Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 21, 2010
Gail Stavitsky and Katherine Rothkopf Cézanne and American Modernism Exh. cat. Baltimore and New Haven: Baltimore Museum of Art in association with Yale University Press, 2009. 376 pp.; 190 color ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780300147155)
Exhibition schedule: Montclair Museum of Art, Montclair, NJ, September 13, 2009–January 3, 2010; Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, February 14–May 23, 2010; Phoenix Art Museum, Phoenix, July 1–September 26, 2010
Marsden Hartley. Mont Sainte-Victoire (1927). Private Collection, Courtesy of Gerald Peters Gallery.

In the first gallery of the Montclair Art Museum’s excellent and illuminating exhibition, Cézanne and American Modernism, two arresting views of Mont Sainte-Victoire from 1927 by the American artist Marsden Hartley flanked a painting by Paul Cézanne of the same subject, Mont Sainte-Victoire Seen from the Bibémus Quarry (ca. 1897), an exemplary work by that artist, acquired by the Baltimore collector Claribel Cone in 1925. The comparison drawn between Cézanne and Hartley (same subject, related style) mirrored the strategy employed in the majority of the exhibition’s galleries, where affinities of subject matter and style or technique dictated the grouping of works by Cézanne and those American artists on whom he exercised influence. But the Cézanne-Hartley juxtaposition also served to highlight how the American artist transformed—even rejected—the way of painting of his French counterpart, substituting assertive and regimented strips of bright, even garish color for Cézanne’s softly constructed and gently undulating forms. That one can describe a Cézanne canvas from the late 1890s in such a manner—as a scene where sun-baked rocky promontories look like slumping and billowing folds of velvet or felt—illustrates one of the chief accomplishments of the exhibition: its recasting and reinterpretation of Cézanne, an artist we think we know very well and discuss using a codified vocabulary, in light of the work of a multitude of American artists (thirty-four by my count) who themselves reimagined Cézanne in manifold ways, rather than simply repeating or recycling aspects of his practice.

The wall text that accompanied the Cézanne-Hartley trio of works described how Hartley had a clear view of Mont Sainte-Victoire from his lodgings at the Maison Maria in Aix-en-Provence, where he lived and worked for a little over a year in 1926 and 1927. In a wonderful way, then, the two mountain views by Hartley that flanked the Cézanne mountain scene in the gallery evoked Hartley looking out the rectangle of his window onto the Mont Sainte-Victoire landscape even as they also conjured the idea of his seeing this landscape through the frame of Cézanne’s paintings of that same terrain. This particular installation thus refreshingly avoided implying that American art in the wake of Cézanne was lesser or derivative, and the same may be said about the exhibition as a whole. The exhibition steered clear of such an implication by engendering a narrative of influence but also one of transformation and rejection. Not overloading the galleries with works by Cézanne was in this regard a strategic choice. The American work, with a few exceptions here and there, was of the highest quality, truly first rate, and did not need Cézanne to justify its being on view. Any exhibition that features a major European modernist at the head of its title, with American art following the conjunction “and,” faces the challenge of actually and fully addressing the “and” side of things. The organizers were in this case right on target, for the show registered first and foremost as an exhibition about American modernism, and the visitor came away from it with a substantively expanded understanding of this body of work. From Maurice Prendergast, whose paintings seem clumsily imitative in this context, to Charles Sheeler, whose diminutive yet masterful Peaches in a White Bowl (1910) transfixes, it is clear from the well-chosen selection of works by Americans that Cézanne’s art and ideas were taken up in the American context in wildly divergent ways, from obvious cribbing to subtle and enchanting emulation or transfiguration. As I have said, the exhibition focused on similarity and likeness, as reinforced by groupings according to shared subject or style. This often occurred at the expense of highlighting or substantively investigating contrast and dissimilarity, and my sense is that the verbal narrative in the galleries could have made more of the matter of difference. But the works themselves, including many by lesser known but eminently interesting American artists, including the Paris-based Alfred H. Maurer, an associate of Gertrude Stein and artistic liaison to Albert C. Barnes, as well as the Swedish-born and Chicago-based B. J. O. Nordfeldt, made the fact of differentiation plain enough.

Because it had relatively little to say about other sources of influence—artistic and otherwise—the exhibition ran a slight risk of positing Cézanne as the cause of American modernism rather than one of many generative figures and forces. That the Hartley mountainscapes look as much like early Matisse and the Fauves as they do late career Cézanne illustrates this point. It would also have been interesting to hear more about the multiple models of influence or emulation on view in the galleries. Stylistic borrowing—Prendergast’s say, or Morgan Russell’s—is not equivalent to the conscious and systematic imitation of a painter like Arshile Gorky, whose assimilation of Cézanne took the form of a self-imposed apprenticeship, nor is adoption of like subject matter or style the same as being deeply impacted by Cézanne’s ideas or pictorial philosophies and, possibly, transforming or revising them. Disrupting the chronological and roughly genre-based organizational format of the installation, for one, would have enabled the construction of more complex and nuanced narratives about influence and impact. I can imagine, as an example, relocating John Marin’s wonderful Taos Mountain, Pueblo and Mesa (1929) from the end of the exhibition to the first gallery so that it entered into dialogue with the mountain views of Hartley and Cézanne. The fact that Marin gives the viewer his mountain through an illusionistically painted window or picture frame that surrounds his scene would have further illuminated the manner in which many of these American artists saw nature through multiple windows: real ones, of course, but also those constituted by previous art, including Cézanne’s. One also wished for greater acknowledgment of the multiple Cézannes that exercised influence in the American context. Positing what strain or period of Cézanne influenced whom and how so, instead of defaulting to the somewhat simplified and generalized “Cézanne” featured across the exhibition, would have amplified an understanding of the particular and diverse nature of his reception and effect within American modernism. I was not wholly convinced by the claims the exhibition made for the relationship between photography and Cézanne, in part because the connection was a stylistic one, with questions of medium and process left for the most part unaddressed. But the inclusion of photography at all had the virtue of posing a new set of questions about photographic practice in the United States in the early years of the twentieth century, and that was well worth a little confusion.

None of what I have just described detracted seriously or substantively from the impact and insight of the exhibition, which makes a major contribution to the historical study of modernism, American and European alike. I should add that the very good exhibition catalogue, with essays by multiple scholars, including one about Cézanne and American photography, fills in many of the aforementioned gaps, providing a more multi-faceted and necessarily intricate view of the Cézanne-American modernism connection. Montclair’s exhibition came on the heels of the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s sweeping and very differently conceived Cézanne and Beyond (2009 [click here for review]), which tracked Cézanne’s influence through to today, with significant attention paid to figures like Hartley and Charles Demuth; and it anticipated the conference Russia and the Global Cézanne Effect held in Saint Petersburg in March 2010. Together with Philadelphia’s Arshile Gorky retrospective, which was open at the same time (click here for review), the Montclair show offered a revelatory view onto American modernism in the first half of the twentieth century. This gem of an exhibition was thus timely as well as terrifically conceived, and it stands alongside several other recent Montclair exhibitions as a substantial and welcome contribution to the ongoing scholarly revision of the story of modern art in America.

Rachael Z. DeLue
Assistant Professor, Department of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University