Sunday, July 03, 2005

Current Exhibitions: Pioneering Modern Painting / The Fabric of Dreams

The museum equivalent of Batman Begins -- a major summer blockbuster, though one lacking the cache of say a Van Gogh, the Sith of the art world -- Pioneering Modern Painting: Cézanne and Pissarro 1865-1885 (running now through September 12th at the Museum of Modern Art New York) seeks to contextualize the work of these two late nineteenth century giants within their working relationship. At first glance one fears a curatorial straw-man: none of his contemporaries, let alone Pissarro, can match Cézanne's achievement in reinventing the language of an entire medium. After all, the art of Cézanne represents no less than a translation of 19th century science into the medium of painting, providing an important precursor to profoundly subjective literature of Joyce and Proust: in looking at one of Cézanne's paintings, the spectator is compelled to overlook intentional inconsistencies and to combine the work's disparate color fragments in his or her own mind's eye. In other words, the art of Cézanne portends a shifting paradigm in which it is no longer the artist alone who creates the visual object, but rather the artist in collaboration with the spectator, and particularly the eye of the spectator. Visual truth becomes subjective.

Who indeed can match this reconstitution of the medium's mode of spectatorial address? At best, Camille Pissarro is a master of atmospherics and a poet of the melancholy; his is not an original idiom. Still, Pissarro's excellence, such as it is, is on full display in the MoMA's double exhibition. In his Banks of the Marne in Winter (1866), the leaves that have fallen from the trees, the grey skies, and the field that is still green (befitting the earliest days of the season), all combine to create the sadness that marks Pissarro's finest work. On the other hand, when Pissarro's work fully inhabits the summertime -- occasioning not even a cool shadow as he does so well in Crossroads at L'Hermitage, Pontoise (1876) -- it seems little more than comfort food.

If Pissarro is thus a bit uneven, there would seem zero evidence of this in Cézanne's enormous corpus: he is very much the Bresson of painting, steadfastly proceeding according to an individual logic which has touched everything of importance since. Cézanne is not only the father of twentieth century painting, but is almost certainly the greatest single artist in his medium since Rembrandt. None of his peers compare in terms of both aesthetic invention and historical importance... and yet, Pissarro somehow remains a master hanging beside Cézanne. The moral of this is that surely Pissarro is a superlative artist indeed, with touches of grace when his subject matter matches his melancholic temperament. Similarly, Pissarro's work also serves to illuminate Cézanne's somewhat counterintutive high-key tonal register (that is for someone who spent a lifetime painting landscape's, still life's and self-portrait's: Pissarro's is an art of muffled tears, Cézanne's of guttural whelps).

Then again, in contrast to Matisse: The Fabric of Dreams His Art and His Textiles, Cézanne's work seems down right Apollinarian. To me, the real value of the Metropolitan Museum's reconsideration of Matisse's extra-textual sources (on now through September 26th) was its revelation of Matisse as a supreme aesthete, as opposed to the artist-philosopher that I had long assumed, provided his unmistakable preoccupation with line. Speaking for instance of Morocco in connection to one his famed Odalisque's, Matisse noted that he "felt an irresistible need to express that ecstasy, that divine unconcern, in corresponding colored rhythms, rhythms of sunny and lavish figures and colors." In other words, Matisse's confesses a memory and preoccupation with the visual stimuli of the place. Surface appearances guide Matisse no less than touch does Renoir (which can be seen in his soft, gauzy works), or light and air does Monet. One can see Matisse's eye in this assembly of his work.

Of course, the textiles that are on display beside the paintings clearly did provide Matisse with many of the patterns that he would replicate in one work after another. Indeed, the Met exhibit makes a compelling case for his heavy borrowing of this curious source. However, the true value of "Matisse: The Fabric of Dreams His Art and His Textiles" is less in the details of his debt to these pieces than in the role they play in showing how his artistic mind worked. Surely, the textile was precisely what occupied his two-dimensional imagination. It was the sort of subject that engaged his Dionysian spirit. It seems strange to me to classify Matisse in opposition to Cézanne (and with Renoir no less!), but there can be no denying his interest in the purely aesthetic. In this way, Matisse almost becomes an ahistorical figure, guided by the dictates of his aesthetic feeling and not the broader cultural fources that shape each age's art. Then again, the reflexive results of Matisse's concerns produced an art that perfectly instatiates the self-consciousness of his epoch. As such, Matisse must remain to us one of the defining creators of his generation.

In closing, let me make the following observations concerning the curation of the two shows: both do an excellent job providing context for the particular pieces, whether it is the similar subject matter produced by Cézanne and Pissarro or Matisse's borrowing of the graphic qualities of certain textiles. The MoMA exhibition falters a bit in its lighting, impelling the viewer to search out a passable vantage from which to view the paintings; but otherwise, these are first rate, blockbuster shows, more Christopher Nolan than George Lucas.

No comments: