Sunday, June 28, 2009

Travel Journal: Marseille/Aix-en-Provence

My last travel journal chronicled an amazing day in Nice, and more great art than any one person should attempt to absorb in just a day. Following that day on the beautiful Côte d'Azur, we sailed up to the historic and culturally vibrant port of Marseille. Our excursion was to the famed medieval hill town in the heart of Provence, Aix.

With the imposing yet scenic Mt. Saint-Victoire in the background, the countryside of Cézanne has lost none of its allure. Amy and I skipped the excursion to his studio in order to spend more time exploring the ancient walls and cathedrals, lingering at the fragrant farmer's market in the center of town. (I will never buy "herbes de provence" anywhere else!)

Aix is home to one of Europe's most renowned music festivals, and we were disappointed to miss, among other classical superstars, Sir Simon Rattle. Cézanne's home and studio are among the chief lures for the art lover, and the town's museum, the Musee Granet, is a fine example of a small regional museum. This regional museum had just been transformed, however, into an international destination with the recent opening of the Picasso-Cézanne exhibit. I have been an art lover since the full awakening of my artistic consciousness in graduate school at Westminster Choir College in Princeton. Besides the world-class education I absorbed like a sponge, the Choirs' regular run-out performances to Philadelphia and New York and the residencies at summer festivals in Charleston, Spoleto, and Colmar whet an appetite for culture that has only increased. Before attending Westminster, I was just another wet-behind-the-ears kid with maybe above average brains & talent, but no worldly knowledge nor experience, and very little exposure to art and culture. I was, however, ready to open to it, and I am grateful my mind and soul were the fertile ground upon which an amazing amount of cultural experience could settle and begin to ripen.

That is all to say, some 15 years of international travel and experience later, the Picasso-Cézanne exhibit was the greatest single art show I've attended.

Though an amateur in the deepest sense of the word, I am not an art historian enough to give the background this exhibit deserves. I was aware the two artists were cousins: Cézanne's still lifes, for example, changed the way that genre was viewed and painted, and it is easy to discern his influence on Picasso. An exhibition of some of these paintings 100 years ago inspired a book's worth of letters from the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. His "Letters on Cézanne" contain such insightful observations on the man and his work:

"To achieve the conviction and substantiality of things, a reality intensified and potentiated to the point of indestructability by his experience of the object, this seemed to him to the purpose of his innermost work..."

Rather than mere cousins, the P-C exhibit reveals these two great and utterly individual artists to be more surrogate father-son. At the end of the exhibit, a wonderful quotation of Picasso made me glad I'd taken my pocket journal along:

"I am interested in the unquiet of Cézanne, the teaching of Cézanne, the torment of Van Gogh, and what I call the 'drama of man.' The rest is false."

The exhibit is brilliantly organized in four sections. The Granet musuem is too small a building to adequately contain the size and scope of such an extensive, spacious, and overwhelming collection of paintings. The curators are all the more to be commended for the care with which the 100 plus canvas show was handled.

The first section, "Picasso looks at Cézanne" introduces us to the Spanish prodigy's early recognition of his colleague's "late bloomer" genius (this is an interesting point of departure between the two artists--Picasso is an example of that rare child prodigy; Cézanne one who only hit his stride after he'd turned 40, and whose fame has only ripened with age and time).

The first section of the show revealed side by side the influence of Picasso viewing Cézanne. The first two paintings on display, in fact were a pair of still lifes from each artist. Nudes and self-portraits further revealed the indebtedness. What opened a new window of awareness was a pair of landscapes where Cézanne's late period minimalism presages Picasso's modernist cubism. And somehow, I had also failed to see Picasso's indebtedness to Cézanne's portraits of his wife. Viewing Picasso's portraits of women, culminating in the famed painting of Gertrude Stein, the proximity was obvious.

"You do well to think I have looked at his paintings" was the quote by Picasso heading the second section of the exhibit, "Picasso collects Cézanne." Here, a handful of classic Cézanne's--another Madame C. portrait, a landscape, and a bathers painting--if not literally fruit as in the still lifes, are at least seeds of inspiration for Picasso.

The heart of the exhibit is the third section "Shared themes and forms." Another classic Cézanne portrait, "Man with a pipe" becomes a springboard for Picasso's cubist and fauvist paintings. More than any other section of the exhibit, it was apparent how one great artist takes from his predecessors, absorbs their influence, and creates wholly original works that both rejuvenate and reestablish a tradition. No one would mistake a Picasso for a Cézanne, just as no one could fail to distinguish between the symphonies of Mahler and Beethoven. Yet each artist in this equation worked from within a tradition, while expanding and renewing it, thereby enriching the tradition and laying the groundwork for the next generation to mine and plumb it anew.

"I've just bought Cézanne's Saint-Victoire [mountain]" said Picasso.
"Which one?" inquired his agent (C painted the mountain some 30 times).
"The real one."

Picasso bought a chateau at Vauvenargues, near Cézanne's beloved mountain, and it is fitting that Mt Saint-Victoire shades the resting places of both artists. The final section of the exhibit was entitled "Picasso reconciles with Cézanne." Though the last two dozen paintings of the show are Picasso's, the shadow of Cézanne looms large after spending so much time observing what, when, and how the younger artist absorbed his elder. The curvilinear arc connecting Cézannes work--the still lifes and "nature mortes" (memento mori, or vanities), portraits and landscapes--to Picasso's paintings in the same genres imbedded itself in the consciousness. And so the last section of Picasso's, with their pastiche-like collage of the many styles their creator assimilated, superficially bore little resemblance to the world of Cézanne. Yet beneath the blurred abstractions of Picasso's singular imagination was a through line of homage from one master to another.

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