Cezanne in Philadelphia

img00107 Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) has been revered and studied by successive artists since the end of his career.  In this exhibition, Cezanne and Beyond at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Cezanne’s work is shown alongside that of eighteen Modern and contemporary painters and sculptors from Picasso and Matisse to Ellsworth Kelly, Brice Marden, Jasper Johns and Jeff Wall, all of whom who were and are inspired by Cezanne’s revolutionary planar landscapes and portraits, composite still lifes and grand bathers.  Breaking free from academic tradition, yet still painting recognizable landscapes, still lifes and portraits, Cezanne charted a course towards seeing the geometry in everything and capturing the fragmented surfaces and planes which led future artists such as Pablo Picasso to identify Cezanne as the father of Modernism.

The exhibition is organized by showing a Cezanne beside the work of the younger artists he influenced, creating the closest visual similarities possible.  In some cases, artists have borrowed Cezanne’s favored aqua blue color and used it in their own forms (Mondrian, for example).  In others, the forms of Cezanne’s works themselves, either figures, landscape or still lifes, appear dramatically in a contemporary work that pays homage to the master in bold or subtle ways (Ellsworth Kelly, Matisse, Wall).  In others, Cezanne’s brushwork or palate knife paint application, as well as the slightly exposed blank canvas he favored, appear in works by artists of the next generation (Demuth, Giacometti).  For example, a series of figurative, primitive bronze sculptures by Picasso populate a raised platform before their inspiration, Cezanne’s Large Bathers.  The solidity of the sculptures seems to mimic that of the painted, weighty figures Cezanne created in spite of his soft colors.

There are some excellent comparisons between artists and works in the show, some of which are more obvious and more satisfying than others.  The visual synergies in the exhibition between, say, a Cezanne landscape and a Jasper Johns map of America are visual treats, and became so obvious when viewed together that I can’t believe we all had not thought of the obvious similarities of form and painting before.  A large crescent of blue canvas by Ellsworth Kelly, hung high on the wall, echoes the blue crescent of the bay of Marseilles in an adjacent Cezanne painting, yet eliminates the landscape which surrounds the sea and this pares the work down to the deep blue area alone.  After seeing the relationship of Marsden Hartley’s male bather to Cezanne’s, and the similar impact of a pair of portraits by the two artists, I was left craving the juxtaposition of a Marsden Hartley Mount Katahdin painting and a Cezanne Mont Saint Victoire, but there was no such duo.  Though not comprehensive and slightly chaotically organized, with cut up walls and a strange flow at times, the show makes some great points.

Cezanne and Beyond through May 31, 2009.  Philadelphia Museum of Art.