Arcadia, like the mythic reign of King Arthur, is a “once and future” place. At some point in the distant past, a golden age flourished. It was a time of ease and beauty, of innocent joys and profound wisdom. Hopefully, in the not too distant future, this land of enchantment will be rediscovered.
For the present, we will have to content ourselves with the exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art: Gauguin, Cézanne, Matisse: Visions of Arcadia. And contented we should be. For this exhibit is nothing less than the evocation of the “Golden Age” in some of the greatest works of art in the Western tradition.
There actually was a place called Arcadia in ancient Greece. But that rural valley in the Peloponnese was a mere dot on the map compared with the magical realm that inspired the imaginations of poets and painters, from antiquity to the twentieth century.
Artistic interpretations of Arcadia differed vastly. The evocative landscapes of Camille Corot (1796-1875), several of which are on display in the exhibition, closely followed the spirit of ancient poets like Ovid and Virgil. Others, like the French folk-painter, Henri Rousseau (1844 -1910), observed no boundaries except those in his imagination. Rousseau’s The Dream, painted in 1910, helped set the tone for Modernism, in art and in psychology.
At the heart of this inspired exhibition is a central gallery where career-defining paintings by Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin and Henri Matisse are united in a literally soul-stirring display. Cézanne’s The Large Bathers hangs side-by-side with Gauguin’s Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? and Matisse’s Bathers by a River. Close at hand is a work from France’s “splendid century” which inspired all three of these early Modern masterpieces, Nicholas Poussin’s 1627 La Grande Bacchanale, on loan from the Louvre.
Poussin’s paintings of idyllic scenes form classical mythology exercised a huge influence on neoclassical art throughout Europe. Poussin, who lived from 1594 to 1665, was notably successful in illustrating subjects from ancient literature such as the Roman poet Virgil’s Arcadian-themed verse:
Therefore frolic glee seizes the woods
and all the countryside, and Pan, and the shepherds, and the Dryad maids.
The wolf plans no ambush for the flock, and
nets no snare for the stag, kindly Daphnis loves peace.
– Virgil, Eclogues 5:58-61
Virgil’s poetry presents a vision of untroubled harmony. Poussin, however, seldom depicted Arcadia as a paradise without peril. There is always at least a shadow of impending threat or a sobering reminder of mortality in his work. A dark mass of ominous clouds invades the blue sky in La Grande Bacchanale. In Et in Arcadia Ego, painted a decade later, Arcadian shepherds ponder a cryptic tomb inscription where Death proclaims, “Even in Arcadia, I am.”
The message is clear. Happiness, even in Arcadia, is not going to last.
The intrusion of reality into the blissful reveries of Arcadia is perhaps best approached by a close study of Paul Gauguin’s Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? There is more than an element of irony in this, for Gauguin spent the better part of his life (1848-1903) trying to find a personal paradise, a primitive, even barbaric place, but still Arcadia. And then when he had found it in Tahiti, he was sick, penniless and emotionally devastated by the death of his daughter, Aline.
Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? is a mighty work of art, 54 3/4 x 147 1/2 inches in size. Under normal circumstances, it overawes surrounding paintings on nearby walls. But here, with the grand visions of Cézanne and Matisse as companions, it seems more of a feature of nature than of aesthetic interpretation.
Gauguin painted Where Do We Come From? as a summation of his reflections on human mortality. In letters to friends back in France, Gauguin said that he determined to take his own life upon completing the painting. But the dose of arsenic he took only made him vomit.
Despite the upsetting circumstances surrounding its creation, Gauguin’s Where Do We Come From? is one of the world’s great masterpieces of spiritual art. It unites a Western appreciation of space and form with Eastern mysticism. It projects a world view that is a compound of many religious creeds, as well as Gauguin’s own personal mythology.
The narrative structure of the painting depicts the course of a Tahitian woman’s life. The action proceeds from right to left, against the grain of Western artistic convention and includes enigmatic elements that were entirely Gauguin’s creation. The blue-toned figure which appears to be a statute of an idol is in fact a woman being transformed into a goddess figure. At the left-hand margin of the painting, a “strange, simple bird” marks the end of the woman’s life journey.
Gauguin was singularly unenlightening about the symbolism that he used in Where Do We Come From? He wrote that he rejected the use of well-known symbols that “would congeal the canvas into a melancholy reality, and the problem indicated would no longer be a poem.”
In a striking parallel with Gauguin, Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) created The Large Bathers to serve as the “last word” on a subject that had intrigued him for decades. The Large Bathers is the final statement in Cézanne’s inner dialogue on the subject of the nude and the pastoral landscape. Since the 1870’s, Cézanne had painted numerous images of athletic young men and well-endowed women enjoying the simple delights of Arcadia. Shortly before he died, Cézanne painted three scenes of female nudes at ease in idyllic settings. The largest of these is owned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and is the anchoring work of this exhibition.
Purchasing The Large Bathers in the cash strapped 1930’s represented a bold move. But the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s expenditure of scarce funds for a work of art that was “out-of-sync” with the ideals of the New Deal paid a rich dividend. The Large Bathers is both the culmination and starting point of so much of Western art that one is almost at a loss for where to begin in analyzing its salient points.
Cézanne is the Janus figure of Western art. His work hearkened back to great masters like Poussin while exerting a powerful influence on the rise of Cubism.
Elements of Cézanne’s preoccupation with geometric form, which the Cubists would turn into a veritable creed, can be readily seen in The Large Bathers. A triangular grove of trees shades the bathers and rectangular swathes of ochre and slate blue compose the ground on which they repose and the water in which they swim. Together these classical geometric forms create a natural sanctuary for these modern day nymphs.
Of all the great figures of modern art, Henri Matisse (1869-1954) was influenced by Cézanne to a profound degree. But it was a problematical inheritance. Unlike Pablo Picasso and Robert Delaunay, both of whom have major works in the Arcadia exhibit, Matisse never engaged directly with Cubism. The great work of his on display, Bathers by a River, certainly shows some of the hallmarks of late Cézanne, geometric forms and abstracted figures. But in keeping with his famous remark, “If Cézanne is right, I am right.” – Matisse created a masterpiece that was indisputably his own.
Matisse began painting Bathers by a River in 1913 as a Moroccan-themed work for his Russian patron, Sergei Shchukin. The initial sketch had been done in 1909, showing young women bathing in a waterfall-fed stream. In conception and handling, this was very much in keeping with Cézanne’s Large Bathers. The intended transfer of the setting to a Moroccan beach would merely have relocated the bathers to a more exotic locale. But the place would have remained Arcadia.
Fate intervened with the outbreak of World War I. Over the next three years, Matisse struggled with the work. The Arcadian ambiance appears in the first, left-hand panel, with lush, tropical foliage. A sensual female figure reaches-up with outstretched arms like the central, golden-hued young woman in Gauguin’s Where Do We Come From?
Then, just as Europe went mad amid the carnage of the trenches, the scene and the atmosphere of Bathers by a River shifts gears. A figure with truncated limbs steps over into a void-like dimension of utter blackness..
This stark column of nightshade black severs the action on the canvas into distinct, before-and-after episodes. A snake-like form writhes its way up the black bar toward the stepping figure. The serpent has entered paradise.
World War I destroyed the idea of Arcadia as a “working myth” for creative efforts in the arts and literature. But for the loss of millions of young men on the battle fronts and millions of civilians in the influenza epidemic of 1918, Cubism might well have supplied the structure on which to build an Arcadia for the industrialized world of the twentieth century. Instead, Cubism supplied the camouflage patterns on the armored tanks and warplanes that were among of the legacies of the “war to end all wars.”
We can see the likely course of Western art in Robert Delaunay’s The City of Paris. Delaunay (1885 -1941) used the Eifel Tower as a recurrent motif of modern life. Here the Three Graces from classical mythology stand together amid familiar landmarks of Paris. They do not hold that pose for long, as Delaunay grasped that modernity is movement, not repose. His painting brilliantly captured both the fragility of Arcadia and the fast-changing rhythms of modern life. But within two years of the completion of this great painting in 1912, Delaunay’s vision joined the casualty lists of the Lost Generation.
Another Great War fatality was Delaunay’s friend and fellow artist, Franz Marc (1880-1916). Marc was an intensely spiritual man, whose generous, forthright personality combined all the best attributes of German culture. Not only did Marc paint Arcadia-inspired works, he tried to create one for himself in the home he bought in Bavaria in April 1914. There he could paint surrounded by his pet deer, undisturbed by complaining neighbors. But hardly had he and his wife settled in than World War I sent him to the Western Front. Marc was struck in the head by a shell fragment at the Battle of Verdun in 1916 and died almost instantly.
The tragedy of Marc’s death was compounded by his vilification by the Nazis. Marc was denounced as a “degenerate” artist and his works were removed from German museums. Some of Marc’s greatest paintings have never been seen again, either destroyed by the Nazis or inadvertently burned by Allied air raids. Most of Marc’s remaining works now have an honored place in German art museums, notably the Lembachhaus in Munich, but are rarely exhibited in the United States.
It is therefore a rare pleasure to have two of Marc’s paintings on view in the Philadelphia Museum of Art exhibition. Both are superb examples of Marc’s front rank position in German Expressionism. The Dream, on loan from the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid, is a lyrical evocation of Arcadia as it might appear in the human unconscious. Painted in 1912, Marc’s signature blue horses stand guard over a dreaming nude woman while a snarling – and very unthreatening – lion makes his presence known.
What is the meditative woman dreaming about? Perhaps her thoughts are leading her to conceive of a place of perfect peace. Marc himself depicted such a scene in Deer in the Forest I, painted in 1913.
Fittingly, this painting is the last work on view in the Philadelphia Museum exhibition. It is the ultimate view of Arcadia because it can still exist. The nymphs and Dryad maids have vanished. Next year, the guns of August will roar. But as long as people can appreciate nature in its simple grandeur, as Marc did with these resting deer, then Arcadia can indeed be found.
In the quiet of a woodland clearing. In the stillness of our hearts. There Arcadia is.
Gauguin, Cézanne, Matisse: Visions of Arcadia appears at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 26th Street and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, PA 19130 (June 20, 2012 – September 3, 2012).