The exhibition “Cézanne and Beyond” was crowded last Saturday when Geo and I took a day trip to Philadelphia for both the museum and the antiques show. But both of us felt it was worth the long waiting line and expensive tickets.
It is not, as the title of the exhibition indicates, a show of Cézanne, but an examination of the artist and his influence on modern and contemporary art. The circle of the “beyond” is quite large, ranging from Pablo Picasso to Jeff Wall. The juxtaposition of the works by Cézanne with other artists’ works is an intriguing but thought-provoking curatorial methodology. Quite often, visitors in the museum see into works stripped of their historical and artistic context and obtain aesthetic satisfaction through horizontal comparison. In the case of Cézanne, the approach may not be the best. Cézanne is, as both Matisse and Picasso said, the father of us all. Thus contrasting Cezanne with later artists of different styles and in different media forces the visitors to think what particularly Cézanne has liberated from traditional 19th century art despite some jarring gap in these vertical comparisons. Luckily, Philadelphia Museum of Art has done a wonderful job: through ticketed and limited admission, every visitor is able to get a free audio tour equipment with curator’s insightful comments.
I was not against such practice. For the majority, the analysis from experts is much appreciated. But the curatorial opinions, which are voiced out and firm, seem to devour the individual feelings that could have developed without being exposed to authoritative comments.
The first and foremost impression for me is Cézanne’s structured layers of block-wise brush strokes whose architectural solidity yet lucid freedom rise to an auroral wonder that can always be appreciated alone without the subject matter. The paint textual celebration lies in Cézanne’s choice of brush strokes and colors, both of which create tensions and psychological visual effects. The diagonal strokes that are packed in parallel or intersecting pull and push viewers into redefining what IS painted out of the context of what is IN the painting; The warm spectrum on top of or under the cold bluish color patches enlarge or squeeze the spaces and objects that challenge the coordination of minds and eyes. Even at some of the most peaceful landscapes, like “The Pont de Maincy”, the amount of energy injected by frenzied yet controlled short brush strokes would have propped the tree branches into a whirlpool of mobility if there were no quieter reflection and curved arches to stabilize the scene.
The decoupling of the surface of the paint from the painting motifs is one approach that Cézanne adopted to paint the inherent truth “which must be disengaged from the outward appearance of the object to be represented”, as Matisse commented. The multi-perspective still-life speaks of the inner truth of the objects in the mind that is at a higher degree of artistic freedom than the objects in reality. The confrontation of inner truth against outward appearance guarantees that eyes would linger long enough to reconcile the convention with the noval, followed by the minds to retify the artistic and psychological legitimacy of the paintings. Together with his near drama-less landscapes, these still life are the most energetic artworks before the 1900.