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by Phyllis Tuchman

"Right under the Sun: Landscape in Provence, from Classicism to Modernism (1750-1930)," Sept. 22, 2005-Jan. 8, 2006, at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Jean-Noël Desmarais Pavilion, 1380 Sherbrooke Street West

"Landscape in Provence" effortlessly achieves a goal that many curators have been pursing for years -- to present modern art classics in a new light. Organized by Montreal MFA director Guy Cogeval and Marie-Paul Vial, curator at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Marseille, the exhibition is compelling, ambitious and insightful.

With more than 200 paintings, drawings, watercolors, photographs and ephemera by 60-some artists plus four short films by the Lumiere Brothers, the curators address various approaches to landscape painting, the nature of art executed in the environs of Provence (from ships and gardens along the sun-kissed Mediterranean to the serrated, snow-capped Alps) and even the way history gets skewed from time to time.

This finely honed survey has a novel theme. The shores of these harbors and the peaks of these mountains don’t lead in a straight line from Ingres and Delacroix to Courbet, Manet and the Impressionists, followed by the Post-Impressionists, Fauves and Cubists. And this exhibition doesn’t reduce the art of the region to a Battle of the Salon superstars vs. the Modernist upstarts.

Instead, Cogeval and Vial recount how art was made under the brilliant Provencal sun from the Age of Enlightenment to the years just after World War I in a way which allows you to feel as if you’ve stumbled into a time machine. Here, you are there. And the "there" encompasses Arles, Mont Ventoux, Martigues, Bandol and L’Estaque; and even more often, Marseilles, Mont Sainte-Victoire, Avignon and Antibes.

Museum goers are propelled forward along forgotten paths as if Cogeval and Vial, ignoring hindsight, were archeologists. As they themselves put it, "the objective was not so much to demonstrate the interplay of influences, but rather to reveal the constant, infinite metamorphosis in landscape painting closely linked to the brilliance of the region."

To be sure, you’ll find a surprise or two. For one, you’ll discover the Ecole de Marseille. Then too, you’ve probably never realized Fontaine de Vaucluse was to French artists what Niagara Falls was to American counterparts. As to painters you think you know from A to Z, consider this morsel: Cézanne not only included a small putti by Pierre Puget in several of his still-lifes, he even depicted the place where the sculptor was born in Houses in Provence, ca 1880. 

The first gallery of "Landscape of Provence" offers a wonderfully deceptive orientation. Because traditional views of the Papal Palace in Avignon and the harbor in Marseilles are contrasted with more "progressive" renderings of the same sites and an 1848 painting of the Rove Tunnel is paired with an 1861 photograph of a similar motif, viewers may assume this will be yet another exhibition culminating in the triumph of Modernism. Not so. These curators aren’t playing with a stacked deck. They’re simply conveying the parameters of their subject.

Almost immediately, gallery goers are enveloped by the largest works in the show. All but ignored these days, these 165 x 263 cm. paintings from Joseph Vernet’s series of views of the ports of France, described in the catalogue as "the most significant commission of works of art awarded during the reign of Louis XV," introduce life in Provence during the 1750s. In their usual habitat, darkened galleries in the Musée national de la Marine in Paris, Vernet’s portraits of Antibes and the Gulf of Bandol have the look of historical documents. In Montreal, their esthetic qualities are celebrated.

Like much that follows them, these scenes feature cinemascope-like skies, scampering clouds, gorgeous bodies of blue water, deep shadows and people dressed in the fashions of the day. While you might find today’s men and women wearing and carrying Gucci and Louis Vuitton and riding in SUVs instead of carts, not much else has changed. To be sure, if you look closely at Vernet’s The Port of Antibes, Provence, Seen from Inland (1756), you’ll be able to spot the Chateau Grimaldi, now a Musée Picasso.

Besides these show-stoppers, the initial galleries of the exhibition are filled with other scenes of harbors filled with all sorts of sailing vessels under radiant skies as well as depictions of storm-tossed boats, which remind viewers of the arduousness of both travel and commercial ventures in the days before planes and trains. The pictures of the interior are more reserved in character, and in these a range of blues alternates with the greens of trees and grasslands as well as gray and ochre rocks and cliffs. If you’ve ever dismissed works like these, you’ll now discover they were templates for future generations of artists. Styles come and go, but mountains and bodies of water don’t.

Anyway, Françoise-Marius Granet and Paul Huet offer delights to modern day viewers just as they did to their own contemporaries. Indeed, at a time when so much art in the galleries in Chelsea looks clumsy, heavy handed and derivative, the Granet offerings are truly a breath of fresh air. Whether you’re looking in the distance at Mont Sainte-Victorie with, in the foreground, the Insane Asylum in Aix, a Farmyard in Malvalat, or a pumpkin harvest, Granet, in his oils, watercolors, ink washes, pencil drawings and graphite sketches, balances passages of light and dark, near and far, subject and form with a sure, light touch.

Huet’s views of Avignon, painted in 1834 and 1842, provide a taste of the career of a friend of Eugene Delacroix who is better known for his forest scenes. In the initial work he rendered the clouds in the sky in the manner of Constable. When he returned to town, as Vial points out in the superb catalogue, Huet "chose to paint this panorama at sunset. He thus emphasized the massive volumes, with the imposing form of the Palais des Papes, still illuminated by the final glimmers of the day, dominating the somber line of the ramparts." By portraying Avignon so differently after an eight-year absence, the Huets should remind champions of "advanced" painting from Impressionism through Abstract Expressionism that all non-modern works of art are not alike. "Salon" painting is a generic term, not an inclusive, descriptive phrase.

Nothing could be more unnerving to anyone who believes they’re knowledgeable about the ins and outs of art history over the last 200 or so years than to come upon the painters of the Ecole de Marseilles. Loubon, Aiguier, Guigou, Gresy and Brest are certainly not household names. They probably never will be. Yet aspects of their work ranging from the way they treated light, used colors limited by the ones found in nature, applied their pigments, and worked in horizontal formats had an impact on subsequent generations who painted in Provence. The catalogue’s authors point out that work by Adolphe Monticelli, who lived between 1824-1886 and belongs to this School, played a role in the career of Vincent van Gogh.

The concluding rooms of "Landscape of Provence" feature a display of site photographs by Baldus and others, a rich selection of paintings by Cézanne (15, in all), van Gogh, Signac and Cross, and examples of work by Braque and Raoul Dufy from both their Fauve and Cubist phases. In this section of the show, the dimensions of the canvases have shrunk in size, which would have facilitated their being carried directly to the motif and the ease with which they could be hung in the homes of wealthy patrons rather than palaces and city halls. Though commented upon in the critical literature, it’s more dramatic to experience this in person. More surprising, perhaps, is the way people disappear from the later landscapes. Even bustling seaports lack figures.

But then, the revelation of this exhibition comes from an unexpected place: the gallery with canvases by Monet and Renoir from the 1880s. Their views of Antibes and L’Estaque are more arcadian than the Antique figures in Paul Flandrin’s Souvenir of Provence (1874). The two Impressionists’ spare scenes of water, trees, rocks and mountains are timeless and idyllic, far removed from their densely populated cityscapes. As Richard Thomson notes, Monet’s paintings of Antibes "make much of the idea, still very active in the late 19th century, that the shores of the Mediterranean were unspoiled and natural, still the terrain of the Greeks and Romans." And Renoir said he wanted to be an artist who "acquired the simplicity and grandeur of the ancient painters." In this regard, it’s easier to understand Gauguin’s describing Cézanne as "a man of the South, he spends whole days on the mountain top reading Virgil and looking at the sky."

When you pack for Montreal, don’t forget your sunglasses, a tube of sun block, a Guide Michelin and a volume of Plato or Aristotle. You’re going to be looking at art evoking what the Provencal poet Frederic Mistral once called "the empire of the sun."

PHYLLIS TUCHMAN publishes regularly in the Smithsonian, Town & Country and other journals.