Editors' pick

Cezanne and American Modernism

Painting/Drawing
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Editorial Review

After Cezanne, a reshaping of the American avant-garde

By Eric Banks
Thursday, February 18, 2010

How many ways are there to slice a Cezanne? As evidenced by "Cezanne and American Modernism," the answer is plenty. The fascinating exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art traces the exuberant, all-over-the-map responses of 33 early 20th-century American artists to Cezanne's works in the decades when his oils and watercolors were more a matter of rumor than a mainstay of modern museums.

The BMA show, which opened Wednesday, frames the diversity of the response with two pairings in the first gallery. The lapidary "Mont Sainte-Victoire Seen From the Bibmus Quarry" is paired with Marsden Hartley's 1927 remake of the hollowed Aix vista, a homage that turns Cezanne's airy patches of paintwork into declamatory passages of bristly, scratchy hot pinks and deep blues. By contrast, Cezanne's still-life "Five Apples," once owned by Leo and Gertrude Stein, squares off with Edward Steichen's tightly cropped photograph "Three Pears and an Apple" from about 1921; the coupling highlights a subtler exchange, more conceptual and compositional, in which Cezanne is grist for thought rather than subject for execution.

The Baltimore exhibition includes more than 100 works by Americans both well known (Maurice Prendergast, Charles Demuth and Alfred Maurer are amply represented) and obscure, alongside 16 Cezannes and archival material. Some American artists were magnetically drawn to the myth of Cezanne the primitivist prophet, the "wild man of Aix"; others grappled with the radically eye-opening sense of plasticity they saw in his landscapes, which offered them an architectonic lesson in flattened space and a revolutionary use of color and form to reinvent composition. Then there was Cezanne the colorist and Cezanne the master of harmony.

Above all, there was Cezanne himself - to talk about, to read and write about and to think about - no minor activity given how few of his works could actually be seen and experienced in the flesh by Americans prior to an epochal 1913 Armory Show in New York. "Cezanne and American Modernism" is not just an extended look at what artists did with the material they came into contact with, but a visual essay in how artist-spokesmen, im8pre8sa8rios of the avant-garde such as Alfred Stieglitz, and determined collectors molded the contours of American modernism in its baby-step days.

The route to Cezanne passed through two key way stations. At 27 Rue de Fleurus, in Paris, the Steins' collection - and Leo Stein's proselytizing enthusiasm for Cezanne - served as a Lourdes for visiting American artists. (Morton Livingston Schamberg, whose delicate drawing of a bowl of fruit is on view here, described a visit as "pills to the artistic liver.") In New York, Stieglitz's Gallery 291 provided the first glimpses of Cezannes on an American wall - a suite of photographs of the artist's work in 1910, which was followed the next year by a show of his watercolors. Perhaps as important was Stieglitz's journal, Camera Work, which published writings by Cezanne initiates, including Max Weber, whose compact 1911 canvas "Connecticut Landscape" is a strong example of translating the French artist's shimmering patches of brushy color to render a bit of New England woods.

The decisiveness of Stieglitz's do-it-all showmanship in importing Cezanne can't be overstated, and his bull's-eye place in the circles of American modernists of the age helps underwrite one tantalizing tangent in the show: the influence of Cezanne on the era's photography. Clarence H. White's moody plein-air photograph "Nude on Rocks" from 1910 looks quite at home amid the riot of "Bathers"-inspired canvases, but the more radical readings of Cezanne come in the stern, crystal-clear studies in line and shadow by Paul Strand and the beautiful little Paul Outerbridge still-life, "Cheese and Crackers."

As art historian Ellen Handy points out in an essay in an excellent accompanying catalogue to the exhibition, Cezanne's influence on American photography is less clear-cut than what is amply attested to in the canvases and watercolors shown. Other sources than Cezanne probably had more to do with the sturdy constructions of photographers like Strand. Still, it is a daring moment in the exhibition that one wishes might have been articulated at greater length.

"Cezanne and American Modernism" is most fascinating in those places where the bright light of the post-impressionist grows haziest. In Arthur Dove's infectiously oddball "Still Life Against Flowered Wallpaper" from 1909, the knitted-together composition and bulbous fruit merge into a background of candy-colored wallpaper that owes as much to Matisse as to Cezanne but that shows a young artist absorbing both. Man Ray's 1914 "Departure of Summer," on loan from the Art Institute of Chicago, is a similar delight of youthful liftings transformed into an image that is miles from its "Bathers" source. In the Man Ray, the figures have become all hard geometry, the V of a reclining figure's leg erotically rhyming with the crotch of another nude. Only a faint whiff of Cezanne is left in the end.

Dove and Man Ray are outliers of sorts in the survey. Other artists' encounters were unapologetically direct and tight. Stanton Mac8donald-Wright's portrait of the prominent art writer Willard Huntington Wright seems directly lifted from Cezanne's picture of Gustave Geoffroy, while Morgan Russell's goofy c. 1912-13 "Still Life With Bananas" applies a palette of hot, acid greens, yellows and oranges to a by-the-numbers platter of Cezannean fruit. John Marin liked to disavow the connection between his watercolors and Cezanne's, but a suite of tinty Tyrolean Alps views proves otherwise.

Phoenix is the ultimate destination for this exhibition (co-organized by the Baltimore Museum of Art with New Jersey's Montclair Art Museum, where it first appeared), and the show's last gallery detours into western, an unfortunate cul-de-sac. The western canvases are all too frequently paint-by-numbers exercises in design, not least in B.J.O. Nordfeldt's bit of period-piece dancing Indians. You can see Cezanne's influence here, but you'd rather not. Fortunately, the exhibition ends with a terrific trio of early works by Arshile Gorky, paintings that try to get underneath Cezanne's skin yet remain restlessly ready to move onward. Of course, by the time the Gorky paintings were executed, Cezanne was well on his way to becoming a safely historicized new old master. "Cezanne and American Modernism" returns us to a much rawer moment, a time of eager, and early, encounter.