The Father of Us All — “Cézanne and Beyond” Exhibition at Philadelphia Museum of Art

Mont Sainte-Victoire by Paul Cézanne From Wiki Commons

Mont Sainte-Victoire by Paul Cézanne From Wiki Commons

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.

Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair from Wiki Commons

I have always been fond of Cézanne’s portraiture. My favorite ” Portrait of the Artist’s Father” was not exhibited in the show, but there were quite a few portraits.  “Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair” is a less sculptural work compared to the monumental yet resigned sitter in “The Smoker”. The background wall and fabric are graphical and condense, Madame Cézanne effervesces with unpretentious amicability through her slight leaned pose, yet her eyes speak of a mood of resignation. Such typical brooding expression, almost unaware of the surroundings ,seem to reflect Cézanne’s preference of the sitter as a motionless architectural subject, whose vivacity and personality only come to life through his complex brush strokes.

The “Beyond” part, Geo commented, are not just exciting. The influence of Cézanne on modern painters is not always easy to trace. Jasper Johns’ “Drawer” is a nice conceptual art. Although the artist indebted Cézanne throughout his career and extended Cézanne’s notion of what can be painted, I wonder whether Cézanne himself would agree with this type of art. It is true that Cézanne’s artworks have liberated artists’ minds from conventionality; yet I have my reservations with the comment made by Matisse that “If Cézanne is right, then I am right”. (Geo did fall in love with a small painting of still life by Matisse which looks so much different from the rest of his works. )

For me, no matter how each artist claimed their inspirational root to Cézanne, Cézanne remained unique. Some artists took the notion of painting landscape without emphasizing on the dramas, but the inner reflection; some borrowed the medium toned palette layered in mass with nuance; some learned the rigorous compositional organization; and there are a few who took the intense colors, the weight of each collaborates, communes and clashes on the canvases. But Cézanne’s artworks remain instantly distinguishable yet refuse any clear definition of what contributes its greatness. At one time, I got so close to one of the paintings that I could literally imagine how layers of structured paint were applied on the canvas. They look chaotic at a microscopic level, like the deafening notes of late Beethoven piano sonatas, bordering atonal. But as I stepped back, I saw a wholeness of lucidity of colored planes and stroke movements that are so well organized and beautifully intertwined like fugues and variations, both of which were greatly adapted in Beethoven’s late sonatas. The greatest music comes out notes of noise, made from a determined and forceful mind. 50 years later, Beethoven found his counterpart in visual art.

About Hui

Wang Hui lived from 1632 - 1717 and followed in the footprints of his great grandfathers, grandfather, father and uncles and learned painting at a very early age. He was later taught by two contemporary masters, Zhang Ke and Wang Shimin, who taught him to work in the tradition of copying famous Chinese paintings. This is most likely the reason why critics claim that his work is conservative and reflects the Yuan and Song traditions. One critic claimed that "his landscape paintings reflect his nostalgic attachment to classical Chinese aesthetics. Along with the other Wangs, Wang Hui helped to perpetuate the tradition of copying the ancient masters rather than creating original work.

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