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Going Way Beyond Cézanne

March 19, 2009 By:
Rita Rosen Poley, JE Feature
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"Cézanne and Beyond," the special exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through May 17, is a tour de force on many counts.

From an art lover's standpoint, it is a delight. Logistically, it is an almost heroic achievement, bringing together 150 works by 19 artists from roughly 68 acknowledged lenders (in addition to those who chose to remain anonymous) from the United States and 12 foreign countries.

Happily, for area residents, this exhibition came together here in Philadelphia, its only venue. Already known as a destination for Cézanne-lovers -- with 15 paintings by the artist at PMA, and an astonishing 69 at the Barnes Foundation -- there are more Cézannes in Philadelphia than in Paris!

For sure, art-lovers from far and wide will be traveling to the "Triumph on the Fairmount" to consider this new, but temporary, visual discourse.

When the 1907 posthumous retrospective of paintings by Paul Cézanne revealed his works to younger artists, such as Picasso and Matisse, an accelerated period of experimentation that led to European Modernism began. In the eyes of Matisse, he became "a benevolent god of painting," and for Picasso "my one and only master."

Beyond One Artist
"Cézanne and Beyond" is a focused examination that goes far beyond, hence the title, the work of this one seminal artist, the Frenchman Paul Cézanne (1839-1906).

The gestation of the idea for this show began in 1996 when PMA presented its major "Cézanne" retrospective. Then, as now, both exhibitions were sponsored by ADVANTA Corporation.

In walking through that earlier retrospective with visiting artists, PMA curator Joseph Rishel found that they were eager to explain the connections in their own work to the inspiration they discovered in Cézanne. Thirteen years later, those casual conversations are realized through an exhibition with a rigorous curatorial discipline that reaches back to the earliest discernible influences of Cézanne on the many renowned artists who followed his lead.

For a visitor, the viewing experience offers multi-layered choices. On one level, it can be enjoyed as a great hits bonanza. My own such list would have to be headed by Fernand Leger's "Woman in a Blue Dress," on loan from the Kuntsmuseum in Basel, Switzerland; followed by "Studio V," the monumental still life by George Braque, loaned by MOMA; Max Beckmann's, "The Harbor of Genoa" from the Saint Louis Art Museum; and Cézanne's own "Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair," from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

On another level, "Cézanne and Beyond" can be enjoyed for the time span of the works that, in some way, link back to the artist. The earliest here is a Picasso dated to 1907; the most recent, from 2006, are by contemporary photographer Jeff Wall.

Viewers can also enjoy, or be perplexed by, the ways artists express their affinity for Cézanne. It's easy to see that in Ellsworth Kelly's study drawings of trees. They hang not far from his inspiration, Cézanne's "Chestnut Trees at the Jas de Bouffan," from the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

While it's completely understandable how Cézanne's "Bathers" inspired the abstracted, large-scale bronze sculpture installation of the same name by Picasso, it is altogether another issue to understand how a table of drawers -- the subject matter of paintings by both Jasper Johns and Alberto Giacometti -- relates to still lifes by Cézanne. Fortunately, through exacting labels, an exhaustive catalogue and a valuable audio guide, all is made quite clear. 

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