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Lasting Impressions

Cézanne's influence is seen reflected, and refracted, in his American followers

The Museum Of Modern Art, New York. Given Anonymously 1949
Morgan Russell's "Three Apples" (1910)

By Bret McCabe | Posted 5/12/2010

Cézanne and American Modernism

Through may 23 at the Baltimore Museum of Art

Try--just try--to ignore the works by Paul Cézanne entirely when visiting the Baltimore Museum of Art's mammoth Cézanne and American Modernism. It's almost impossible: The Cézannes dominate in sheer number (16 works total), the remaining 89 works coming from 33 American artists. It's also difficult because the Cézannes capture an artist often in total command of his vision, while the canvases from Americans are often stepping stones toward more mature and signature ideas and vocabularies. These American works are intended to demonstrate how Cézanne informed America's emerging modernists and, admittedly, nobody learns to sprint overnight. Still, it's a little curious to be eyeballing works cherry picked from when an artist was still crawling.

That's the sleeper reward in this intelligent exhibition, though. Cézanne originated last fall at New Jersey's Montclair Art Museum, whose curator Gail Stavitsky has spent the past decade putting it together, with the BMA getting involved in 2005 (BMA Senior Curator of European Painting and Sculpture Katherine Rothkopf co-edited the excellent catalog with Stavitsky). Cézanne's influence on early-20th century European artists has emerged as an art-history given since his 1906 death, informing the direction of cubism in Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, influencing the portraiture color ideas and subject matter of Henri Matisse, suggesting the abstraction of space as found in Piet Mondrian, implying the brushstroke work of Jasper Johns. Such is the idea explored last year by the Philadelphia Museum of Art's Cézanne and Beyond. The BMA and Montclair Cézanne does the same for America's modernists, and does so in an intelligently articulated show that is refreshingly not arranged chronologically, opting instead for discursive thematic groupings.

Those groupings effectively span 1907-1929--dates that bridge a large-scale Cézanne retrospective in Paris, Alfred Stieglitz's 291 gallery showing Cézannes for the first time in 1910-'11, the game-changing 1913 Armory show, and the Museum of Modern Art's first loan exhibition, the 1929 Cézanne, Gauguin, Seurat, and van Gogh. These 22 years represent a nexus in American art, a time period when some artists turned away from the traditional and followed Europe's lead in visual experimentation and innovation. It might be less noteworthy for the works created during this time than for where it eventually led artists' visual thinking, but it's rather illuminating to see the early to middle steps in a visual vocabulary.

The exhibition's best visual example of Cézanne's lasting American influence is found in the pairings of his landscapes with those of Marsden Hartley. They greet museumgoers first entering the exhibition galleries--Cézanne's circa 1897 "Monte Sainte-Victoire Seen from the Bibémus Quarry" hanging next to Hartley's 1927 view of the same limestone mountain near Cézanne's Aix-en-Provence home, where Hartley's soft palette and even brush strokes appear inspired by the former. The real payoff comes in the exhibition's middle galleries, though, where five rather stunning Hartley landscapes appear. These five--"Landscape, Vence," "Purple Mountains, Vence," "Aqueduct in Provence (or Alpes Maritimes, Vence)," and two more "Mont Sainte-Victoire" paintings--all date from the late 1920s, after he moved to Southern France in 1925. Where the Cézanne influence is unmistakable when entering the exhibition, these four paintings show Hartley taking what he needs and making it his own. The 1927 "Monte Sainte-Victoire" in this room features familiar Cézanne-like hatched brushstrokes, but the palette is dominated by hot reds and oranges, giving it a stained-glass brilliance.

A majority of the works from the remaining artists showcase less their creator's strengths than the Cézanne debt, though they offers an odd peek at certain familiar ideas--like looking at a high-school photo of a friend you've only know as an adult. Take the five pieces by Maurice Prendergast here. Better-known for his street and park scenes, the five works here date from 1910-'13, following a trip to Paris in 1907 and a trip to Italy in 1911, and the Cézanne influence can be seen in the temperature of his blues and greens, the bathers subject matter, and the darting, short brushstrokes. All come together in "Woman in Green Dress," a kinetic portrait of a woman in which the representational flatness comes alive under the visual action of the brushwork creating both her dress and the background.

More such earlier works from recognizable names dot the gallery walls. Oscar Bluemner is sometimes better known for his color abstracted landscape work, but his two 1911 paintings here succinctly capture his transition from architect to painter: They feature two views of industrial buildings, a factory in "Hackensack River" and "Jersey Silkmills (Paterson)." The African-American artist Hale Woodruff is better known for his socially aware depictions of the black experience in American in the 1930s, but his 1928 "Normandy Landscape" delivers a peek into how multifarious Woodruff's painting skill was: The large panel captures a field as seen through foreground foliage rendered in Cézanne hues.

But Cézanne and American Modernism's best moments are its rare surprises. Anne Brigman was a California-based early American photographer who almost exclusively took naturalistic photos of nude women, often high up in the mountains. Both the content of her vision of the American West and her oddly dramatic compositions feel tenuously related to Cézanne at best, her one photogravure included here--"Dryads"--is indelible. Two nude women recline on a jagged, rocky mountain edge in the left foreground of the image, a large tree shooting up along the left third of the frame. The face of the mountain slopes out of frame down and to the right, leaving a large, negative space expanse of sky. It's an oddly memorable image, a combination of its abstruse imagery and its severe composition, which is as dramatically arranged as early Soviet film mise en scène.

Morgan Russell lingers the longest with you after leaving this exhibition, though. The abstract painter who started the Synchromism movement with Stanton Macdonald-Wright appears almost unrecognizable here in a series of seven pieces that directly dialogue with Cézanne: the 1909 "Battle of the Filaine" offers Russell's impressionistic take on bathers; his 1910 "Three Apples" a direct quote of Cézanne's 1877-8 "Five Apples," which was owned by Gertrude and Leo Stein and which Russell borrowed; two studies based on Cézanne works; and a portrait of the French artist.

And then, there's Russell's circa 1915 "Still Life Color Study," little more than a 5 3/4-81/2-inch watercolor on paper. The ostensible first synchromist painting, Russell's "Synchromy in Green," was unveiled in 1913, and this still life captures Russell somewhere in between Cézanne's post-impressionism and Russell's own musical visual experiments in color and movement. But get close and notice how different the "Still Life Color Study" is articulated: the three apples are rendered in chaotic splashes of different hues of watercolor, such that the largest one is this frenetic collision of redorangesyellowred becoming the perfectly oblong sphere of the apple shape. The brushstrokes look less directional than a delicate balance of improvisational and controlled. The composition less rooted in some kind of realism than a dynamic consideration of two-dimensional space. Here, in one peek into an artist's creative process, could be one of several moments where the student stands up and begins walking away from the teacher.

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