At the Vancouver Art Gallery to May 18
Following the Vancouver Art Gallery’s crowded media preview of Cézanne and the Modern, I was standing in a suddenly deserted room, staring at a painting. Not just any painting, but probably the most important work in the exhibition.
Titled Mont Sainte-Victoire and dated circa 1904-06, it is one of Paul Cézanne’s late and acclaimed takes on a favoured subject of his. It is also among the six Cézanne oil paintings and 18 Cézanne watercolour drawings from the Pearlman collection, which is usually housed at the Princeton University Art Museum.
Also on view are works by Edgar Degas, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Édouard Manet, Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, Amedeo Modigliani, Chaïm Soutine, and Jacques Lipchitz, among others.
VAG senior curator Ian Thom, who had just led the media through an info-packed tour of the show, stood beside me and said, “This is probably the only time you will see this many Cézannes on exhibit together in Vancouver.”
He didn’t say, “So you’d better appreciate this experience while you can,” but then, he didn’t have to. Most Vancouverites have to travel to museums in other cities for a hit of French avant-garde art from the 19th and early 20th century.
On special occasions like this, however, a touring exhibition brings such work to us. So, yes, I felt privileged, standing in the light of an artist widely considered to be the father of 20th-century modernism. The rural landscape near Cézanne’s home in Aix-en-Provence is deftly composed of proto-Cubist facets of colour—bright and dark greens, blues and violets, yellow ochre and tiny wedges of terra cotta. Forms break up and coalesce in a way that suggests a sweep of movement upwards, towards the breastlike mountain and the gentle tumult of the sky above it.
Equally entrancing are the Cézanne watercolours, mostly Aixois landscapes that, as Thom pointed out, are based on two modes of working. Graphite lines are laid down in the grey scale, deftly articulating tree trunks and branches, and the watercolour is then applied, often functioning independently of the lines, as if existing in another dimension.
Before 1890, the label copy tells us, Cézanne used watercolour to describe form; later, he applied it in patches to dissolve form. The effect is very subtle, especially in works like Undergrowth, in which the artist drops out the expected landscape elements and describes, instead, the overlooked space around and beneath them. (Note to readers: owing to the light-sensitivity of the watercolours, only half of them will be on display at a time.)
What is especially significant about Cézanne and the Modern is the consolidating vision of Henry Pearlman, the New Yorker who put the collection together. Pearlman, who was born in 1895 and died in 1974, was a successful businessman, although not staggeringly wealthy. He did not have the means to amass art in bulk like other renowned American collectors of his time. Instead, he was dedicated in his research and thoughtful in his purchases, starting in 1945 with a Soutine landscape, View of Céret, and ending, in 1972, with a Cézanne watercolour, Rocks at Bibémus.
The seven Soutine paintings are powerful and impressive, revealing not only that artist’s thickly impasted and often wildly gestural way of working (which anticipated Abstract Expressionism by decades) but also his anguished view of both his landscape and human subjects. Steeple of Saint-Pierre at Céret looks like it is simultaneously exploding and collapsing; Portrait of a Woman conveys deep sorrow.
Of significance in the Pearlman collection is the sense of continuity between the artworks, connections of influence and friendship that are described in the catalogue as “legacies and lineages”. Soutine, for instance, was great friends with Modigliani, who is represented in the show by a rough-hewn stone sculpture and two brilliant portrait paintings, one of Jean Cocteau and the other of Léon Indenbaum.
Pearlman was also interested in works that had been owned by other artists, writers, and dealers of note. For instance, Degas owned one of the Cézanne watercolours Pearlman later collected, and is himself represented by a major oil painting, After the Bath, Woman Drying Herself. It depicts an oddly contorted female nude, posed bent forward in a way that proffers her rear end to the viewer, detaches her head, and makes the act of towelling herself off difficult if not impossible.
In the recent past, Degas has been thoroughly critiqued by feminist scholars for his objectifying and seemingly misogynist treatment of the female figure, and this work provides no exception to such concerns. In formal and technical terms, of course, it is beautifully executed. And, hey, how often do we see a Degas painting in the flesh in Vancouver—even if the flesh is objectified?