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Gauguin, Cézanne, Matisse – Visions of Arcadia at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

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July 9, 2012   ·   8 Comments

Paul Gauguin 'Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?' (1897-98) oil on canvas, 54 3/4 x 147 1/2 in, MFA, Boston

The Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) has just opened a glorious exhibition celebrating painting and the twin subjects of myth and desire, which are behind so much great art. The myth in Gauguin, Cézanne, Matisse; Visions of Arcadia (through Sept. 3, 2012 and only to be seen in Philadelphia) involves Arcadia – a mythical land of contentment and harmony with nature that was conceived by the ancient Greeks and passed on via the Romans (most pointedly Virgil, in his Eclogues), Italian Renaissance writers and artists, and Poussin, a seventeenth-century French painter who spent almost all of his career in Rome.

Paul Gauguin 'Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?' (1897-98) oil on canvas, 54 3/4 x 147 1/2 in, MFA, Boston

Poussin is considered the founder of the great modern French tradition in painting, the principles of which were codified by the Académie des Beaux-Arts in the Seventeenth Century. The basis of academic education was drawing, especially figure drawing from nude models (such drawings were known as académies). A second myth central to the exhibition is that via the continuity of classical culture, the French are descendents of the ancient Greeks. These national originary myths became important to the founding of the modern nation-state; in fact, the Germans, too – with the help of Winckelmann – claimed descent from the Greeks, until Napoleon invaded, and they had to re-invent their mythical origins.

Paul Cézanne 'The Large Bathers' (1906) oil on canvas, 82 7/8 x 98 3/4 in, PMA

Desire, in the exhibition, is for a land of endless food, drink and sexual fulfillment, where humans lived in harmony with nature. Vergil’s Eclogues depict Arcadia as always shadowed by death, as does Poussin; one of his best-known paintings shows a group of Arcadian shepherds looking at the inscription on a tomb which reads: Et in Arcadio Ego – loosely, Death, too, is in Arcadia. But for most modernist painters, Arcadia was usually depicted as a pagan Eden, without the threat of sin, expulsion, or any consequences of overindulgence. In modern Arcadia it is always a sunny day, a land of outdoor picnics and daytime lovemaking.

Henri Matisse 'Bathers by a River' (1909-1917) oil on canvas, 102 1/2 x 154 3/16 in, AIC, Chicago

The exhibition has five galleries of extraordinary work, and several galleries would make satisfying exhibitions on their own. The opening corridor-like space contains the sort of intimate pieces one might find in the home of a discriminating collector with a taste for the decorously erotic: Cézanne’s small painting of nude, female bathers beside the water, and Henri-Edmond Cross’s nude faun, dancing as he eats from the bunch of grapes he dangles above his own head. Then Rodin’s small plaster sculpture of a lascivious faun who has captured a less-than-willing nymph; Rodin is always good on desire, but mutual consent wasn’t his concern. The gallery also displays two livres deluxe, one with buoyant etchings by Matisse, illustrating Mallarmé ‘s poems, the other with somewhat more sober woodcuts by Maillol, illustrating Virgil’s Eclogues.

Henri-Julien-Félix Rousseau 'The Dream' (1910) oil on canvas, 80 1/2 x 117 1/2 in cm). MoMA, NY

The second gallery holds a group of work that constitutes a study of continuity and variation in nineteenth-century French painting. The first work is a Corot cliché verre, itself a new printmaking technique dependent on the chemically-treated paper used in photography. But the emphasis of the gallery is on a group of large paintings intended to function as wall decorations, some of them done in obvious emulation of frescoes. These include Corot’s Silenus, which takes its subject directly from Virgil, and two large idyls by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. Puvis is an artist to be reckoned with because, to the bafflement of many later observers, his classicizsing narratives, the last gasp of that tradition, had a significant impact on the avante-garde of the following generation. That his calm and lifeless figures should inspire artists of great daring and ferocity has not been explained to my satisfaction. The best I can understand his impact is that later painters saw in Puvis’ work (and not necessarily his intentions) that the ostensible subject matter was less important than the means of expression; the emphasis was on painting itself.

The next, grand gallery is the heart of the exhibition, and if it weren’t actually there, I might be describing the fantasy group of paintings any curator of the period would like to assemble. The fact that PMA Curator Joe Rishel obtained these loans is testimony to the enormous, international respect that he and the museum have earned. It is to the viewers’ great benefit, for they are a series of towering works, each worthy of serious study; but more than that, as explained in detail in the exhibition catalog, there is reason to suggest a direct back and forth relationship not only between many of the painters involved, but between the actual works on view. They include not only the paintings around which Rishel organized the exhibition: Cézanne’s Large Bathers (1900-06, PMA), Gauguin’s Where Do We Come From? Where Are We? Where Are We Going? (known by the beginning of it’s French title as d’ou Venons-nous? 1897-98, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), and Matisse’s Bathers by a River (1909-17, Art Institute of Chicago), but also Henri Rousseau’s The Dream (1910, Museum of Modern Art, New York), André Derain’s Bathers (1907, MoMA, NY), and most astonishingly, Poussin’s Apollo and Daphne (1664, Muséé du Louvre, Paris).

In addition to the wonderful opportunity to observe the paintings in proximity to one another, it is a joy to see the Cézanne and Rousseau, in particular, benefiting from the generous spacing and good lighting of the installation. I have never seen them look so good (indeed, never had the opportunity to study the surface of the Cézanne, as usually displayed – and it is a pristine surface). In terms of the exhibition’s theme one has to ask, why this subject then? And why such monumental paintings? The previous avante-garde had pointedly rejected the hierarchies of the Academy, which considered still lives and portraits beneath consideration, landscapes a lesser genre, and valued only history painting: paintings of figures depicting scenes from Biblical or Classical stories or actual events, such as Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa. These have been called the grand machines of the French tradition, and only Manet attempted the genre (traditionally with the Execution of Maximilian, and in abased form with his Dejuner Sur l’Herbe and Olympia).

Franz Marc 'Deer in the Forest I' (1913) oil on canvas, 39 3/4 x 41 1/4 in, the Phillips Collection, DC

This return to majestic history painting certainly raises the question of what turn-of-the-20th century painting should be and do, and where it fits within the history of art. The paintings by Gauguin, Cézanne and Matisse stand out in scale and ambition, exceptions within their oeuvres. We know that Gauguin considered the d’ou Venons-nous? as his masterpiece, his bid for consideration as a major artist. The Cézanne is the largest of three large paintings of a subject he had returned to throughout his career; it was left, possibly unfinished, in his studio when he died. And Matisse troubled himself over Bathers by a River in three periods over eight years, with very substantial changes over time (all recovered through technical examination). Gauguin based his painting on a complex but entirely personal iconography, he didn’t expect it to be understood figure by figure; but with its span of humanity from near birth to near death, it is obviously his story of human life, and the only one of the modern Arcadian works that retains the clear presence of death. It is hard not to see the grandeur and ambition of these paintings as competition with the French old masters, bids for consideration as important painters whose work should join their predecessors in the Louvre. They certainly understood that tabletops of apples, genre scenes or studies of light on a church facade would not hold up to Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner 'Three Nudes in the Forest' (1908) oil on canvas, 29 7/8 x 39 3/8 in

The exhibition’s following room holds a group of Cubist works by Delauney, Gleizes, and Metzinger (and pre-Cubist drawings by Picasso). They demonstrate the unlikely continuation of the subject matter, but the gallery is a let-down after the riches of the one before it. It also contains a beautiful late Maillol sculpture (in lead) of three nymphs, done in 1930-38, which is perhaps the last time such a subject could be approached without scorn or irony.

The final room forms an intriguing coda, for it presents a group of German Expressionist paintings and two by Russians, that show the Arcadian tradition beyond France. Boys Bathing by Natalia Goncharova displays the exhibition’s one spot of humor, for on the riverbank sits a male figure holding his bent knee, surely a citation from Manet’s Dejuner Sur l’Herbe, but Goncharovna has stripped him of all of his clothes but his black cap. The Germans had their own contemporary enactment of Arcadia; Naturist groups were common during the period and artists had nudist holidays in the countryside. We see paintings of their activities by Kirchner and Pechstein. There are also several of Franz Marc’s utopian idyls, the last dated 1913. Following World War I and the horrors of modern warfare, the myth of Arcadia had lost its promise.

Natalia Sergeyevna Goncharova 'Boys Bathing' (1911) oil on canvas, 45 1/2 x 37 in, Museum Wiesbaden

Note: The American painter who most used the Arcadian subject was Arthur B. Davies, who was also one of the few who had traveled to Europe at the time. The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) has one of his paintings of nudes in an Arcadian countryside, from 1910, on view through July 8 as part of an exhibition about PAFA and Albert Barnes.

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8 Responses to “Gauguin, Cézanne, Matisse – Visions of Arcadia at the Philadelphia Museum of Art”

  1. stuart roberts says:

    theoretically, i should be excited that this show & this great art is in the city where i live. theoretically, i should be looking forward to discussing this show with other art lovers & telling people they HAVE to go see matisse’s bathers by the river. unfortunately , though , this show is at pma. unlike ny museums , where almost all museums have a weekly free night for ALL special exhibitions, NOONE in phila will get to see this show without spending $25. members, such as myself, would have to pay $25 to see it more than once. i saw bathers by the river at moma 5 times, as a member, at no additional charge. as much as i’d love to see it another 5 times (or even more than that) what with it being so near me, it would cost me $100 extra. pma seems to believe people can appreciate art only in proportion to how much money they have. for a schmucky member like myself to see the paintings more than once would no doubt cause them grave damage. i am sure joe rishel has done another great job but pma is doing him a great disservice by restricting the audience to his work. i know, personally, when i make my one visit, i’m going to be looking at the art. i don’t expect to be able to appreciate the extent of his curatorial endeavors in that one visit. i find it very depressing that i am more excited about moma’s boetti show(an artist i don’t even care about) because if its a good show, i’ll be able to go as much as i want, than i am about a show with matisse’s bathers by the river, one of my favorite ptgs ever because i can’t afford $25 a shot to look at it even though it’s in the city i live. this also makes me not want to visit pma at all because it is didgusting to be in the room next to this show & not be able to go in. i realize i am exactly the kind of person pma doesn’t want as a member because i want to look at art more than once & am not wealthy & therefore i will renew my moma & pafa memberships but i am through with pma. for some reason , moma & pafa don’t treat their members like trash , as pma does.

  2. roberta says:

    Stuart, what you don’t say is that MoMA’s free Friday nights are sponsored by TARGET! It’s not like MoMA is so generous and the PMA is mean (which you imply). MoMA got lucky that Target wanted to be affiliated with them and had the money to do this Free Friday night sponsorship. PMA should get a corporate underwriter for Free Friday nights too…and that would be the end of the story.

  3. stuart roberts says:

    hi, roberta
    you are certainly right that corporate sponsorship helps at moma (as well as at most ny museums.)it is also why new yorkers have a plethora of great free concerts to choose from every weekend while philadelphians are supposed to go to new jersey to work on their skin cancer.& moma seems to have the luxury of relatively benign corporate sponsorship (target) as opposed to having to mix blood with leeches like bank of america as many phila museums have done. i’m not up on the intricacies of corporate sponsorship but my guess is that these organizations want to be associated & liked by “hip” new yorkers & couldn’t care less about philadelphians (since there are targets in phila, i wonder if pma has bothered seeking them out.)i definitely agree with you that pma should try to get somebody to make their friday nights free but pma being pma, that wouldn’t be the end of the story. the people at the top of the power pyramid at pma clearly are contemptuous of people who are not rich like them (as albert barnes complained about decades ago) & while i would love to see their attitudes changed, i’m not holding my breath. the day i was blocked from their facebook page for commenting on the differences between their treatment of members & moma’s i received a couple of free guest passes from moma. if i wanted to take 2 guests to arcadia , it would cost $75. so actually, to be explicit this time, i do think moma is pretty generous to their members & i think pma’s idea of member treats (2 desserts for the price of one if you dine at their restaurant) are so pathetic i can barely bring myself to repeat them.

  4. Christina says:

    Wow, I didn’t realize corporate sponsorships at museums “Target Free Friday” were going the way of sport venues, ie. Citizens Bank Park, Citi Field, etc. Kind of Scary – what’s next…the “Bank of America Museum of Art??” Yikes! Honestly, though, museums are way too expensive. I don’t know how Indianapolis Museum of Art does it, but they are free, and subtly request a donation as you leave the building! And, it’s a great, fun, nicely-curated museum.

  5. andrea kirsh says:

    Indianapolis is able to offer a pay-as-you-wish policy because the museum has a huge endowment which covers a considerable portion of the operating budget. All museums would like to be in this position, and it is really the only means they have of making decisions on a professional basis and supporting the museums’ missions rather than because of funding necessity.

  6. Christina says:

    Wow! i’ll have to look up how they accrued a huge endowment! I wish our Philly musuems had such benefactors!

  7. Jeff C says:

    Great review by Andrea. There was a piece by Poussin, but was it Apollo and Daphne? I couldn’t seem to find it.

  8. andrea kirsh says:

    Jeff,
    Yes, ‘Apollo and Daphne.’ If you are in the large, central room, and face the PMA’s ‘Bathers’ by Cezanne, turn 180 degrees.

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