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Cézanne Central
One French Master's Influence Translates Into The Work of Many Artists Who've Followed Him

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

PHILADELPHIA

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"

Pablo Picasso may have been the single most important and faithful Cézannist, ever. Cubism's kaleidoscopic fracturing of things is just an extension of the breakage already begun by Cézanne. The feathered brush strokes that define each of the many surfaces we see in a cubist picture are the same strokes that Cézanne used to pull apart his art.

But the relationship goes much deeper than these surface similarities. Cézanne discovered that a modern artist could play at dreaming up new languages for describing reality, without feeling obliged to supply a key to understanding them.

Looking at a Cézanne, you feel as though you're witnessing an orderly translation of objects into paint, but you never come away with a clear sense of the objects in question. Picasso ran with that method: He created the strong impression that cubism had a grammar and vocabulary that worked (think of all the attempts that wall texts make to explain it as a set of rational procedures) while allowing it to speak in tongues (think of how unconvincing all those explanations end up being).

And it was thanks to Cézanne that modern art became a matter of the most radical, ongoing experimentation, rejecting established precedents or newly fashionable theories or any consistency of style. As art historian John Elderfield puts it in the exhibition's massive catalogue, "Picasso saw the extremism in Cézanne's art and made it his own."

Piet Mondrian, "No. 1: Opposition of Lines, Red and Yellow" {vbar} Paul Cézanne, "Chateau Noir"

Picasso's messes may have got Cézanne right, but that doesn't mean that Piet Mondrian, with his resolute tidiness, got him at all wrong. From early on, the Dutch abstractionist recognized that the fertile chaos Picasso unearthed in Cézanne was built around a framework of geometric rigor. By 1920, Mondrian had reduced his pictures to a grid of verticals and horizontals -- the same grid that Cézanne, even at his most disorderly, had relied on 40 years before. Mondrian's flat fields of unmixed color, bordered in black, can also be spotted in details in most of Cézanne's paintings. Mondrian said that Cézanne had discovered that "everything has a geometric basis, that painting consists solely of color oppositions." That doesn't even start to explain Cézanne, but it's a fine account of the small part of him that Mondrian drew on.

Max Beckmann, "Seascape With Agaves and Old Castle" {vbar} Paul Cézanne, "Large Pine and Red Earth"

For Max Beckmann, a founder of German expressionism, Cézanne had nothing to do with abstraction; the Frenchman was the great realist, getting to the core of what the world is all about.

Where some artists saw a revolutionary flatness, Beckmann saw depth, in every sense of the word.

In 1905, the 21-year-old Beckmann was already saying that he found Cézanne "deeper, more dramatic, more nervous and much more tragic than van Gogh." Cézanne, said Beckmann, "is able to express his deepest emotions in an onion and I can remember landscapes he has painted which are like a living drama. . . . He has found the finest and most discreet way ever to express the soul through painting."

Such romantic hyperbole is actually a credible reaction to some Cézannes: to his images of skulls, as grimly soulful as anything can be, as well as to his uniquely penetrating portraiture. But it also fits a work as seemingly straightforward as his "Large Pine and Red Earth." That picture has so much going on in it, it becomes an automatic metaphor for the most profound complexities of being.

Jeff Wall, "Card Players" {vbar} Paul Cézanne, "The Card Players"

What could Jeff Wall, a Canadian who makes huge backlit color photos of staged scenes, have in common with a long-dead French master who mostly painted small still lifes, portraits and landscapes, most often from life? A great deal, at least when Wall's at his best.

It's not when Wall looks most like Cézanne that he comes closest to him. Wall's recent photo of old women playing cards, on view in Philadelphia, is such an obvious reworking of Cézanne's famous "Card Players" that it risks becoming an art-historical one-liner, without the depth of Cézanne's original or of Wall's more important works.

Wall is most like Cézanne -- more like him than most other living artists -- when he achieves Cézanne's uncanny blend of the clear-cut and the cryptic, of old-fashioned realism and newfangled conceptualism. At first glance, many of Wall's photos can have a banal, what-you-see-is-what-you-get effect: He presents photos of a path leading to a warehouse, or a storm drain with two girls playing at its mouth, as though that's all there is to see in them. Yet in every case, there's something so clearly willed about his choice of scene, and so calculated in his depiction of it, that you're launched into a search for hidden depths. Wall doesn't make pictures that look like Cézanne's. He makes pictures that work like Cézanne's.

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