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‘Cézanne and Beyond,’ at the Art Museum (1st review)BY: Andrew Mangravite 02.20.2009
“Cézanne and Beyond” lets you in on a little secret—Impressionism’s Lonely Man had his admirers. Based on the evidence at the Art Museum, the pre-eminent Impressionist painter apparently inspired many of them to outshine the master himself.
“Cézanne and Beyond.” Through May 31, 2009 at Philadelphia Museum of Art, Benjamin Franklin Parkway at 26th St. (215) 763-8100 or www.philamuseum.org.
A master overshadowed by his followersANDREW MANGRAVITE
Paul Cézanne is back in town, now appearing in the unfamiliar guise of mentor to younger artists. Impressionism’s lonely man, who seems not to have been the most convivial fellow, turns out to have been a veritable father and mother to a generation of younger artists. “Cézanne and Beyond” at the Art Museum exists to document that point.
It also allows the Museum’s patrons to savor the work of such modern art figureheads as Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and Piet Mondrian. (In fact, the very appearance of all these names in a single show takes on the attributes of a triple conjunction of planets— well worth your time for the quality of its uniqueness alone.)
This show uses Cézanne not as its focus but as a platform. We see his works; then we see the works of the artists he influenced. They comment upon Cézanne and expand upon his vision—sometimes successfully, sometimes less so.
He analyzed beneath the surface
For me, the mature Cézanne has always been the pre-eminent landscape artist of the Impressionist group. Much as I like the atmospherics of Monet, Pissarro and Sisley, it was Cézanne who went beyond simply capturing what he saw to analyzing what he saw. He didn’t just represent; he recreated in terms of volumes and planes. His talent for analyzing the underlying structure of things is one of the elements that make his work in still life so interesting, even if it’s unconvincing as a reproduction of “things as they are.”
I fault Cézanne, though, for his performance as a painter of living flesh. To me, his portraits look as if the sitters were carved out of wood. His great bathers resemble just so many plaster casts. In this show almost everyone else’s work interested me more than Cézanne’s did. Ellsworth Kelly’s Larry is more charming. Beckmann’s portraits are more impressive in their hieratic stillness. Picasso and Matisse create graceful arabesques. But Cézanne’s card players still look like life-sized marionettes grouped around a table. Cézanne is a great artist, but like Van Gogh there are limits to his greatness.
Holding their own against Cézanne
This limitation impacts upon the show in a rather curious manner. The landscapes by other artists—be they Arshile Gorky’s careful Cézanne crib Staten Island or Marsden Hartley’s Cézanne fantasia, New Mexico Landscape— all seem to come up short when confronted by the work of the master. Even the landscapes of Max Beckmann— whose work I usually like— fails to measure up. Bechmann’s aerial view of The Harbor of Genoa resembles the opening shot of a grade-B film noir.
The show’s still life paintings are another matter. The pieces by Giorgio Morandi can more than hold their own against Cézanne’s. They exude a balance and a cool elegance that’s lacking in Cézanne’s own work. Even a relatively petite maître like Charles Demuth is able to endow his work with a sense of aliveness that’s totally lacking in Cézanne’s marmoreal green apples.
A tree, seen by Mondrian and Picasso
“Cézanne and Beyond” contains exquisite little shows-within-shows. There are enough renderings of Cézanne’s beloved Mont Sainte-Victoire to bring home its importance as a signature motif in his art, and he renders it in many difference ways—now almost as an abstract study of shapes and volumes, now garnished by a delicate pine bough waving in the foreground.
Then there is the interesting “compare and contrast” exercise posed by the juxtaposition of Cézanne’s 1890s painting Large Pine and Red Earth a few feet from Piet Mondrian’s Tree (1911-12) and Picasso’s 1950 painting Winter Landscape (above). The Cézanne isn’t photographic realism— none of Cézanne’s work ever is— but it’s clearly a painting of a tree. The Mondrian work, which sits astride the divide between Symbolism and Expressionism, is also the rendering of a tree— but now the tree is less a representation of a tree than a schematic of “any tree.” It floats in space no longer rooted in Cézanne’s red earth. The color scheme is less realistic and more symbolic.
In the Picasso painting, reality has completely given way to fantasy. This work has the free-floating logic of a dream and is again rendered in colors clearly more symbolic than realistic. It can be said that the only thing uniting these paintings by Mondrian and Picasso is the fact that both of their artists revered Paul Cézanne and regarded him as a master. That’s what “Cézanne and Beyond” is really all about.
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