“Cézanne and Beyond”

Philadelphia Museum of Art

The sumptuous “Cézanne and Beyond” was that rare thing: a blockbuster show of modern painting that looks forward, not backward. In a climate where shows of the formula “Artist X and the Old Masters” have increasingly become the safe choice for museums, we must applaud curators Joseph J. Rishel and Katherine Sachs for resisting the art historian’s natural instinct to think retrospectively. Indeed, their effort to trace an artist’s bequest to future generations is very much like adjudicating a fraught inheritance: Any major legacy is bound to be contested by its presumptive heirs.

To the organizers’ credit, this exhibition—featuring sixty paintings and drawings by Paul Cézanne and more than ninety works by other artists, including Francis Alÿs and Jeff Wall—didn’t silence these conflicts. On the contrary, it abounded in them. Each of the genres (portraiture, still life, landscape, figure) enjoyed at least two galleries, and the paintings on view in the larger of the two rooms devoted to landscape were exemplary of the range of work thrown together and of the productive friction their proximity brought. Here Mondrian’s austere grids clashed with blazing Cézannes seemingly melting under the force of an insufferable heat. In the same room, the pairing of a sinister early Cézanne, Le Village des pêcheurs à l’Estaque (The Fisherman’s Village at L’Estaque), ca. 1870, with Picasso’s haunted, skeletal Winter Landscape, 1950, added a morbid note to the proceedings. Brilliantly, their juxtaposition revealed what discussions of Cézanne’s phenomenology typically repress: violence and death.

On the most prominent wall of a gallery of large still lifes bristled five canvases that no art historian would ever put together in the same lecture: a Cézanne still life, ca. 1890; Jasper Johns’s In the Studio, 1982; a late Georges Braque, Studio V, 1949–50; a Matisse from the Hermitage, Fruit, Flowers, and the Dance, 1909; and a drippy Arshile Gorky, Dark Green Painting, ca. 1948. Jostling for attention like preening cocks, the paintings produced a mise-en-scène that was cacophonous, even disorienting, at almost every level: compositionally, chromatically, and texturally. But further inspection revealed a careful set of ruminations on Cézanne’s dual mode of spatial address. At one end of the spectrum was the resolute flatness of the Johns and Gorky paintings. At the opposite end was the expansive space opened up by the Matisse. The Cézanne, a painting of cannonball fruit, held its own precisely because the artist realized that in order to overcome the frame, one cannot merely acknowledge it as physical boundary; one must disrupt the apperception of boundary as such.

Any show organized around an artist’s reception by other artists raises some red flags: The first is morphological similarity; the second is a passive notion of influence—and the presentation in Philadelphia didn’t always escape these pitfalls. An example of the first was the pairing of Ellsworth Kelly’s large diagonal blue monochrome Lake II, 2002, with Cézanne’s Le golfe de Marseille vu de l’Estaque (Gulf of Marseille Seen from L’Estaque), ca. 1878, with its famous expanse of blue sea. For the second pitfall, one could point to the numerous occasions when artists such as Marsden Hartley and Jeff Wall simply copied motifs—drawers, apples, flowers, and so on—with seemingly no further motive than to indulge their taste for Cézannisme.

But there is no reward without risk—and, in the end, the payoff in “Cézanne and Beyond” was huge. Among the most successful works by Cézanne’s present-day interlocutors were the contributions by Alÿs and Sherrie Levine. When Alÿs bubble-wrapped a small Cézanne still life and hung it on the wall, he acknowledged how the perceptual ambiguities of Cézanne’s pictorial thought—radical at the turn of the century—can only be experienced today through the mediation of the archive. As for Levine, her Pyramid of Skulls, a 2002 suite of twelve black-and-white photographs of a printed reproduction of Cézanne’s 1898 work of the same title, translated the pathos of his motif into a photographic register, with its own mechanical draining of affect. As this invaluable exhibition repeatedly demonstrated, Cézanne’s legacy may be contested by his disparate heirs, but some hundred years after the artist’s death, the vitality of that inheritance is indisputable.

Paul Galvez