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Exhibit of the week: Cézanne and Beyond
The Philadelphia Museum of Art's new exhibit shows how generations of artists—from Pablo Picasso to Ellsworth Kelly— have drawn inspiration from Cézanne.
 

Exhibit of the week
Cézanne and Beyond
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Through May 17

“Paul Cézanne used to warn young painters” about imitating their elders too slavishly, said Richard Lacayo in Time. It’s ironic, then, that the Frenchman who bucked the artistic conventions of 19th-century France became the single most important influence on painting in the 20th century. “An ingenious new exhibition” in Philadelphia documents how generations of painters—from Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Georges Braque to “living artists like Ellsworth Kelly, Jasper Johns, and Brice Marden”—have drawn inspiration from Cézanne. Some looked at his “distorted forms and tilted planes,” and tried to break down their own depictions of reality even further. Others admired the mythic weight of the human figures in his paintings. What they all learned from the master was that “every brushstroke leads a double life, as part of a painterly illusion and as a thing in itself, a patch of pigment on a canvas.”

In directly juxtaposing works by Cézanne with others inspired by them in a “series of duets,” the show risks oversimplifying a complicated web of artistic influence, said Karen Rosenberg in The New York Times. But any worries fall away when you see masterpieces by Cézanne hanging between comparable achievements by Matisse or Picasso. “The show reaches a crescendo” in a gallery that displays several of Cézanne’s Bathers alongside works on the same theme by those two artists in which they “pick up on the Cézannes’ strange vibrations between figure and landscape, the way the trees bend to follow the arc of the bathers’ backs.” These works exemplify the breadth and quality of the entire exhibition, and the room shimmers with “a kind of electricity.”

“It must be said that the exhibition teeters on the cusp of incoherence,” said Sebastian Smee in The Boston Globe. Precisely because Cézanne was so influential, a show that chases down all the strands of his influence can become “a bit of a free-for-all.” Painters such as Max Beckmann, Piet Mondrian, and Marsden Hartley don’t have much in common with one another, and the connection between such contemporary artists as photographer Jeff Wall and abstract painter Ellsworth Kelly can be even harder to discern. But even when you can’t immediately see the link to Cézanne, you can simply “gorge on the pleasures of looking.”

 

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