How about a little joy? You probably aren’t going to find much in the stock market or in Washington these days, so all the more reason to head to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the only place you’ll be able to see "Cézanne and Beyond," Feb. 26-May 17, 2009.
Not only will you see great works of art but also have the satisfaction of letting your eyes connect the dots between works by Cézanne and 18 of his acolytes, ranging in time from his to ours. Close comparisons in subject, composition, color, and some element of facture allow an almost totally pleasurable assessment of Cézanne’s broad influence on later artists as diverse as Max Beckmann, Giorgio Morandi, Liubov Popova and Jeff Wall, among others.
While Cézanne’s broad and multifarious influence is hardly a new thesis, this show reads visually like a love letter to Cézanne. Can one ever have too much love and joy?
In one niche, Cézanne’s masterpiece Madame Cézanne on a Red Armchair (ca. 1877) resides near Pablo Picasso’s The Dream" (Marie-Thérèse) from 1932 (yes, the one Steve Wynn put his elbow through, but which looks fine now) and Henri Matisse’s Woman in Blue (1937).
The three, each radically different yet each related, will have your eyes and brain going "aha" after first reveling in their distinctive beauties. The off-kilter Madame Cézanne, seated firmly within the logic of her own form, allowed Matisse in turn to transform his lovely model into an integral component of the colorful pattern of her costume and surroundings, including a red chair like Madame’s.
Picasso, quite clearly intoxicated by his lover Marie-Thérèse, has a red chair, the square shape in the upper left of the canvas, the tilted head, and patterned wall paper as in the Cézanne but whips up these elements into a more sensual, brilliantly colored, voyeuristic painting.
To step into one large room holding the museum’s own The Large Bathers (1906) by Cézanne and many related works feels like going to the beach. To some, Cézanne’s bathers mark the start of modern painting, while Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon from 1907 simply takes the next step. Whatever your point of view, as your eyes ricochet from the painting to a series of Picasso bronzes of bathers (1956), reportedly made after his purchase of another Cézanne bathers, you can’t help but think there’s a lot of truth to this.
Also here is Cézanne’s Three Bathers (1879-82), once owned by Matisse, whose gorgeous Le Luxe I from 1907 and Bathers with Turtle from 1908 illustrate his fascination with Cézanne’s nudes. In donating his painting to the Petit Palais in 1936, Matisse said:
In the 37 years I have owned this canvas, I have come to know it quite well, though not entirely, I hope; it has sustained me morally in the critical moments of my venture as an artist; I have drawn from it my faith and my perseverance. . . [it] has grown increasingly greater ever since I have owned it.
Jasper Johns’ 1994 tracings of The Large Bathers in ink on plastic juggle the composition, including the gender of the figures. He also has lent the exhibition his own Cézanne, Bather with Outstretched Arm (1883), a touchstone for many of his other works.
More surprising is the Brice Marden abstraction Red Rocks (2002), which the artist based on the proportions of The Large Bathers, a reproduction of which he kept in his studio.
Perhaps more fun is Marsden Hartley’s Canuck Yankee Lumberjack at Old Orchard Beach (1940-41), a figure that is all angles and jaunty bonhomie in an awkward but sexy pose. The actively patterned sky and sea makes the large browned body more rooted and prominent, its small head suggesting more brawn than brains.
Arshile Gorky, the Armenian-born immigrant painter, has several pieces in the show. He essentially taught himself to paint by imitating modern masters, especially Cézanne, as he groped toward his own Abstract Expressionist style. Many of his early works look like those of the artists he intensely studied and absorbed. One famous Cubist-style canvas of his that conjures up the red roofs of Aix is actually titled Staten Island (1927).
Cézanne has inspired Ellsworth Kelly in many ways. Kelly, for example, mentioned that he would always study one particular Cézanne landscape whenever he visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Eventually Kelly translated the wedge of blue water in the painting into one of his large, shaped canvases, Lake II (2002).
Alberto Giacometti looked long and hard at Cézanne. He transformed the master’s lush tabletop still lifes into a poignant study of Existential angst in his own oil, Still Life with Apple (1937).
The exhibition ends with a triumphal series of paintings by Piet Mondrian based in part on Cézanne’s renderings of trees, one artist seemingly blossoming from the other.
While artists are forever learning and recycling what they learn from others, these appropriations are usually well absorbed into the younger artist’s own work. Not so with "appropriation" artists, like Francis Alÿs, who tend to reuse the entire work or a major part of it to create something new.
Alÿs’ contribution to the exhibition is a small Cézanne oil swathed in bubble wrap. "My proposal is not an act of iconoclastic disrespect," he said, "it is an act of homage and surrender." In fact the gesture is not iconoclastic, just dull, which makes it stand out in an otherwise lush yet intellectually bracing exhibition.
"Cézanne and Beyond" is accompanied by a thick catalogue, one of the best-written and most absorbing I’ve read in a while. It provides a lot of new information in crisp prose with clear images.
One editor is Joseph Rishel, senior curator at the Philadelphia Museum and principal organizer of the show. The other is adjunct curator Katherine Sachs, who also worked on the exhibition along with Philadelphia Museum curators Michael Taylor and Philip Berman. The catalogue is dedicated to the Museum’s late director, Anne d’Harnoncourt.
N.F. Karlins is a New York art historian and critic.