Oh, what an impression Cezanne made

Art Review

May 27, 2002|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

As a young artist, Paul Cezanne once remarked that he wanted "to make of Impressionism something solid and durable, like the art of the museums." And so he did: By the end of his career Cezanne not only had taken impressionism far beyond the recording of ephemeral effects of light and color but laid the foundations for all the important modern art movements that would follow.

Matisse considered Cezanne his greatest teacher, and artists as varied as Russian Chaim Soutine, Frenchmen Maurice Vlaminck, Raoul Dufy and Andre Derain and Americans John Marin and Charles Demuth all found Cezanne a source of inspiration. It is impossible to imagine the radical departures of fauvism and cubism without Cezanne, whose art provided the vital link between the artistic traditions of the 19th century and the avant-garde spirit of the 20th.

Now Cezanne's pivotal role in the evolution of modern art is the subject of a new exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Cezanne and the Transformed Landscape.

In mounting this exhibit, the BMA has substantially reinstalled its famed Cone Collection of early modern art. The show centers around four major works - three Cezanne landscapes on loan from New York's Museum of Modern Art and the BMA's own Mont Sainte-Victoire Seen from Bibemus Quarry, which recently returned to the museum after a two-year tour.

The central gallery, which was dominated by Picasso and Matisse when the renovated Cone Wing reopened last year, now houses the landscapes, while the surrounding galleries have been hung with works that complement them, including paintings by artists like Gauguin, Monet and Picasso, whose works were previously on tour. The rear gallery has been devoted to some two dozen works by the French, Russian and American painters whom Cezanne influenced most directly.

The present installation is a testament to the breadth, depth and versatility of the collection assembled by the Baltimore sisters Claribel and Etta Cone during the first half of the 20th century. As did so many of the artists in this show, the Cones first encountered Cezanne's art in the Paris apartment of Gertrude and Leo Stein, whom they visited from 1901 on. For many years the Steins owned the most extensive collection of Cezannes anywhere, and it was largely through reports by Americans returning from abroad that his work first became known in this country.

Cezanne's late landscapes represented the greatest challenge of his career, and his effort "to make of Impressionism something solid and durable" - in effect, to transform the 200-year-old tradition of the landscape genre - occupied him from 1882, when he returned to his native Aix-en-Provence, until his death in 1906.

In Provence, under the blue Mediterranean sky, he struggled to discover the enduring forms of nature that lay beneath the fleeting appearances of things (he once famously advised his fellow painter Emile Bernard to treat everything in nature in terms of "the cylinder, the sphere and the cone"). Surrounded by the verdant countryside of his youth, he created the three masterpieces from the MOMA collection: Pines and Rocks (Fountainebleau?), a view of a stand of trees, L'Estaque, a view of red rooftops overlooking a bay, and Turning Road at Montgeroult, a view of a road running through a small village.

Again and again he returned to paint the craggy peak of Mont Sainte Victoire, whose solitary remoteness seemed to obsess him. In all these works, Cezanne's rhythmic brushstrokes achieved a shimmering intensity that made his subject's monumental stability come alive with movement.

These were the qualities that so impressed Cezanne's admirers. The American Max Weber, on seeing 10 paintings by the master at the Salon d'Automne in 1906, was overcome by "this sculpturesque touch of pigment." Marsden Hartley, who first saw Cezanne's works at the Steins' in 1912, remarked on Cezanne's genius for "discarding all useless encumbrances ... of seeing the superb fact in terms of itself, majestically; and if not always serenely, serenity was nevertheless his passionate longing."

Among the many gems in this show are Hartley's exuberant view of the Maine coastline, which he described as an effort to "take up where Cezanne left off," and Weber's painting of bathers inspired by Cezanne's treatment of the subject (Cezanne executed more than 200 works on this theme, two of which are included in this show).

The works of these and other artists provide the context for Cezanne's achievement and his influence among a younger generation of painters, whose enthusiasm ultimately forced the world to recognize Cezanne as one of the great modern masters.

As the American artist Walter Pach, who helped organize the landmark 1913 Armory Show, noted years later: "It was the slow, collective pressure of conviction by the artists that brought men like Cezanne and van Gogh from their apparent hopeless neglect to their immense prestige of today."

Exhibit

What: Cezanne and the Transformed Landscape

Where: Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive

Hours: Wednesdays-Fridays 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday, Sunday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; through Aug. 25

Admission: $7 adults; $5 senior citizens and students

Call: 410-396-7100

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