Cézanne and the Modern: Masterpieces of European Art

Cézanne has long been hailed as one of the fathers of modern art; he was one of Picasso’s major influences, and is seen as the precursor to Cubism. Fairly well represented in England, with large numbers of work on display in London, he is something of a house- hold name, due in large part to his still-lifes of apples and pears.

What is particularly exciting about this exhibition is that we see a side of his work which is less familiar, with a large number of water- colour and graphite works on display in the first gallery. One lady’s exclamation of “Oh no, I don’t like that at all!” shows that the works are unexpected. These works have a delicacy and deftness which is absent from his thickly, boldly painted oil on canvas works. Chemin des Lauvres: The Turn in the Road, c.1904-06 is a great example, combining challenging compositional elements with a strong yet subtle use of watercolours.

The first of the rooms focuses on Cezanne, mostly the watercolours, but with notable oil inclusions, such as Route to Le Tholonet c.1900- 1904, an ostensibly unfinished work, which shows his modern handling of paint, combined with traditional method of using under-drawings. Alongside the Grand Baigneuses, Cezanne’s other most familiar motif is Mont Sainte-Victoire, the mountain near his home in Aix-En-Provence, which he painted almost obsessively. The version of this here, in water- colour, presents an interesting variation, with large areas of empty canvas interspersed with thin graphite lines and patches of green and blue paint.

The second room is entitled “Impressionism and Beyond”, with the use of the double height ceiling seeming to open up the scope of what is being displayed. It must be said that the paintings on display can feel somewhat bewildering, with works by Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Manet, Monet, Pissarro, Courbet, Degas, Daumier and van Gogh, alongside more by Cezanne himself, but it does give one a much broader sense of the context in which Cezanne developed, and the artists he worked with. Manet’s Young Woman in a Round Hat, c. 1877-79 is particularly striking, as is the brightness of van Gogh’s Tarascon Stagecoach, 1888, next to the more subdued Cezanne works either side of it. While these works can all seem very different to one another, their display together does go some way to drawing out the similarities between them, working as they were in the same milieu in early twentieth century Paris.

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“Figurative Modernism in Paris”, the third and final room of the exhibition, takes us into another milieu, displaying works by Chaim Soutine, Jacques Lipchitz, and Amedeo Modigliani. Soutine was one of the first artists Pearlman collected, which tells us something of the breadth of his taste. Soutine’s Hanging Turkey, c.1925 and Steeple of Saint-Pierre at Ceret, c.1922 feel rather a step away from Cezanne’s provincial landscapes in the room next door. Unfortunately the lighting in this room does make some of the artworks hard to see, particularly densely painted oil works by Soutine. The sculptural works in the room do not suffer however, and we are presented with interesting contributions from Jacques Lipchitz, demonstrating the variety of styles he is able to accomplish, with Acrobat on Horse, and Theseus difficult to note as works by the same artist. The one Modigliani sculpture, Head, c.1910-11 shows something of the non-European influence that has come to be associated most with Picasso’s work of this period.

On leaving the exhibition one is of course met with the ubiquitous exhibition gift shop, with Cezanne umbrellas, Cezanne fruit-bowl boiled sweets, and watercolour pencil sets, which says something about the expectation for art museums to function as much as commercial ventures as houses of art. However one is allowed a greater degree of freedom of thought in this exhibition that is usual in large exhibitions. Information on the theme of each room is set at the back, slowing viewing of the works and encouraging individual impressions.

Overall the Ashmolean, continue their winning streak of brilliant exhibitions, worthily following on from the highly praised Bacon and Moore. Entry is free for Oxford University students, the beautiful landscapes suit Trinity term, whilst offering relaxation for the vexed finalist, and are just edgy enough to gain one some cultural clout with the tutor.