Cézanne's Influence Translates Into the Work of Many Artists After Him

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 15, 2009


It's just possible that Paul Cézanne, that reactionary old recluse who stayed holed up in Provence until his death in 1906, made the most complex, most widely influential art the West has ever known. The chaos of Picasso's cubism, the cool of Mondrian's abstraction, the heat of Max Beckmann's expressionism, even the latest backlit photos of Jeff Wall -- it all tracks back to Cézanne.

That unrivaled influence is the subject of "Cézanne and Beyond," a major exhibition now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and not traveling anywhere else. (Fans of the artist should consider also making a reservation to visit the Barnes Foundation, in the suburbs, which has a stunning 69 Cézannes; the Barnes doesn't lend, so those paintings aren't in this show.)

The show presents 56 pictures by Cézanne, spread out among twice that many works by 19 later artists, dating from right after the master's death to a piece made for this show. His acolytes include the obvious suspects, such as Picasso, Matisse, Alberto Giacometti and Jasper Johns, whose pictures show a clear debt. Other Cézannists come as more of a surprise: The robotlike figures of Fernand Léger, the ungainly homoerotica of Marsden Hartley or the rather tame still lifes of Charles Demuth may not immediately evoke Cézanne, but this exhibition demonstrates how much they owe him. It even spots Cézanne lurking behind Ellsworth Kelly's single planes of color and Brice Marden's skeins of line (both artists deliberately tucked quotations from the Frenchman into their abstractions).

Even all 19 of the exhibition's artists aren't enough to explore all the avenues that Cézanne opened up. Curators could easily have traced Andy Warhol's five-hour film of a friend sleeping to its roots in Cézanne's obsessive observation -- it took him 115 sittings to get one portrait partway done. Or Hamish Fulton, documenting his walks across the landscape, could have been tracked back to Cézanne's dogged immersion in the countryside around him.

The show's most notable absence may be Marcel Duchamp. The arbitrariness of Duchamp couldn't have happened without the dose of willfulness to be found in almost any Cézanne. When they were first shown, the paintings of Cézanne could feel as unprincipled and pointlessly provocative as any dada gesture by Duchamp: It was said there was no telling a Cézanne apple from a Cézanne face. To his many enemies, Cézanne seemed to put the whole world -- not to mention the entire history of art -- through a blender. Duchamp merely turned one toilet upside down.

There's one final artist who may come across as strangely missing from this show: Cézanne himself, understood on his own terms. When Cézanne's in the room, you don't want to spend time on someone else. It turns out that seeing his achievement through the eyes of other, lesser artists -- and even a genius can seem minor, compared with Cézanne -- doesn't help that much to come to terms with it. More than anything, "Cézanne and Beyond" proves that Cézanne is the only reliable guide to what Cézanne is about.

Pablo Picasso, "Nudes in a Forest" {vbar} Paul Cézanne, "Mont Sainte-Victoire"

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company