Saturday, February 16, 2013

Cezanne's Magnificent Bathers, Part 1

Cezanne, The Bathers (1898-1906)
During the last 20 years of his his solitary life, isolated and immersed in his work, Paul Cezanne reinvented painting as a crucible in which to experiment with new combinations of sensation and representation.

In his many paintings of "bathers" - mostly nude women and men lounging beside alluvial scenery -  Cezanne achieves a mature synthesis of psychology, private symbolism, tradition, spontaneity, and joyous color and light. A masterpiece of early modernism, The Bathers, also known as "The Large Bathers" because of its size, from 1906. is currently in Boston, on loan from Philadelphia and on display at the MFA. The museum is pairing this painting, on which Cezanne worked during the last six years of his life, with another large-scale important work of post-Impressionism, Gaugin's epic Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? 

Gaugin, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1891)
It's hard not to see each of the paintings as culminations of these great artists' careers: last testaments to the world on a monumental scale. To see them both on one wall is a once-in-a-lifetime treat (and then, of course, turn your head and to the left and you're viewing gorgeous Monets, to the right it's masterworks by Van Gogh - not bad!). 

Cezanne saw Impressionism as liberating but too superficial. He had emerged from the introspective personal mythology of his early work ready to embrace Impressionism's light and color, but he wanted to make out of it something more solid, more "permanent," he said. 

Melding the movement's freedom from the Academic rules of painting with the firm construction and solidity of the more enduring art "of the museums" committed him to objects and vision. The irony is, that despite believing he was an ultra-honest realist in the service of Truth, the work he created, with its deliberately interpenetrating surfaces, objects, spaces, and paint, set the stage for abstraction and modern art; as blogger John Haber has succinctly observed, without Cezanne, "the art of the next century (the 20th) becomes incomprehensible."

To see what he means, one has only to turn to Picasso's Les Damoiselles D'Avignon, painted in 1907. 

Picasso, Les Damoiselles d'Avignon, 1907
This painting changed art forever. It was here, trading in nymphs for prostitutes, Renaissance perspective for shattered space, the Greek ideal for a jarring, brutal quasi-primitivism, that Picasso outstripped the last remaining vestiges of traditional European representation and reinvented art's role as a daring reflection of our uncertain times. Inadvertently setting the stage for Cubism and all that it would mean to modern art, Picasso's work was conceived as an acerbic response to Matisse's La Joie [bonheur] de Vivre, completed in 1906 (note the two female figures with identical poses, arms folded behind their heads). 

Matisse, La Bonheur de Vivre, 1905-06
The idealized utopianism of Matisse's conception ("natural" men and women depicted with a childlike exuberance freely loving, dancing, and existing in a beautiful, bright simplicity) was in turn a direct answer to the Bathers of Cezanne.

And that's all we have time for today..... the art-historical-high-fallutin' artspeak of this post has worn me out already, so a fuller treatment of Cezanne's masterpiece will have to wait until next time.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Sargent Watercolor Show Coming

The Boston MFA and Brooklyn Museum are mounting a major exhibition of John Singer Sargent's exquisite watercolors this year.

Santa Maria della Salute, by John Singer Sargent, 1904, translucent and opaque watercolor with graphite underdrawing

The opportunity to see in person nearly 100 of Sargent's watercolors is fantastic news for east-coast painters and art lovers.  In these plein-air paintings, Sargent seems to have emerged from the shadowy pressure cooker of the portrait studio to respond freshly and spontaneously to the glorious play of light, form, color, and atmosphere that he saw and felt in the visible world.

Together, the 93 watercolors in the exhibition, most of which have not been on view for decades, provide a once-in-a-generation opportunity to view a broad range of Sargent’s finest production, which must be among the finest of any artist's in the medium.

The landmark exhibition John Singer Sargent Watercolors unites for the first time the holdings of Sargent's watercolors acquired by the two institutions in the early 20th century. 

The exhibition will also present nine oil paintings, including Brooklyn’s “An Out-of-Doors Study, Paul Helleu and His Wife” (1889), and Boston’s “The Master and His Pupils” (1914). The exhibition will be on view at the Brooklyn Museum from April 5 to July 28, 2013, and at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, October 13, 2013- January 20, 2014. It will then travel to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

I have raved about Sargent's watercolors in this space already, and I've discussed his marvelous sense of abstract design and his lovely and immortal oil, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose here as well. Some would class certain of Sargent's watercolors among the finest small paintings ever made. This show promises to bring the proper attention to what art historians have for too long considered a tangential aspect of Sargent's work.

Sargent's oil, The Master and His Pupils (1904) at the MFA

The Brooklyn Museum and MFA Publications are co-publishing a fully illustrated book to accompany the exhibition. Co-authored by the collaborative exhibition team, the volume includes a lead essay by the MFA's Erica E. Hirshler; a collaborative essay by the lead project conservators, Antoinette Owen and Annette Manick; and chapters that expand upon the exhibition’s thematic framework.