Cézanne exhibits a major retrospective at the Art Institute of Chicago

Paul Cézanne’s artistic contemporaries hailed him with labels as “the greatest of us all”, and the French Post-Impressionist was the subject of several major exhibitions in the 20th century with his iconic works ensuring high attendance at visitors.

But is Cézanne (1839-1906) still relevant today in an art world with so many competing styles and sociopolitical agendas, and can his name on an art museum banner in 2022 still attract large crowds?

The Art Institute of Chicago thinks the answer is yes. It has teamed up with the Tate Modern in London to organize what is billed as the first major retrospective devoted to the artist’s work in the United States for more than 25 years.

The exhibition, titled simply “Paul Cezanne”, will run from May 15 to September 5, featuring 80 paintings, 37 watercolors and drawings, four boxes of watercolors and other painting accessories, including loans from as far away as the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. .

“To bring together 123 works is a very special occasion,” said Caitlin Haskell, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Art Institute. “It really is a life story that is documented individual brushstroke by individual brushstroke.”

That Gloria Groom, President of the Art Institute and Curator of European Painting and Sculpture, is one of the three organizers of this exhibition is not surprising, given that she played a central role in the large showcases of recent years of Impressionist giants such as Monet and Mannet.

But the participation of Haskell and Natalia Sidlina, curator of international art at the Tate Modern, is surprising because Cézanne is not strictly speaking a modern painter. But that’s exactly the point.

In addition to giving today’s viewers a rare opportunity to explore Cézanne’s life and work in depth, the exhibition’s three curators seek to show his far-reaching impact on 20th-century modern art and to clarify its continued resonance through 2022.

Paul Cézanne, “Three skulls on a patterned carpet”, 1904.|

Kunstmuseum Solothurn, Dübi-Müller-Stiftung.

“For me,” Haskell said, “much of my understanding of painting, modern painting and what modernism has become in the 20th century stems from the discoveries and challenges to the traditions of painting that Cézanne did. I therefore see him as the fundamental figure of the avant-garde material on which I work in our modern collection.

Simply put, she sees Cézanne as the essential link between the once radical experimentation of 19th-century Impressionism and 20th-century Modernism. He undertook what the curator calls a “breaking of the pictorial plane”, a “faceted” approach to composition which anticipates the revolutionary reworking of the form known as Cubism which emerged with Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque in 1907 -08.

In works such as “Still Life with Apples” (1893-94) from the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the standard rules of perspective are overturned and objects seem about to slip off the table. Cézanne cares less about what he represents than how he constructs a painting.

“This exhibition spans his career,” Groom said, “but it’s really focused on what makes a Cézanne a Cézanne.”

The artist’s impact did not stop with Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso or even later 20th century artists like Henry Moore, Jasper Johns (who emerged in the 1950s and remains active) and Lucien Freud .

Paul Cézanne.  Still life with apples, 1893-1894.  The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Paul Cézanne, “Still life with apples”, 1893-1894.|

J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

To prove this point, the curators invited 10 contemporary artists, including Lubaina Himid, Kerry James Marshall and Luc Tuymans, to write essays on individual works in the exhibition and reflect on Cézanne’s influence on their work. “It’s pretty amazing that he matters so much today,” Groom said.

This retrospective is the first exhibition of Cézanne of any kind organized by the Art Institute in more than 70 years, what Groom calls a “strange” time lag given that the museum has a large collection of works of the artist, including eight paintings, all of which are in the show.

The exhibition focuses on the artist’s watercolours, including some of the museum’s rarely shown works in this medium such as “The Three Skulls” (1902-06), which Haskell describes as a “truly superlative” late watercolor . “Monet, Sisley and Degas are not watercolourists,” said Groom. “It’s not their medium, but [Cezanne] really makes it hers.

Towards the end of his career, Cézanne sometimes depicted the same subject in watercolors and oil paintings of comparative size to explore the differences between the two ways of working. “The Three Skulls” is associated in the exhibition with “Three Skulls on a Patterned Carpet” (1904), a very similar composition from the Kunstmuseum Solothurn in Switzerland.

Paul Cézanne,

Paul Cézanne, “Bathers” (The Great Bathers), ca. 1894–1905.

The National Gallery, London/Max Rayne Foundation

Cézanne returns again and again to certain subjects, and nowhere is this more true than with his thirty paintings and watercolors of the Montagne Sainte-Victoire, a modest peak in the south of France. More than a dozen of these representations are represented in this exhibition, including “Montagne Sainte-Victoire with large pine” (circa 1887) from the Courtauld Gallery in London.

Another repeated and evolving subject is bathers, who become what Groom called “abstract, simplified figures in the landscape.” The show ends with one of three large-scale works in this series, “Bathers” (Les Grandes Baigneuses), ca. 1894-95, 50 by 77 inches, from the National Gallery, London.

“It’s the culmination of his thinking and his abstraction,” Groom said. “You can’t help but see Picasso and a bit of Matisse in it. It’s moving into the future, so that’s exciting.

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