Sunday, July 27, 2014

Cézanne at the Barnes

By Charles Kessler

Last week I went to Philadelphia to see The World Is an Apple: The Still Lifes of Paul Cézanne at the Barnes Foundation (until September 22nd). Unfortunately, the Barnes website reproduces only one of the works in the exhibition (and it's not even captioned), and they don't allow photography. I did, however, manage to find a few good reproductions online, like this one:
Paul Cézanne, Still Life with Apples and Pears, 1891-92, oil on canvas, 17 ⅝ x 23 ⅛ inches.(Metropolitan Museum of Art).
Update: A guard at the Barnes told me on Facebook that this painting isn't in the show. That's very possible – but I'm sure it's at least close to ones that are.

Except for Cézanne's early dark, heavily impasto paintings, I don’t see his work as solid, heavy and immobile, the way they're usually described. Just the opposite. I experience them as unstable, weightless volumes of elusive, colored light. (I know about Cézanne's famous quote: "I want to make of impressionism something solid and lasting like the art in the museums”  from Paul Cézanne, Letters, edited by John Rewald, 1984 – I don’t care.)
Paul Cézanne, Pitcher and Plate with Pears, 1895-98 (Nancy Whyte Fine Arts, Inc.).
Bottles are asymmetrical, tables are tilted up, the composition changes point of view, volumes flatten out (probably because they are often outlined in black), and figure and ground sometimes merge. All these thing create tension because the mind seeks harmony and balance, and when it’s not there, the brain will create it. From the corner of my eye, I often see the illusion of objects – apples, plates, bottles, etc. – move. The forms seem to wobble, float and shift in space. At minimum, I feel the tension.

That’s also how the phenomenon of simultaneous color effects operates – the eye seeks the complement of a color, and if it’s not there, it will hallucinate it. The result is more vibrant and elusive color.
From Josef Albers,  The Interaction of Color
The blue on the left looks different than the blue on the right even though they are exactly the same because all that green demands the complement, turning the blue a little reddish. The blue on the orange field stays true, if perhaps a bit more vibrant, because orange is the complement of blue.

That's the trick with this Jasper Johns's flag painting too. If you stare at the white dot in the middle for about a minute, then look at a white wall, you'll see the compliment – a red, white and blue flag.

I experienced simultaneous effect very clearly with Paul Cézanne’s Young Woman at a Table, 1885-1900, at the Getty Museum.
Paul Cézanne, Young Woman at a Table, 1885-1900, oil on canvas, 38 ⅛ x 28 ⅞ inches (Getty Museum).
The painting was hung in natural light and just glowed. The blues, especially the shadows on her hands, were so bright they didn't seem natural, certainly not typical of Cézanne's gray tonalities. I realized I wasn’t seeing color that came out of a tube, but the kind of vibrant, elusive color that resulted from a simultaneous effect. This can even be seen in reproduction.
Detail, Paul Cézanne, Young Italian Woman at a Table, 1885-90.
The World Is an Apple: The Still Lifes of Paul Cézanne is a great show, but there are some nits I want to pick with the exhibition catalog and wall labels. Several times they make the point that the genre of still life allowed Cézanne to control the composition in his studio. True, but this is certainly not something unique to Cézanne. Aside from the possible exception of some Impressionist paintings, artists working in all genres have always manipulated and controlled their compositions. And of course even the Impressionists carefully chose the point of view of a composition, and carefully edited it, often back in their studios.
Paul Cézanne, The Kitchen Table, 1888-90 oil on canvas 65 x 81 cm. (Musée d'Orsay, Paris).
Another wall label, presumably written by the curator, regarding The Kitchen Table, 1888-90 (above) states: “The distortions of forms and simultaneously varies points of view … demonstrate his knowing deployment of what has been called ‘willed ineptitude.”  It was not “ineptitude” willed or otherwise, but a different type of aptitude, a different skill set, employed for a different goal: the ordering and animation of a painting.

I said they were nit picks!

If you're interested in Cézanne (and there's no hope for you if you're not), Philadelphia is one of the best places in the world to see his work. There are 23 paintings in this exhibition and 70 more (not a typo) on view in the Barnes's permanent collection; PLUS the nearby Philadelphia Museum of Art has many more Cézanne paintings including his enormous (for Cézanne, that is – about 7' x 8') Large Bathers, 1906.
Paul Cézanne, The Large Bathers, 1900-06, oil on canvas, 82 7/8 x 98 3/4 inches (Philadelphia Museum of Art).