Cézanne and Beyond - Philadelphia Museum of Art, 4/04/09

Cézanne - The Smoker

I've never formally studied art history or art criticism, but as a photographer and as someone who enjoys art a great deal, I know what I like, and the Cézanne and Beyond exhibit, currently showing here in Philadelphia has an amazing number of awesome paintings on display. Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) has been a cash cow for the Philadelphia Museum over the years and it's easy to be cynical about why they might mount another exhibit with Cézanne as the marquee, but there is a good reason why Cézanne is such a draw and it has to do with the excellence of his work.

This show's concept is to include fifty works by Cézanne alongside 100 works by eighteen other artists whose work he influenced. Most of the work represents his posthumous influence rather than the effect that he had on his contemporaries. Which is why you won't find works by Camille Pisarro (himself a stellar draw for the Philadelphia museum some years ago) in Cézanne and Beyond. There was an equally superb exhibition in 2005 at MoMA New York entitled Cézanne & Pisarro 1865-1885, you can follow the link to see examples of how these two artists influenced each other.

Cézanne - Chestnut Trees at the Jas de Bouffon

I fully expected to see great works by Cézanne, but it was a huge and pleasant surprise to be totally blown away by so many paintings by artists who were influenced by Cézanne, including at least four fabulous paintings by Piet Mondrian, nothing like the blocks of primary colors he is most known for. There is an amazing painting by Ellsworth Kelly called "Larry" which I would show you here but can't find any reproductions of it online. "The Geranium" by Henri Matisse is in the show and is incredibly beautiful.

Matisse - The Geranium

Although Cézanne's highly regarded series of "The Bathers" paintings does not hold the same attraction for me, the installation in this exhibit is extraordinary. In a large gallery room you can see a set of six sculptures by Pablo Picasso, "The Bathers" inspired by the Cézanne paintings. As you stand in front of the sculptures, the Cézanne paintings of "The Bathers" loom large on the wall forming a backdrop for the sculptures. The combination is powerful regardless of your predisposition to the paintings. And almost precisely at the moment I was having the thought that there was entirely too much work by Jasper Johns in this show, I looked up and saw what may be the first work by him that I actually like, "The Map".

Jasper Johns - The Map

In the centuries before photography was invented, artists provided the visual record of the world using their eyes, brain, brush, paint and canvas to create images that reflected the world as they saw it. The artists' choices of what to show, composition of the image, the use of color, and even the resolution of the image all are also aspects of photography that a photographer uses to create the photographic image. Looking at a painting such as Cézanne's "The Smoker" (above) I see the painter's sense of composition that mirrors in many ways, the choices that a photographer might make in creating such a portrait.

Artist Fernand Leger, whose art is also represented in the show is quoted as saying "Cézanne's influence was so strong that in order to free myself I had to move all the way to abstraction", which brings to mind the school of thought that the proliferation of photography freed artists to pursue impressionism and abstract art, and the more you think about it, the more powerful is the relationship between painting and photography.

Mondrian - The Grey Tree

Looking at artwork by these great masters up close, as compared to seeing a reproduction in a book or online is like the difference between listening to a piece of recorded music and seeing the musician perform it live at close range. Standing next to a painting makes you feel as if you are in the presence of the artist, I've had that same feeling at exhibits of Ansel Adams' photographs.

While Mondrian's paintings give the impression of being linear and precise, looking at his "Composition No. 11" (below) closeup you can clearly see blobs of paint, brushstrokes and other indications of how artists create such works of beauty that have enriched the lives of generations. If you are within reach of Philadelphia during the run of this show, it would be well worth the time and effort to come see for yourself. Cézanne and Beyond is currently scheduled to run through May 31, 2009 and is not scheduled to travel to any other museum.

Mondrian - Composition No. 11

Cézanne - The Forest

Cézanne - The Card Players with Pipes

Cézanne - Chateau Noir

Philadelphia Museum of Art website.


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