Still lifes a window on Cezanne - and the Barnes
Philadelphia has its problems, but a shortage of Cezannes is not one of them. Why, one asks, do we need another Cezanne exhibition?
Perhaps, though, "The World is an Apple: The Still Lifes of Paul Cezanne," opening Sunday and running through Sept. 22 at the Barnes Foundation, is exactly the kind of Cezanne exhibition we do need. It is the opposite of a blockbuster, featuring only 21 works of modest size and generally homely subject matter. Albert Barnes could have fit the whole thing on a single wall, and still have had room left over for a bunch of hinges and a few Renoirs.
It is a valuable and necessary exhibition for two distinct reasons: Its narrow focus gives an opportunity to really look at the way Cezanne saw the world, and the way he rendered it on canvas. And the show suggests a way for the Barnes, with its static collection and inflexible policies, to become a living institution to which viewers will want to return again and again.
Here, the special exhibition galleries become a kind of anti-Barnes, with each intimately scaled picture seen by itself, with plenty of white space all around, clearly labeled and succinctly described and explained.
The show, organized by the Art Gallery of Hamilton, Ontario, is billed as the first exhibition ever devoted exclusively to Cezanne's still lifes, though some comprehensive shows of the artist have probably contained as many examples. Indeed, the Barnes permanent collection contains 16 still lifes among its 69 Cezanne works, many of which are at least as interesting as those that have been borrowed from as far away as Budapest and as near as the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Still life, in French nature morte, was traditionally associated with the Christian message of life's brevity, though sometimes it has clearly been about abundance, conspicuous consumption, and the pleasures of the senses. In later works, Cezanne, who kept some human skulls as props in his studio, dealt directly with mortality, though a work in the show in which three skulls appear to pop out of a boldly patterned carpet seems far from any traditionally Christian iconography.
Still life gives artists control over their subject matter. Unlike human models, apples and pears have no trouble staying in the same position for hours or weeks on end, and they do not charge by the hour. (Cezanne sometimes worked so slowly, though, that he did have to face decay; some of the flowers in the bouquets he painted were made of paper.)
The thesis of the exhibition is that still life is where we find Cezanne at his most experimental, figuring out how to render solid objects in their relationships to one another and in space. In one fairly early example, he shows us seven apples and a tube of paint. This reminds us that we are looking at paint, but he is equally emphatic that we are looking at apples. While the impressionist painters with whom Cezanne sometimes exhibited were preoccupied with purely optical sensation, Cezanne reminds us that we see with our entire bodies. He can make us feel the roughness of a table and the slightly mottled skin of the apple through our fingertips. His apples, not nearly as attractive as those you will see across the street at Whole Foods, are rarely juicy temptations, but primordial forms - spheres, globes, heads. While the paintings do not moralize, Cezanne suggests that there is something deeply serious about these solid (though painted) masses and the ways that they touch.
Throughout the exhibition we see some of the same textiles, rugs, jugs, and jars in multiple pictures, yet they do not seem repetitious because what Cezanne is really exploring is subjectivity - the many ways we can perceive the same thing. Sometimes he seems merely to be moving his head to get a lower view or a closer one, but sometimes the space implied in the paintings contains multiple perspectives, allowing us to see the apples, pears, and pomegranates from many directions at once, as cubism would do more radically a few decades later.
If you go, you should definitely see the special exhibition first and then, bearing it in mind, enter the permanent collection, looking first at the Cezanne still lifes there. Several of these are remarkable, but in all my decades of going to the Barnes, I have never focused on them. While searching for the Cezanne still lifes, you will see some by Renoir, and notice how decorative they are. Then you can look at the rest of the Cezannes and finally the collection as a whole.
You might notice the still life hung just above one of Cezanne's iconic depictions of Mont Sainte-Victoire like a cartoonist's idea balloon. Back in the grand first gallery, you might note the contrast between the solidity of Cezanne's card players and the lightness of Seurat's dancers, hanging directly above. The Barnes' collection is so densely and enigmatically hung that visitors may not know where to look, and concentrate instead on the biggest or most familiar works. This show demonstrates how the Barnes' special exhibitions can encourage visitors to see the collection with fresh eyes and notice treasures hidden in plain sight.
This exhibition encourages visitors to look at pictures that might get lost among the permanent collection's iconic works. It's a pity that it costs an extra $7 to see it, but the show points the way forward for the Barnes: You came for the bathers; you'll come back for the pears.
LOOK, AND LOOK AGAIN
"The World Is an Apple: The Still Lifes of Paul Cezanne"
Through Sept. 22 at the Barnes Foundation, 20th Street and the Parkway.
Hours: Sundays to Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Fridays, 10 to 9; Saturdays, 10 to 8. Admission: Collection and exhibition, $15-$29; exhibition only, $14. Information: 215-278-7200 or www.barnesfoundation.org.
A NEW ART CRITIC
Thomas Hine, who this week succeeds the late Edward J. Sozanski as The Inquirer's art critic, was architecture and design critic for The Inquirer for 23 years, ending in 1995. He is the author of six books on design, culture and history. The title of the first, Populuxe (1986), about the look and life of America from 1954 to 1964, added a new word to the American Heritage and Random House dictionaries, and was praised by John Updike in the New Yorker for its "mischievously alert sensibility."
Hine has served as an adviser or guest curator for more than a dozen museum exhibitions. His work has appeared in publications that include the Atlantic, the New York Times, Esquire, GQ, Architectural Record, and Martha Stewart Living. He grew up in Connecticut, graduated from Yale University, and lives in Center City.
"Art" by Thomas Hine and "Galleries" by Edith Newhall appear in alternating weeks.