with many other artists here and that the exhibition’s must-have catalogue addresses in depth.

The show’s lead curator, Montclair Art Museum chief curator Gail Stavitsky, has done a terrific job of unearthing and borrowing exactly the right works to visually convey how each American artist struggled to incorporate elements of Cézanne’s oeuvre into their own.

Some are unexpected, like Man Ray’s surprisingly pastoral oil Ridgefield Landscape (1913), painted at a New Jersey art colony. There’s a bucolic landscape by Leon Kroll, an artist more concerned with figure subjects, and a riverbank in France painted by Hale Woodruff, an African-American now better known for murals of black life.

Organized by theme with one large gallery reserved for a survey of the impact of Cézanne’s work in the American West, especially the Taos artists’ colony, each area has at least one major Cézanne, a great boon for any visitor and a nice change for local residents more used to seeing only American art in the galleries. "Cézanne and American Modernism" is a short jaunt by bus or train and cab from New York.

The Montclair Art Museum’s Gail Stavitsky has organized the exhibition in collaboration with Katherine Rothkopf, senior curator and department head of European painting and sculpture at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

"Cezanne and American Modernism" is on view at the Montclair Art Museum, Sept. 13, 2009-Jan. 3, 2010. The show subsequently appears at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Feb. 14-May 23, 2010, and to the Phoenix Art Museum, July 3-Sept. 26, 2010.

N.F. Karlins is a New York art historian and critic.