20 May 2013

“Cézanne Did Not Make Mistakes”: Notes On The Cézanne Exhibition In Budapest


On 17 February 2013, the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest closed the doors on its exhibition entitled Cézanne and the Past: Tradition and Creativity. With some 180,000 visitors, a 527-page catalogue of scholarly merit featuring articles by the big shots of Cézanne study, and a conference marshalling a bevy of additional invited specialists, the exhibition produced fresh results worthy of further consideration by international Cézanne research. The Burlington Magazine devotes space to the exhibition in Budapest, by John-Paul Stonard in the March issue.2The professional know-how and well-established connections of the Curator, Judit Geskó resulted in a mature exhibition concept that went beyond a recapitulation or summation of the latest research findings and thought them over in new, creative ways. As such, the exhibition in Budapest fit in comfortably with the string of great Cézanne exhibitions since the second half of the 1970s, both monographic and thematic, that had offered a complex look at the influential oeuvre of the Aix Master.

Show casing the Cézanne phenomenon in the Budapest Museum of Fine Arts has been part of a deliberate curatorial strategy far surpassing the mould of the usual monographic exhibition, whereby Geskó conceived of a series presenting the 19th-century renewal of painting to Hungarian visitors. Cézanne and the Past followed the first two instalments in the series, Monet and His Friends (2002) and Van Gogh in Budapest (2006). In each of the three cases, the Curator’s idea was the same: to use these great, innovative works to give us a sense of the artistic milieu in which they were conceived, identifying their possible roots and relations to their forerunners and contemporaries, situating them in the process that led to the emergence of modernist movements and, last but not least, possibly to help us form new assessments of their significance free of the stereotypes that often characterise our awareness of canonised masters. Geskó started with the mostly paper-based works held by the Museum of Fine Arts – drawings, watercolours, prints hitherto often little known to the international public – and inserted them in the relevant oeuvres. Finally, the three exhibitions shared the common trait of emphasising reception history, understood as the process whereby these artists came to occupy their distinguished niche in the universal history of art. Whereas the history of the reception of impressionism or of Van Gogh or Cézanne has been explored to great depths in international literature, the influence they exerted in Hungary has received relatively scant attention from scholars. The exhibition catalogues feature several studies devoted to the critical reception of the works and the history of their private and public collection in Hungary. This meticulous social exposure of the French moderns is one of the most laudable achievements of each of the three exhibitions. The studies culled in the catalogues discuss the Hungarian career of trends in modern French painting. The mushrooming exhibitions from the first decade of the 20th century, the relevant reviews, the evolution of private and public collections, the collaboration among art historians, museologists and collectors, along with their Europe-wide connections with the most celebrated art dealers of the era paint a very detailed picture of a relatively obscure segment of the Hungarian art scene at the outset of the century.

Better yet, the sequence of exhibitions does not have to end here. In her introduction to the Cézanne catalogue, Geskó mentions that the Museum of Fine Arts has embarked on a pluralistic study of art phenomena around 1900, citing recent exhibitions of Ferdinand Hodler (2008, curator Katarina Schmidt) and Gustave Moreau (2009, curator Ferenc Tóth). One might add Nuda Veritas: Gustav Klimt and the Origins of the Vienna Jugendstil (2010, curator Zsuzsa Gonda) as well as Rodin and the Museum of Fine Arts (recently closed in Budapest but now open in Balatonfüred, curator Ferenc Tóth), which approaches the sculptor-genius of the late 19th century specifically from the angle of museum collection history. The enumeration would be incomplete without including the reorganisation of the late 19th-century permanent exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in the summer of 2012, a project triggered by the display of Cézanne’s own The Buffet, newly restored for the occasion of the Cézanne exhibition. This impressive list goes to show that, over the past decade, the Museum of Fine Arts, long recognised for its collection of old masters, has begun to foreground its late 19th- century collection, paying attention not only to the works and oeuvres themselves but also to the circumstances of acquisition. Indeed, the roughly ten years preceding the Museum’s foundation in 1906 and the period until the outbreak of the First World War must be seen as the halcyon days of the Museum as it built up its inventory, and the special focus on collection history is clearly intended as a tribute to the pioneering museologists of the early 20th century. At the same time, exploring collection history is particularly vital and timely now that historical museology is becoming a respected discipline in its own right.

But let us return to Cézanne, the cult painter, whose place in the pantheon of those who revolutionised painting has been uncontested since the mid-1890s. Indeed, he became a legend in his lifetime, initially among impressionist colleagues such as Monet, Degas, Renoir, Pissarro and Gustave Caillebotte, who started collecting his works in the 1870s and 1880s and never tired of recommending them to the art critics of the day. Cézanne’s cult reached art critics, dealers and collectors in the 1890s, and really took to wings in 1895, following a retrospective exhibition at Ambroise Vollard’s gallery in Paris. A flood of commentaries ensued withtheaimofguidingthereception and acceptance of his art and of situating it in one kind of aesthetic framework or another. Writings by Émile Bernard, Maurice Denis, Thadée Natanson and Gustave Geffroy allow us glimpses of an emerging picture that ultimately led to a quasi-religious reverence for the Master from Aix. Yet this veneration was of an altogether different sort from the cult woven by an entire grateful nation around the painter high priests of the 19th century, such as Makart or, if you will, Munkácsy. Cézanne was never so much celebrated as respected, in nearly incredulous awe and unceasing wonder. Maurice Denis describes him as “the man who paints”, then goes on to recall that “Renoir said to me one day: ‘How on earth does he do it? He cannot put two touches of colour onto a canvas without its being already an achievement.’”3 Cézanne was seen as “apainters’ painter”, and quite early on characterised as an aloof master only living for his art and constantly searching nature, his own perceptions and feelings, and ways of expressing them; as a struggling genius for whom creation was just as difficult as the digestion and interpretation of the resultant works are difficult for his audience; a “mystical”, “solemn” and “poignant” artist both drawing on and superseding the grand traditions of painting and sculpture. The generation of symbolists of the 1890s looked to Cézanne as a sort of spiritual leader who transformed the spectacle-based painting of impressionism by using tone and colour to rebuild forms from within, wrapping them in light and atmosphere, instead of contending himself with the sheer visual rendering of the scene. He replaced the descriptive perspective of impressionism by a deeply personal, emotionally charged approach, filling representation with substance without having recourse to the narrative mindset of classic art.

It was this “transcendence of impressionism” that made Cézanne, for upcoming generations of artists and art historians, the precursor of early 20th-century avant- garde, first cubism, then constructivism and abstraction. Julius Meier-Graefe and Roger Fry, the critics and art historians of the 1910s and 1920s whose definition of modernism in painting would remain carved in stone for some sixty or seventy years, regarded impressionism as the revolutionary break with the classicism of the previous century, which was nevertheless destined to reach a dead end because of its inability to put visually determined representation behind it. These authorities pointed to the art of Cézanne (as well as of Gauguin and Van Gogh) as the way out – indeed, as the way forward in the “evolution” of art. This assumption of progress quickly led to efforts to arrange consecutive isms in an order for which the art of Cézanne served as a point of reference. As new movements came and went, each laid claim to Cézanne as its own based on one thing or another it thought they had in common. The classicist-revivalists of the 1920s hailed him as the guardian of the classicist tradition, while the surrealists saw themselves as the true heirs to the dark-toned early pieces in Cézanne’s oeuvre.4

While giving him credit for his modernity, Maurice Denis and his generation considered Cézanne to be a “classicist” painter who studied the old masters’ experiments with composition and form to draw inspiration for his own work, rather than breaking all ties with the great French and universal traditions of painting. This view is corroborated by one of Cézanne’s rather rare own pertinent comments in his correspondence and others’ accounts of conversations with him, which reveal his great appreciation of “the art of museums”, Poussin, Rubens, the Venetians and the Spaniards. That said, his classicist affinity was pointed out not merely in his creative method but in his attitude as an artist, in his perfectionism with which he, like the past masters, returned to the study of nature. To quote Cézanne’s famous dictum (actually himself quoting Couture talking to his pupils): “‘Go to the Louvre!’ But after having seen the great masters whose works hang there, one must make haste to leave and bring to life in oneself, in contact with nature, the artistic instincts and feelings that live within us.”5

These two main disparate readings continue to define the literature on Cézanne to this day, his work alternately seen as the inception of modernism in painting and as the summation or apex of classicist art. To put it aphoristically, Cézanne is the last old master and the first modern one. The sheer complexity of his oeuvre, the disappearance and re-emergence of his motifs, the influences exerted by him on others and by others on him, and his ceaseless experimenting with composition, spatial and visual structure, colour and atmosphere have always permitted diverse and branching study and interpretation.

Of these many forking paths, the exhibition in Budapest elected to follow the theme of Cézanne’s relation to the old masters. True enough, this approach is perhaps less familiar to the general public, but the curator had more than this in mind when she decided to focus on an in-depth analysis of Cézanne and thepast. Cézanne’s “posterity”, in the sense of the master’s influence on 20th-century European and American art, had been the subject of Cézanne and Beyond, the exhibition hosted by the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2009. According to Geskó, the exhibition in Budapest is best seen as the twin of the showing in Philadelphia, this time expanding the study of the oeuvre in the opposite temporal direction – i.e. the past – drawing heavily on the engravings and plaster replicas held in the Budapest Museum of Fine Arts.

Geskó did not walk on an untrodden path. Often cited but widely regarded as anecdotal, Cézanne’s own fragments of opinion about the art of the old masters were first tracked down by Gertrude Berthold in a 1958 book in which she published drawings Cézanne made as studies based on the works of other artists. It was this collection that enabled the thematic publications and exhibitions concentrating on the connections between Cézanne and the old masters, such as Poussin, Delacroix, Rubens etc. Subsequently, curators were keen to exhibit Cézanne’s works side by side with their presumed antecedents, studies and sketches, including copies of works by others. Having said that, the exhibition in Budapest clearly represented the first attempt to directly examine the experiences Cézanne must have gained by making studies and copies – in effect, the cumulative influence of the old masters on Cézanne. In other words, then, the approach here was just the reverse of the customary perspective. Rather than assigning drawings to the paintings as initial, preparatory sketches, the curator exhibited them as evidence documenting the emergence, inspection and interpretation of an artistic problem, which may or may not have culminated in a painting, a painted detail, or simply inspired a work conceived in a kindred spirit without any literal correspondence. In this sense Geskó aptly termed Cézanne’s painting “constructive” in the title of her essay. In juxtaposition to Cézanne’s own works representing each major creative period of the artist, the studies, drawings and copies he made of the works of past masters allow us to reconstruct the creative process. By examining correspondences, affinities and, especially, divergences, we almost imperceptibly glide into a deeper understanding of the entire oeuvre. The novelty and cardinal virtue of the Budapest exhibition lay in its ability to help us comprehend and vicariously experience Cézanne’s creative world.

The academic training of painters has always relied heavily on copying and emulating the classic masters, whether as intramural mandatory exercise or an assignment carried out in the museum. Practically all contemporaries of Cézanne were reared on copying the old masters, which gave them much needed routine and command of technique at the outset of their career. Unlike most, however, Cézanne himself persisted in the copying practice to the end of his life, paying regular visits to the Louvre, the Musée du Trocadéro in Paris, and the Musée Granet in Aix. The exhibition in Budapest assigned each study drawing to a specific work of Cézanne’s and, where feasible, also to the original that served as a source for the artist. In combination, these groups or sequences of works constituted the exhibition itself, whose logic and guiding principle was not so much chronology as Cézanne’s dialogue with the great masters of the past who fascinated him.

In a smart move that set the tone for the entire exhibition, Cézanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire with Large Pine (1886–87) was shown in the company of Poussin’s Landscape with the Ashes of Phocion (1648) and Georges Braque’s The Park at Carrières-Saint-Denis (1909). Wedging Cézanne between a French classicist and the doyen of cubism clearly alluded to the artist’s intermediary position between the old and the new, while underlining his crucial contribution to the rejuvenation of the landscape genre. Past the opening wall, the exhibition was split into two sections, with the groups of works along the main axis representing Cézanne’s early career, and the sketches and line drawings shown on the side walls depicting the intellectual milieu of the 1860s. This latter group included not only imagesof Émile Zola, Cézanne’s friend in youth, and of Anthony Valabrègues, Achille Emperaire and Armand Guillaumin, but also Manet’s magnificent etching: the portrait of Baudelaire, the poet whom Cézanne read and admired to the end of his life. A drawing by Granet, the founder of the free drawing school in Aix, showing his pupils drawing the famous écorché statue, which we know would crop up repeatedly in Cézanne’s own works. This section also hosted Poussin’s small masterpiece depicting an artist’s studio (cca. 1640), which helps dispel a popular misconception. Cézanne’s words to Émile Bernard “treat nature by means of the cylinder, the sphere, the cone” – were thought of by the cubists as a teaching devised specifically with them in mind. However, Poussin’s drawing unmistakably reveals that the systematic drawing of these forms was simply a part of a painter apprentice’s basic training.6

Concurrently, the main axis of the space featured Cézanne’s copies of the works in the collection of the Musée Granet along with Cézanne’s drawings and studies made after painters he idolised as a young man, such as Delacroix, Courbet and Goya. These works ultimately ushered the visitor to early paintings by Cézanne himself. Already, one began to grasp the true nature and significance of copying as it was practised by Cézanne. His transformation of borrowed motifs, his ability or at least attempts – to answer problems raised by others for his own purposes are very much tangible in the oppressive, dark-toned, violent paintings such as The Abduction (1867) or The Autopsy (c. 1869).

Continuing along the side wall, one was confronted by works witnessing Cézanne’s all-important encounter with Camille Pissarro, with whom he worked together in Auvers-sur-Oise in the early 1870s. It was under the influence of the older impressionist master, who encouraged him to study nature, that Cézanne turned away from the sinister and macabre subjects that had dominated his earlier work to try his hand at experimenting with landscape and spatial structure. Hung side by side, landscapes by Pissarro and Cézanne attested eloquently to the importance of this relationship. Finally, a biographical detail followed: the birth of his son Paul, separated from the main axis which remained prudently reserved to the theme of artistic problems. One of the most poignant works of the exhibition, the portrait of Hortense Fiquet (Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair, c. 1877) at once represented the first look at Cézanne as most of us know and recognise him. A larger set of works grouped around the theme of “Luncheon on the Grass” already showed the influence of Pissarro in their brushwork and colour, while never for a moment repudiating the 16th-century origins of the genre. Here, a powerful engraving by Marcantonio Raimondi was presented next to a delicate watercolour by Manet as the sole contemporary.

The next larger chapter could have been entitled Cézanne and the Museums or, better yet, Cézanne and the Louvre, since the exhibition included a selection by the latter museum as bonus works such as Houdon’s famous Voltaire, Bernini’s bust of Cardinal Richelieu, magnificent drawings by Raffaello, Michelangelo and Signorelli, or an enchanting still life by Chardin. Augmenting the numerous objects lent by leading museums around the world, by far the most works camefrom the collection of the Musée Granet and the Louvre. To some, it may seem daring to showcase so many canonised masters at a nominally monographic retrospective. Yet the exhibition managed to convey precisely the idea that Cézanne is an artist who is compatible, indeed consubstantial, with these old masters, and his exceptional quality will shine all the more brightly when presented side by side with the classics. Among the masterpieces lent by the Louvre, special mention must be made of Poussin’s Arcadian Shepherds (1637–38), a painting of spellbinding intensity and the most worthy testament to Cézanne’s veneration of the artist. Each of the sequences arranged by the curator – and most notably the one dealing with Poussin – could rightfully form the core of an independent exhibition. (Incidentally, an exhibition in Edinburgh in 1990 specifically addressed the relationship between Cézanne and Poussin.) One of the fascinating topics raised is the issue of studies drawn from sculptures, an unusual hallmark of Cézanne’s practices. Although he created most of these drawings after sculptures of Pierre Puget, and the Catalogue features an entire study devoted to the subject, the exhibition itself curiously contained only one study Cézanne made after Puget. Nevertheless, the many other sculptures and Cézanne’s renderings of them on display do call attention to the importance of the connection to Puget. Apart from sculptors with a passion for dynamism (Michelangelo, Bernini, Puget) Cézanne was also evidently inspired by more relaxed and restrained works by Donatello, Benedetto da Maiano and Francesco Laurana.

Then came the works culled around the universally familiar themes of Cézanne, with still lifes, landscapes and cardplayers leading to the climax: a set of works taking bathing as their subject. The guiding principle of the exhibition remained the dialogue with the old masters. The imposing section of still lifes – specifically the recently restored Buffet – was shown in the intimate company of a stunning still life by Chardin (Leg of Lamb on White Tablecloth…, c. 1755). A separate section dealt with the Card Players series, presenting a world-renowned version each from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Musée d’Orsay, sided by Matthieu Le Nain’s three-figured Card Players (c. 1635) and a drawing by Daumier (Drinkers, c. 1860). It was a very effective ploy to show these objects next to the still lifes. In her study written for the catalogue, Nancy Ireson discusses the arguably Dutch origins of the card-player theme, including interpretations that see the motif as a form of still life within Cézanne’s oeuvre. The transformation of the Dutch tableau genre on the hands of Cézanne was easy to spot and follow in the section that placed his compositions based on Adriaen van Ostade’s copper engraving The Family (c. 1647) next to the original painting (Peasant Family in a Cottage Interior c. 1647). It is uncommon fortune indeed that a work of this calibre should grace the collection of the Budapest Museum of Fine Arts.The landscape group returned to the initial hypothesis, with the painting and watercolour depicting Jas de Bouffan (Chestnut Trees and the Pool at Jas de Bouffan, 1868–70) and the juxtaposed engraving after a landscape by Poussin (Étienne Baudet after Nicolas Poussin: Landscape with a Roman Road, 1684) showing a very convincing similarity in the way they structure the landscape into tiered planes. Also on display in this group was the painting Château Noir (1900–1904) which goes perhaps even further in illustrating Cézanne’s affinity with cubism – a connection already invoked by the Braque on the opening wall of the exhibition. Here, the dissection of natural shapes into geometrical forms was just a step away from Braque’s composition. The still lifes and landscapes led the visitor to the room devoted to Cézanne’s famous “Bathers” series. This time, there were no study drawings exhibited to aid comparative interpretation, despite the widely known fact that Cézanne, repulsed by the idea of using live nude models, worked with such study drawings when he created the monumental series starting in the 1870s. (For its part, the 1989 exhibition at the Kunstmuseum in Basel had thoroughly explored Cézanne’s drawing groundwork for the nudes.) The lesson for the visitors in Budapest remained to discover the kinship of the bathers with the landscapes and still lifes, and possibly even the fusion of the latter two genres in the nudes.
 
Beyond the oil paintings and drawings, the exhibition featured a laudably large number of splendid watercolours – actually watercoloured pencil drawings, a technique used by Cézanne in a very unusual way. Predominantly landscapes and still lifes, the sheets occasionally have a vacuity that makes them appear unfinished or sketchy. In reality, these works represent a very sophisticated attempt on Cézanne’s part to realise forms in space and the atmosphere that holds those forms together. Ethereally light and volatile yet somehow unmovably solid, these watercolours render the relationship between forms and objects in an almost startlingly physical manner.

A welcome encore after these powerful works, the last room offered a selection from the late portraits, including the imposing portrait of Vollard on the main wall. We have already hinted at Ambroise Vollard’s merits in preparing the way for Cézanne’s reception and recognition. Quite apart from this contribution of his, the man deserves our highest esteem on account of his unrivalled talent as an art dealer, and not least because of the place he occupies in the history of Hungarian art collecting. His famous portrait, which required Vollard to endure no fewer than115 sittings and still remained unfinished, eloquently demonstrates Cézanne’s bond with the old masters even in the process of working on a completely original composition. When Vollard objected to the two unpainted patches on the canvas, Cézanne replied, “If this afternoon’s session at the Louvre goes well […] maybe tomorrow I’ll find the right tone to cover these white patches…”7 Well, those two blank patches were there to be seen in Budapest: Cézanne obviously did not have a good enough sitting on that afternoon long time ago, after all.

A small space adjoining the last room paid tribute to the history of criticism by displaying portraits of Hungarian and foreign art historians and critics who did the most to shape the way we see Cézanne today. Here, Julius Meier-Graefe and Roger Fry shared space with Lajos Fülep, who contributed his own reading to our understanding of Cézanne, and with Elek Petrovics and Simon Meller, two key figures of public and private art collection in Hungary in the early 20th century.

The exhibition is now closed, but the voluminous Catalogue is still available with its impressive list of scholarly studies and discussions of individual works, to enrich our experience of Cézanne with innumerable fascinating details. Yet Cézanne will necessarily remain for us the enigmatic creative artist he always was, the genius whose paintings convey an inexplicable sense of the monumental, the timeless, of poignancy, majesty and mysticism. The key to Cézanne’s secret, which has been interrogated for more than a hundred years now, continues to elude us. “I have never heard an admirer of Cézanne give me a clear and precise reason for his admiration”, Maurice Denis observed in 1912, “and this is true even among those artists who feel most directly the appeal of Cézanne’s art. I have heard the words – quality, flavour, importance, interest, classicism, beauty, style … Now of Delacroix or Monet one could briefly formulate a reasoned appreciation which would be clearly intelligible. But how hard it is to be precise about Cézanne!”8

One can only agree.
Translation by Péter Balikó Lengyel
 

1 I borrowed my title from Henri Matisse, who wrote: “In moments of doubt, when I still felt uncertain
of myself, sometimes frightened by my discoveries, I thought: ‘If Cézanne was right, I’m right’ because I know Cézanne did not make mistakes.” Quoted in: Françoise Cachin et John J. Rishel, “Il est celui qui peint”. In: Cézanne (ed. Françoise Cachin et al.), Exhibition Catalogue, Paris, Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, London, Tate Gallery, Philadelphia, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1995–96. p. 15.
2 John-Paul Stonard, “Cézanne and the past”. The Burlington Magazine CLV. March 2013, pp. 173–176.
3 Quoted in Françoise Cachin et John J. Rishel, “Il est celui qui peint”. In: Cézanne (ed. Françoise Cachin et al), Exhibition Catalogue, Paris, Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, London, Tate Gallery, Philadelphia, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1995–96, p. 15.
4 Ibid. p. 13.
5 Quoted in Inken Freudenberg on “Cézanne and Delacroix”. In: Cézanne and the Past: Tradition and Creativity. Exhibition Catalogue, ed. Judit Geskó, Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest, 2012, (hereinafter: “Cat.”), p. 62.
6 Cf. the analysis by Zsófia Anna Kovács of Cat. No. 94 on p. 364.
7 Quoted by Zsófia Anna Kovács. Cat. No. 149, p. 472.
8 Maurice Denis, Théories. Paris, Bibliothèque de l’Occident, 1912, p. 237.


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