During the spring of 1952, a major exhibition of the paintings of Paul Cézanne was held at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. A young artist whose creative vision was soon to make its mark on the American cultural scene visited the New York venue of the exhibition. For Jasper Johns, it was a revelation.
“My familiarity with Cézanne in the flesh dates from the show the Metropolitan did,” Johns later recounted in an interview. “They did a huge Cézanne show … A beautiful, big show.”
A “beautiful, big show” of Cézanne’s art—40 oil paintings and 18 water colors and sketches—is the feature attraction at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, on display until May 31st. There are two major differences between the current exhibition and that of 1952. On the debit side, “Cézanne and Beyond” will travel to no other cities, a testament to the increasing difficulty of funding and transporting major art exhibitions. But as the show’s title implies, there is much more to be seen than the impressive array of Cézanne masterpieces. Works by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Alberto Giacometti, Jasper Johns and fourteen other artists trace the influence of the reclusive “Father of Modern Art” on succeeding generations of painters and sculptors.
“Cézanne and Beyond” is a splendid survey of shared insight and inspiration in the realm of modern art. But at the heart of this exhibition is the mystery of Cézanne himself. No inquiry into his creative genius can evade the startling modernity of his work. Yet, Cézanne left Paris at the height of the Belle Époque for a self-imposed exile in the mountains of his home in Provence. As the 19th century neared its culmination, Cézanne’s path diverged from the cosmopolitan milieu that now appears so idyllic in the Impressionist paintings favored by art lovers throughout the world. Increasingly zealous in his Catholic faith at a time of widespread indifference to religion, Cézanne also sought sources of artistic insight that rejected the scientific and literary frames of interest appealing to his contemporaries.
The lead-off painting in “Cézanne and Beyond” is a perfect point of departure for understanding Cézanne’s trail-blazing journey into modern times.
Cézanne’s The Bather, painted in 1885, and now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, commands immediate attention by virtue of its size (50 x 38 1/8 inches) and the power of its imagery. The solitary, pensive figure, hands clasped firmly on his waste, steps hesitantly toward the viewer. He leaves behind a desolate shore, toeing the water of an unseen sea. Cézanne was not a Symbolist painter by any standard, but The Bather embodies the predicament of humanity on the brink of the 20th century. Stripped of the straight jacket of the 19th century’s clothing and social codes, The Bather, affirms the naked essentials of life and the ever present need to step beyond them.
In 1904, Cézanne commented upon his dedication to the primal elements of art in a famous letter to fellow artist, Emile Bernard, who had been a close friend of Vincent Van Gogh. “Treat nature by means of the cylinder, the sphere, the cone, everything brought into proper perspective …,” Cézanne wrote. “… nature for us men is more depth than surface, whence the need to introduce into our light vibrations, represented by the reds and yellows, a sufficient amount of blueness to give the feel of air.”
It is unclear if Cézanne intended these words for more than advice on artistic technique. Whatever his intentions, Cézanne’s invocation of “the cylinder, the sphere, the cone” was an articulation of his determination to create art firmly rooted in the essential elements of life. True art for Cézanne was a representation of organic reality as perceived through the senses. For Cézanne and his successors, depicting their subjects with “here and now” realism or symbolical motifs was no longer a worthy goal. Matisse, in an essay written many years later for another Philadelphia Museum of Art exhibition, appraised the new approach to art that Cézanne had bequeathed to him and other leading spirits of Modernism. “There is an inherent truth which must be disengaged from the outward appearance of the object to be represented,” Matisse wrote. “This is the only truth that matters …. Exactitude is not truth.”
The gallery in “Cézanne and Beyond” featuring several portraits of Madam Cézanne and counterparts by Matisse, Picasso and Max Beckmann enables the viewer to grasp this important point. It is the core values of the subject of a painting or sculpture that determines its validity. Portraits by Cézanne or Matisse may appear utterly dissimilar when judged by technique, but so long as they remain true to the integrity of their subjects, then the bond unifying great art remains unbroken.
Cézanne’s portraits of his wife, Madam Cézanne in a Red Armchair, painted around 1877, and the later Madame Cézanne in Blue (29 3/16 by 24 inches) are insights into human character that the artist discerned, rather than clinical depictions of the person who sat before him. Cézanne’s laborious painting technique, applying countless brush strokes, enabled him to achieve the subtle gradations of color necessary to portray the sensations he experienced. Somber tones of horizon blue, gray, mauve, olive and green fuse together to form monumental representations of Madam Cézanne. Her “earth mother” fortitude is as solidly based as that other recurring subject on Cézanne’s canvases, Mont Sainte-Victoire. Indeed, these portraits might well be depictions of the mountain itself, save for Madame Cézanne’s face at the summit, with the dark pools of her searching eyes reminding us of her humanity.
In terms of palette and fluidity of brush stroke, Matisse’s Woman in Blue painted in 1937, looks as if she presides over a parallel universe, a realm of primary colors. In fact, Matisse’s chic Parisienne is a spiritual sister to Madam Cézanne. She is posed at the interface of introspection and wary perception, the discerning look in her eyes a sharp counterpoint to the cherry-hued pout of her lips. Her massive, over-sized hands, one of which holds a string of beads at the center of the canvas, betoken her grasp on life. Woman in Blue exudes an unmistakable femininity, but beneath the frilly ruffles, the mutton chop sleeves and the billowing skirt is a woman of strength and resilience, more edgy perhaps than the peasant stoicism of Madam Cézanne, but clearly a woman to be reckoned with.
So too is Quappi in Blue and Gray (38 15/16 x 30 5/16 inches), Max Beckmann’s portrait of his wife. Painted in 1944, after the Nazis had driven Beckmann from his teaching post into a life of exile, this work is an evocation of beauty in wartime. Quappi Beckmann, despite her stylish dress and dangling jewelry, peers from the canvas with the “thousand yard stare” of a combat soldier. Beckmann edged his wife in black, from the veil atop her head to her red enameled finger nails. This emphatic outline enhances her stiff, defensive stance, as she ponders the contents of the letter clutched in her outstretched fingers. Here is another universe of emotion, starkly depicted, and proof that Cézanne’s insights were as true in embattled Holland during 1944 as they had been a half century before in his rural retreat in the south of France.
The exhibition’s “compare/contrast” arrangement of paintings is a very effective means for tracing the resonances of Cézanne’s influence on his successors. This is true for sculpture as well as for works in oil and water color. Alberto Giacometti’s painted bronze busts of his brother, Diego, differ greatly in the craggy feel of their modeling from the austere paint strokes of the nearby Cézanne portrait, Man in a Blue Smock (31 7/8 x 25 9/16 inches). Yet these dissimilar works display a kinship of well-grounded humanity.
Likewise, Picasso’s Abstract sculptural group, The Bathers, is displayed to advantage by being juxtaposed with Cézanne’s The Large Bathers. This iconic 1906 painting was one of Cézanne’s last works and is the pride of the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s collection. Fittingly, the placement of these two masterpieces, inspiring in both size and artistry, is at the literal and figurative heart of this exhibition. The two studies of nude figures serve as a focus on the enduring appeal of basic cultural themes and on the transfer of insight from pioneering master to visionary disciple, regardless of their chosen artistic medium.
By the end of the first decade of the 20th century, an amazingly wide circle of artists had come to regard Cézanne, in the words of Picasso, as their “one and only master.” Cézanne’s appeal transcended national boundaries, extending, as in the case of Max Beckmann, even to France’s hostile neighbor, Germany. The embrace of his obsession with depicting “depth” over “surface” was part of the rejection of authoritarian cultural standards that still reigned in virtually every nation in the West. Cézanne’s return to Provence to paint his art his own way was the signal to rebellious “Fauve” artists in the years following his death in 1906 that they could follow where he had lead.
“If Cézanne is right,” Matisse declared, “I am right.”
And if Matisse was right, then so are Ellsworth Kelly, Jasper Johns and Brice Marden. Born long after Cézanne’s death, they absorbed the lessons of his art from book illustrations or at art exhibitions like the “beautiful, big show” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1952. In a bold move, the curators of “Cézanne and Beyond” included these latter-day disciples among the protagonists of their exhibition. It was a decision that paid off. Works by Kelly, Johns and other contemporary artists are among the most striking of the treasures on display. And they prove that Cézanne is still right.
For Ellsworth Kelly, Cézanne was a life long guide. While studying at the School of the Museum of Fine Art in Boston in 1948, Kelly listened to a lecture by Max Beckmann – as translated by Quappi Beckmann. The talk ranged on many topics in the visual arts, but returned again and again to Cézanne. And so too would Kelly, invoking the French master with beautiful simplicity in his 1949 water color, Apples . More indirectly, but certainly capturing the monumental force of Cézanne’s work, were sculptures like the huge, roughly oval Untitled. The curve at the top of this wall mounted piece traces the rounded arch of the bridge in Cézanne’s The Pont de Maincy, while the curve at the bottom evokes its reflection in the stream below. This brilliant transformation by Kelly of a single element into a powerful new creative configuration is an affirmation of Modern Art’s quest for “more depth than surface.”
Jasper Johns has been equally indebted to Cézanne throughout his career. In one of the most striking and unusual pieces in the exhibition, he has literally taken Cézanne’s advice to get beyond the surface of art. In his 1957 painting, Drawer (30 ½ x 30 ½ inches), Johns used dabs and drips of encaustic paint to create the battered surface of a drab, yet perplexing, piece of furniture. Two knobs protrude from the sharply delineated drawer, tempting the viewer to open it and discover the contents within. But we cannot open Drawer. We cannot get directly beyond the surface. Our reach will always exceed our grasp – except by the touch of our imaginations.
Here, in Johns’ unique vision and masterful reworking of universal themes, do we come close to understanding the mystery of Cezanne. Johns’ Drawer is displayed alongside a still life by Cezanne and Alberto Giacometti’s oil painting from 1937, Still Life with Apple. What begins as a feast for our sensations with a table laden with fruit by Cezanne is reduced to a single apple atop a grainy wooden table by Giacometti. This in turn is refined to the rectangular simplicity of John’s Drawer, which entices our interest with the power of the unseen.
Giacometti’s single, tempting apple lies beyond our grasp. Yet, the secret “something” in Johns’ Drawer and the inherent truth of Art are always within the reach of our imaginations. This was Cezanne’s empowering insight and his greatest legacy. This he bequeathed to Matisse, Picasso, Beckmann and the rest. This he now shares, through the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s “beautiful, big show,” with us.