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The Museum of Modern Art’s Cézanne & Pissarro: Pioneering Modern Painting is the latest in a spate of recent shows focused on the theme of collaboration between a pair of modern artists.1 Yet even if the theme and subject it proposes to examine is not new, the body of work assembled and shown together for the first time in this retrospective overview of the nearly twenty-year period that Paul Cézanne and Camille Pissarro were in closest dialogue is undeniably impressive.2 The three-room exhibition presents nearly one-hundred paintings and a few works on paper, all organized more or less chronologically. As if the opportunity to study a fantastic breadth of output from two such important figures were not enough, curator Joachim Pissarro rewards viewers by carefully highlighting the artists’ collaborative efforts and stylistic exchanges. While his efforts may not indicate new directions for Cézanne-Pissarro scholarship, the pains taken to make these connections visually apparent are well worth the effort.
The objective of the show is to examine the interaction between Cézanne and Pissarro in the context of new dialogues fostered among artists associated with Impressionism. In the process, the exhibition reveals a collaboration that was much more mutual and egalitarian than is generally put forth. Accompanying didactic panels and an audio tour—the latter in the form of a dialogue between Joachim Pissarro and John Elderfield, Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art—emphasize the dynamic nature of the working relationship between these two artists and point to specific comparisons from among the many artworks exhibited here.
Strikingly similar self-portraits by each artist dating to the mid 1870s open the exhibition and foreshadow the structure of the argument that unfolds: an essentially biographical narrative in which stylistic advances are explained through exchange and sometime rivalry between two artists drawn together as “outsiders”—Pissarro as a Jew born in the West Indies, Cézanne as a southern Frenchman working in Paris. The similar self-perception on the part of each artist sparked a life-long friendship and, as the show submits, a historically significant stylistic “dialogue.”
Because the arguments assembled are largely comparative and based on formal qualities, they compel the viewer to look, and to look closely. This is the show’s greatest strength. The first evidence for the mutual aims of these artists, for example, is represented by a comparison of Pissarro’s Still Life from 1867 with Cézanne’s 1865 Still Life with Bread and Eggs, both painted a short time after each artist’s arrival in Paris. Both show the artist creating a steeply foreshortened space and applying paint thickly, modeling texture through the impasto effect of the medium itself. Concluding the circuit of paintings in this first section is a pairing of Cézanne’s The House of the Hanged Man (1873) with Pissarro’s The Conversation, chemin du chou (1874). An accompanying didactic panel notes a distinction between Cézanne’s interest in “tactility” and Pissarro’s overriding concern with “opticality,” alerting the audience early on to the terms of a stylistic tension that will characterize the full twenty-year period of their exchange.
From the second room forward, a more interesting dialogue begins. All of these examples date to the 1870s, the climax of the artists’ collaborative period. Authorship of the numerous still lifes completed while Cézanne and Pissarro painted together in the early 1870s is difficult to differentiate, a point that reinforces the fluidity, rather than one-way exchange, of this intermittent partnership. The “dialogue” is broken with Cézanne’s Two Vases of Flowers (c. 1873–74), shown next to Pissarro’s Bouquet of Pink Peonies (1873). While both artists use the same blue-and-white Delft vase, Cézanne’s representation is already more markedly sculptural. Other comparisons on view in this second section include Cézanne’s Road at Pontoise (1875) and Pissarro’s Rue de l’hermitage (1875), a pairing that clarifies Cézanne’s tendency to model through palette-knife thickness. The exchange returns to one of master/pupil with both artists’ Louveciennes, a rare example of Cézanne’s having directly copied in 1872 a Pissarro canvas from the previous year.
The technical nature of the collaboration becomes especially apparent by 1875, when both artists are shown to be applying paint with the brush and palette knife. This section of the exhibition also points to their mutual experimentation with painting “in reserve,” which leaves a line of exposed canvas around forms in order to delineate the contours of the objects depicted. This working method was apparently discovered through the use of radiography, a point that could have been better clarified in the exhibition.
The third and final room presents work from the 1880s, during which Cézanne engaged his own interpretations of a number of Pissarro’s earlier works dating to the mid 1860s and early 1870s. It is an appropriate conclusion. Several paintings, such as Landscape at Osny (1883) and Church and Farm at Eragny (1884), show Pissarro working with Cézanne’s parallel, diagonal brushstrokes, a direction he will shortly abandon in pursuit of neo-Impressionism.
The relatively narrow scope of the exhibition’s inquiry unfortunately limits the explanation of stylistic development to a dialogue between two artists presented as if having worked in isolation from the broader range of socio-political issues that also, surely, impacted the degree to which they embraced or rejected each other’s art. The approach of the exhibition is in this sense wholly modernist, finding the weight of cause and effect in biography, in the notion that what we most need to know about the momentum compelling these artists forward is best addressed through a study of the nature of their collaboration with each other and its formal results. Inasmuch as this makes for a tightly organized show whose argument crystallizes so clearly by its conclusion, it also leaves such philosophically weighty period terms as “anarchist,” “reality,” or “sensation”—terms that repeatedly pepper the didactic panels—entirely decontextualized and dehistoricized. As a result, the social dimension of modernism’s unfolding as this show represents it, assuredly relevant for Pissarro throughout his career and early on for Cézanne, appears in retrospect rather trite.
In the end, the principal question to be addressed, as with any exhibition on this scale, is the extent to which it advances a new understanding of the art. In this case, for scholars already familiar with the dialogue between these two artists, the freshness of the show is perhaps not so much in what is said as what is shown. The opportunity to view so many examples of this collaboration side-by-side and in the form of such a well-organized overview contributes to a newfound appreciation of the determination of these artists to advance modern artistic style, in this case through their interest in, and influence upon, each other’s work.
Leah C. Boston
PhD Candidate, Department of Art History, Northwestern University
1 Recent exhibitions with a similar theme include Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Studio of the South, organized by the Art Institute of Chicago and the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, in 2001–2002, and Matisse and Picasso: A Gentle Rivalry, organized by the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, in 1999.
2 As the catalogue to the exhibition acknowledges, the stylistic dialogue between these two artists has long since been acknowledged. Barbara Erlich White’s Impressionists Side by Side: Their Friendships, Rivalries, and Artistic Exchanges (New York: Alfred A. Knopff, 1996, esp. 106–147) is one of the fuller examinations, though not as satisfying on the level of connoisseurship.