Godfather of the Modern?

Cézanne and Beyond

an exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, February 26–May 17, 2009
Catalog of the exhibition by Joseph J. Rishel, Katherine Sachs, and fifteen others.
Philadelphia Museum of Art/Yale University Press, 585 pp., $65.00

Cézanne und die Moderne

an exhibition at the Fondation Beyeler, Riehen bei Basel, Switzerland, October 10, 1999–January 9, 2000
Catalog of the exhibition by Gottfried Boehm.
Hatje Cantz, 137 pp. (2002)

Cézanne and the Dawn of Modern Art

an exhibition at the Museum Folkwang, Essen, Germany, September 18, 2004–January 16, 2005
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Felix A. Baumann, Walter Feilchenfeldt, and Hubertus Gassner, with essays by Fred Leeman, Pepe Karmel, and Peter Kropmanns.
Museum Folkwang/Hatje Cantz, 240 pp. (2004)
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Paul Cézanne: Madame Cézanne in Blue, 1888-1890

Paul Cézanne’s art is a vein of gold that’s been constantly mined but never exhausted. Since the early twentieth century, successive generations of artists have extracted nuggets and reflections from it. Cézanne was not well known until the late 1890s when he was “discovered” by young artists who were rebelling against Impressionism. In the years just before and after his death in 1906, he gained widespread prominence with numerous exhibitions of his work, often organized by the young Parisian avant-garde. Seurat, Van Gogh, and Gauguin were also celebrated by the same artists, but as the decades passed, Cézanne displaced them as the dominant godfather of modernist art. The other three have always been admired, but except for a Seurat boomlet in the early 1920s, their heritage has been widely dispersed.

What has prevailed is the influential view of the Museum of Modern Art’s William Rubin, who wrote that Cézanne was all but a Cubist.1 Because Cézanne’s paintings depended upon his own original translations of nature’s colors, the Cubists (and Rubin) were able to take from him what they wished: monochromatic geometric structures. At the same time, contemporary Fauvists like Matisse also claimed Cézanne’s blessings, not for geometric and hermetic structures but for exuberant decorative and “primitive” forms and colors.

This spring’s exhibition in Philadelphia, “Cézanne and Beyond,” was the latest and most ambitious recapitulation of the master’s patrimony (the show will not travel). At six pounds and 585 pages, its luxurious catalog could not be used in the exhibition; like many museum publications, it was designed to preserve the authors’ critical findings. Both exhibition and catalog were team efforts. Joseph J. Rishel, senior curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, was the guiding spirit, with assistance from the museum’s other curators and its late director, Anne d’Harnoncourt, to whom the catalog is dedicated. Fifty-nine paintings and watercolors by Cézanne anchor the show, followed by 109 works beginning with Matisse, Braque, and Picasso, and leading to Ellsworth Kelly, Jasper Johns, and Brice Marden.

Rishel not only generously invited fifteen colleagues to write essays on the individual artists but also solicited their advice on the works to be shown so as “to demonstrate their observations.” How fortunate were Rishel’s authors! Art historians customarily use reproductions to compare artists, but here they were able to have the originals of their comparisons levitated onto the walls of the Philadelphia Museum. Moreover, Rishel and his colleagues consulted several artists about the show, including Kelly, Marden, and Johns (who lent a Cézanne).

As a consequence of these collaborations, “Cézanne and Beyond” embodied one of the reigning versions of the history of modern art. Two earlier exhibitions had similar, if less copious alignments. Ten years ago in Basel the Fondation Beyeler presented “Cézanne und die Moderne” with fifty-two Cézannes, twenty works by seven artists…

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