Cezanne exhibit to open at BMA

The BMA explores how the reclusive Paul Cezanne — overlooked in his own time — has inspired generations of American artists

  • Paul Cezanne. Five Apples.1877-78 (R334). Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Eugene V. Thaw
Paul Cezanne. Five Apples.1877-78 (R334). Collection of Mr.…
February 14, 2010|By Mary Carole McCauley | mary.mccauley@baltsun.com | Baltimore Sun reporter

Paul Cezanne never had an entourage.

His contemporary, Claude Monet, was far more politically savvy. He assiduously collected a circle of students, followers and well-connected patrons. But Cezanne was shy, reclusive, rude, nervous and disagreeable. He possessed all the social graces of a cornered skunk. But that didn't stop other artists in Europe and the U.S. from flipping over Cezanne's work, even though their only exposure to his vibrantly colored landscapes and meticulously composed still lifes were black-and-white photographs of the paintings.

"Cezanne was not a self-promoter," says Katy Rothkopf, who co-curated the exhibit, "Cezanne and American Modernism," opening Wednesday at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

"His first one-man show didn't even occur until 1893, 11 years before he died. His work received a lot of negative criticism and no public acclaim. He was interested in his own vision, and not in managing his own press. But he was an artist's artist."

Cezanne's paintings are seen now as a bridge between the Impressionist and Cubist art movements. Henri Matisse described the older artist as "the father of us all," while to Pablo Picasso, Cezanne was "my one and only master." Though Cezanne's impact on European painters has been widely documented, this traveling show is the first time anyone has studied Cezanne's effect on artists living on the other side of the Atlantic.

"This show represents a real work of scholarship that will last far beyond the closing date of this show," according to Jay Fisher, the Baltimore Museum of Art's deputy director of curatorial affairs. "It documents in very specific ways Cezanne's influence on American painters. Researchers will go back to this catalog for years to come."

The show at the BMA contains more than 100 paintings representing the work of 34 artists, including 16 by Cezanne. Two - "Mount Sainte-Victoire Seen From the Bibemus Quarry" and "Bathers" - are part of the museum's Cone Collection. The remaining 14 were borrowed from art institutions nationwide, including ones in Chicago, Boston and New York.

The show also highlights nearly three dozen of Cezanne's top American disciples, including the painter Marsden Hartley - who moved to Aix-en-Provence, rented a studio in the same building in which his idol had once painted and hoped to channel Cezanne's spirit - as well as Morgan Russell, Arshile Gorky and even Man Ray.

"Throughout his career, Hartley looked to Cezanne for inspiration, particularly when he was down on his artwork and down on his life." says Rothkopf, the museum's senior curator of European painting and sculpture.

"Cezanne really lifted him up. He was his greatest mentor. The American artists adored him, even though they never met him. He influenced them from afar."

The exhibit conveys an almost visceral sense of the excitement felt by the Yanks when they first discovered Cezanne's work about 100 years ago. In the 21st century, the Impressionists and post-Impressionists have become the epitome of safe, crowd-pleasing art. Mount a major exhibition featuring the works of Van Gogh, Monet or Renoir, and a museum is guaranteed a blockbuster show with tickets that will sell out months in advance. So it's easy to underestimate how startling, how game-changing, the paintings were when they were created.

Cezanne was the artist who popularized the technique of painting in watercolors - and immediately infused painting with immediacy and vitality.

It was Cezanne whose trademark was the use of cropped objects in his paintings. For instance, a still life might show just the bottom half of an apple, a departure from the "normal" artistic impulse to render the fruit in its entirety. Depicting just part of an object implies that the rest of it - and a large, bustling world of which that apple is only a small part - lies just out of view on the other side of the picture frame.

And it was Cezanne, who, in even the most polished of his portraits, always allowed a bit of the bare canvas to peek through, reminding viewers that the still life or landscape watercolor is a man-made artifact.

Cezanne's work didn't merely teach his adherents a few tricks, or inspire them to rededicate themselves to their craft. It made them turn their lives utterly upside down.

For example, Oscar Bluemner was an award-winning architect on the fast track in 1911 when he attended a show of Cezanne watercolors. He was so dazzled by what he saw that he quit his job, devoted himself to painting full time, and subjected himself and his family to a life of abject poverty.

"He said, 'I can no longer be an architect. I have to be a painter and do what that man does,' " Rothkopf says.

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