January 27, 2023

Cezanne in Chicago

A dazzling retrospective at the Art Institute of Chicago teaches us how to look at Cezanne’s painting and reminds us why his art is so vital today


What a spectacular tribute!

The Paul Cezanne retrospective, on view through September 5 at the Art Institute of Chicago, showcases all the hits: mountains, forests, table cloths, apples, and bathers. The Institute’s Regenstein Hall dazzles with over 100 works in oil, watercolor, and graphite, all of which are arranged by genre. The eponymous exhibition also presents two of Cezanne’s sketchbooks and a six-minute video that illuminates the artist’s approach to painting three-dimensional space on an otherwise flat plane.

Planned in coordination with the Tate Modern, “Cezanne” is a collaboration by Art Institute curators and University of Texas alumnae Caitlin Haskell and Gloria Groom, along with Tate Modern curator Frances Comer.

Cezanne’s name is no stranger to the posthumous limelight. Long canonized as the patron saint of Cubism, Fauvism, and non-objective European art, his work has traveled the world as a touchstone of modern painting and art education for decades.

What’s special about the Chicago retrospective, however, is that in addition to the work, the show teaches us how to look at Cezanne’s painting. The curators’ text, specifically, is one of the more rewarding features of the exhibition and directs readers back to the painting. Before showing us young Cezanne, for instance, the curators give us a crash course in his distinctive approach. The exhibition opens with three late landscapes (c. 1890s-1904) that illustrate, as the wall text argues, how Cezanne worked to “communicate…the landscape’s appearance…[and] the feeling of seeing it and painting it.”

But, what does this mean in practice?

Paul Cezanne, “Undergrowth (Sous-Bois),” c. 1894, Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Compare, for instance, how the diagonal lines of the tree branches build space beyond the limits of the canvas in “Undergrowth (Sous-Bois),” c. 1894. And look at how the layers of short successive green brushstrokes make the leaves appear to dance as the wind blows through their branches. In the bottom left, similar shoots of color — in orange, red, and brown — this time feel solid and swell towards the picture plane. As the curators suggest, the layered patchwork of paint on the surface “commands attention,” emphasizing the tension between “the illusion of the forest scene and the actual brushstrokes that render it.”

Paul Cezanne, “The Big Trees,” c. 1902-1904. National Galleries of Scotland

With “The Big Trees” (c. 1904-5), the curators offer the first of many breathtaking paintings to illustrate how, as the scale of Cezanne’s brushstrokes grew in relative size, the “recordings of sensation…threatened to break the illusion of ‘seeing through’ the picture.” In this example, patches of green, yellow, purple, and blue comprise the forest floor. Above, a series of curved and sharp interlocking lines ripple through masses of green and blue leafy trees. The branches are hypnotic. Whereas some curvilinear branches taper behind the painted leaves, other diagonal limbs terminate abruptly over areas of white canvas. Examined closely, these quirks create a dynamic experience for our peripheral vision.

Paul Cezanne, “Sous-bois (Chemin du Mas Jolie au Château noir)/ Undergrowth (Path from Mas Jolie to Château noir),” 1900-02. Beyeler Foundation collection

“Undergrowth (Path from Mas Jolie to Château noir)” (1900-02), sandwiched between the aforementioned two forest studies, brings us to Cezanne’s “most colorfully abstract and radically unfinished” approach to painting. The painting looks like it’s coming apart as flakes of greens, blues, purples, and oranges fall across the canvas like a translucent veil.

Together, these three paintings get to the heart of one of Cezanne’s more revolutionary contributions to modern art. His thick tapestries of color reflect an ongoing, evolving process of experiencing the world. In short, Cezanne took his time. And thanks to the curators, the trio of landscapes throws us into the deep end from the very start: the skeptical visitor may appreciate how what seems at first awkward and clumsy is quite innovative, dynamic, and sensitive.

The curators likewise took a page from Cezanne’s playbook and gave the exhibition a sense of presence. We get to hear what the painter means to artists and conservators today. Kerry James Marshall, Ellen Gallagher, Luc Tuymans, Laura Owens, Phyllida Barlow, Julia Fish, Etel Adnan, and Paul Chan contribute prose and poetry to Cezanne’s story and the impact of his painting across generations. These testimonies further celebrate the peculiarities and “inconsistencies that give Cezanne’s painting its vitality,” as Marshall notes, and the descriptive texture of a rock he achieved by scraping his palette knife across layers of paint, as Gallagher points out.

“Cezanne” is a profoundly generous exhibition that both welcomes us into the painter’s practice and extends the invitation to consider how he endures in the art world, not just for historians and curators today, but to living artists.

“Cezanne” continues through Sept. 5 at the Art Institute of Chicago and then travels to the Tate Modern Oct. 5, 2022 to Mar. 12, 2023.

Taylor Bradley
Taylor Bradley
Taylor Bradley is an art historian based in Houston. Bradley specializes in modern and contemporary art with a focus on the history of photography and conceptual art. She received her BA in Art History with distinction from Boston University (2008) and earned her MA (2012) and PhD (2019) from The University of Texas at Austin.

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