By Kate Douglas
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 390

Cezanne and the Modern

This article is over 7 years, 9 months old
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, until 22 June
Issue 390

This is the first European exhibition of the Pearlman collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art, and it’s a real treat.

Henry Pearlman was a rich American businessman who was as proud of the wheeler-dealing it took to acquire the paintings as he was of the paintings themselves, but don’t let that put you off.

Impressionists such as Cezanne believed the traditional method of art, with its tightly-formed aesthetics, was “contrary to nature”, and instead concentrated on light, open-air and interpretive colour to create strong, passionate and intense work, the likes of which had never been seen before.

They were rebelling against a bourgeois system and embracing their own spirit of individualism. Cezanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh, for example, worked and experimented unceasingly, even though they were almost wholly unappreciated in their lifetimes. Van Gogh, funded almost entirely by his brother, wished for his art to be enjoyed by everyone – not just rich connoisseurs.

The first gallery of the exhibition is full of watercolours by Cezanne. At first sight, they appear to be casual and rushed. There are great gaps of canvas amid the paint. But when you step back the overall effect can be seen – one that is not a careful reproduction of the subject but more an expression of Cezanne’s feelings for the object or view.

His watercolour of Mont Sainte-Victoire is made up of sparse flicks of pastel yellows and greens in the foreground with the mountain behind depicted with a few brushstrokes of light greys and lilacs. It’s a serene and warming image. But one of his oil paintings of the same view expresses a completely different feeling.

Geometric blocks of thick paint are interspersed with bare blocks of canvas to present a much more foreboding and dramatic expression of the same scene. The contrast between these two styles helped me understand Cezanne when he said, “Painting from nature is not a matter of copying the subject but of expressing one’s feelings.”

In contrast to Cezanne’s works are portraits by Modigliani, a poor Italian immigrant to Paris who collaborated with fellow migrants Chaim Soutine and Jacques Lipchitz.

These are angular, even ugly, pictures of subjects sitting bolt upright with snooty looks on their faces. It seems that some of the subjects of the portraits did not appreciate them. Jean Cocteau disliked his so much he refused delivery and the Russian sculptor Indebaum immediately sold his in indignation.

There is so much to see in this exhibition – such as Degas’s beautifully captured After the Bath, Woman Drying Herself – alongside works by Manet, Sisley, Gauguin, Daumier, Courbet and the marvellous Van Gogh, whose Tarascon Stagecoach leaps out of the canvas in an explosion of colour.

Sign up for our daily email update ‘Breakfast in Red’

Latest News

Make a donation to Socialist Worker

Help fund the resistance