On ViewArt Institute of Chicago
May 15 – September 5, 2022
A whirling, shimmering, and pulsing miasma of greens, fed, vein-like, by arteries of brown and red, Undergrowth (Sous-Bois) (c. 1894) is the gateway through which the curators of Cezanne have chosen to lead viewers on their methodical walk through the career of arguably the most influential painter in the modern period. Undergrowth is complemented by two other classic, leafy, oleaginous oils Path from Mas Jolie to Château Noir (1900–02) and The Big Trees (1902–04), meanwhile the show ends with The Large Bathers (Les Grandes Baigneuses) (c. 1894–1905), formally packaging this presentation of the artist’s work within the traditional parameters of his practice. While they choose to begin and end the exhibition with the mature works which propelled our current notions of abstraction—like prosecutors building a case—the curators Gloria Groom, Caitlin Haskell, and Natalia Sidlina offer evidence that Cézanne’s vision emerged not simply from an ingenious re-envisioning of space, but also from an all-encompassing sense of transgression: politically, socially, as well as in his approach to objects themselves. We are led through each of his innovations in satire, in depictions of sexuality, in his social practice, and finally arrive at his feats of still life and landscape. The pace can be didactic at times, but this care is well-considered, and leaves the visitor with the impression that all of Cézanne’s investigations were absolutely necessary to the culmination of such an influential vision.
The exhibition does not move in an exact chronology, which seems to be a strategy to introduce the viewer to some of Cézanne’s lesser-known works before buffeting them with the absorbing classic ones. His satirical paintings and drawings, such as Olympia (1877) and The Eternal Feminine (c. 1877) were created by the artist in middle age and display a keen sensitivity to the notion of the male gaze and the objectification of women. In Olympia, based on Manet’s painting, Cézanne subverts the romantic/erotic imagery of the odalisque, dryly inserting a top-hatted John in the background and bluntly reminding the viewer that the subject is a sex-worker and is being paid to sit in our presence. The Eternal Feminine has a similar sentiment, situating a nude woman with her legs spread toward a crowd of lusty men including a bishop, horn-playing musicians, and the bald painter himself, at front. She sits in a white canopy bed, but in the presence of a depraved masculine throng, this flimsy prop lampoons the sense of intimacy it is usually employed to imply.
Cézanne’s early works are presented a bit further into the exhibition and are centered on Scipio (1867), a luxurious meditation on the naked back and blue trousers of a napping model starkly framed against a bright white cushion. The curators assert that Scipio is a statement of Cezanne’s interest in the American Civil War, in a similar way to his satires, which indicated a developed interest in social ills and inequalities. The nearby charcoal drawing Study for L’Autopsie (1867–69) and painting The Murder (1867–70) further strengthen this point. Cézanne had a fascination with stories of violence in the press and while these images are lurid, they also hint at a concern with the desperate circumstances that underlie violent actions (despite his nascent social consciousness, it should be remembered that Cezanne took the anti-Semitic position during the Dreyfus affair). The artist’s pastoral with nudes frolicking in The Battle of Love (1879–80), also included at the beginning of the exhibition, is similarly tainted with dark, looming figures and postures which don’t seem altogether consensual. A small painting, Nude Woman (Leda?) (1885–87), punctuates the end of the first half of the exhibition: all of these intriguing choices by the artist seem to manifest compositionally in the surrealistic placement of a voluptuous reclining nude positioned in counterpoint to a pair of upside-down pears. The artist had started one painting, rotated the canvas and cheekily continued the drapery from the space of the fruit or from the woman, and then connected the two incongruous images. Armed with what we know Cezanne was thinking about, and how this transformed his painting, we enter the second half of the show able to see his mature works from a new vantage point.
The apples, pears, pots, pitchers, etc., that the painter employed in his still lifes thus emerge as a revelation of symbolism. Nude Woman particularly presents the female body and fruit in close and meaningful proximity, and all that implies. The white cloths that appear in bathing scenes and in the still lifes seem to refer to the fluttering loincloths of Rogier van der Weyden and other Netherlandish painters that the artist would have seen and possibly copied from on his trips to the Louvre for study (an activity he pursued throughout his career); they are prominent in Still Life with Apples (1893–94) and The Basket of Apples (c. 1893). In Still Life with Plaster Cupid (1894–95), an armless cast of a putto stands between two groupings of fruit while a blue-gray patterned curtain lies piled up behind him. The table angles precipitously toward us into the foreground while the background melts away into flickering and open brushwork. The lunging cupid is slightly menacing, like the characters in The Battle of Love. Meanwhile, in the watercolors Still Life with Apples, a Bottle, and a Milk Pot (1900–06), Melon and Sugar Bowl (1900–06), Bottles, Pot, Alcohol Stove, and Apples (1900–06), and Still Life with Sliced Open Watermelon (c. 1900), the artist progressively dissolves the difference between object and space, referencing the allegorical and superficially arbitrary and chaotic still lifes of Jan Davidsz. de Heem, among other Dutch masters he would have seen at the Louvre.
The depth of this exhibition allows for the rare opportunity to view multiples of similar images or genres in series and view the artist modifying his touch. The first manifestation of this is at the beginning with the three large forest landscapes, but the rooms of images of Mont Sainte-Victoire and the Gulf of Marseilles are even more arresting. The still lifes allow us to see in slow motion and on a personal level that Cézanne was increasingly allowing the movement and unpredictability of nature to define his painting. In Mont Sainte-Victoire Seen from the Bibémus Quarry (1895–99), the division between robin’s egg blue sky and pink and gray mountain is crisp and defined by darker lines, as is the distant mountain from sandy quarry, but in Mont Sainte-Victoire Seen From Les Lauves (1904–05), the sky is green and bleeds into a blue mountain. The dark green fronds of a tree in the foreground flow up the horizon into the sky: the image is muddied and perhaps even lost, the picture plane is primarily a tumbling cascade of colors and implied faceted volumes. The watercolors of gardens and forests go even further. The Garden at Les Lauves–View of Aix and The Cathedral of Saint Sauveur (1902–06) are blocks of leaf-shaped marks in purple, yellow, and green while The Bridge of Trois-Sautets (c. 1906) interrupts the all-over painting of the vegetation with the abstracted white arc of the bridge and the dark brown crescent of its shaded underside. The link to Braque’s country landscapes, also at L’Estaque, painted two years later is almost seamless.
The last painting in Cezanne is The Large Bathers (Les Grandes Baigneuses) (1894–1905), a claustrophobic posse of bluish and oddly angled, truncated, and distorted female bodies. To the right is a much smaller Three Bathers (c. 1875) formerly in the collection of Henry Moore. In the earlier painting, the figures are pink and fleshy, Rubenesque, and they are clearly splashing and swaying in a verdant clearing in the woods. The Large Bathers is instead about space and form—it is filled with visual discrepancies: Cézanne seems to have simply doubled a figure in the background, the ubiquitous white cloths he loves seem to melt into the flesh of the figures, and the three (much larger) women in the foreground are not in scale with their comrades. At center, Cézanne has placed a dark sack from which five apples have rolled. The placement of the fruit, like the women, seems arbitrary. Composition in Cézanne’s hands now is something that happens around objects, not to them, and we have followed the progress of this path across the expanse of his long and remarkable career.