Poor Pissarro, steamrolled by Cézanne.
That’s my five-word review of the Museum of Modern Art’s handsomely installed summer blockbuster “Cézanne and Pissarro: Pioneering Modern Painting.” MOMA loves putting its big guys together. We’ve already had “Picasso and Braque: Pioneering Cubism” and “Matisse Picasso,” a/k/a “Matcasso.” Now this. As a famous art historian was reported to have observed at the press preview, “MOMA isn’t happy unless it has one artist killing another.” For me, Picasso didn’t dent Braque, and Matisse seemed that much more revolutionary by comparison. But this time, it actually is a kind of homicide. Pissarro is more or less done in by the massively talented, super-radical, wild-card Cézanne. This, despite the fact that Cézanne mightn’t have been Cézanne without him. It was Pissarro who pulled Cézanne toward nature, away from expressionist painting, the palette knife excesses of Courbet, and what art historian Roger Fry called “artistic madness.” Cézanne needed Pissarro’s restraint. It’s too bad Pissarro wasn’t able to adopt some of Cézanne’s raging intensity.
The two came to Paris as outsiders. Pissarro was born in 1830 in the Caribbean to a Sephardic Jewish father and a Creole mother. Cézanne, nine years his junior, hailed from Aix-en-Provence and spoke in such a pronounced regional accent that many had difficulty understanding him. Between 1865 and 1885, the dates covered by this exhibition, the two worked closely, sometimes depicting the same subjects in the same places at the same time. Occasionally, one of them worked from the other’s painting rather than the landscape. During this period they helped forge some of the basic tenets of impressionism—the faceted attention to light, the short, repeating brushstrokes, and the process-oriented surfaces. Both exhibited in the history-altering 1863 “Salon des Refuses,” which introduced impressionism to a wary Parisian public.
Yet as early as the exhibition’s second room—maybe even midway through the first one—you find yourself concentrating on Cézanne’s mind-blowing radicality to the near-exclusion of Pissarro’s tamer-by-comparison talent. You may also wonder about the possible Freudian implications, since the curator of this show is Joachim Pissarro, great-grandson of the painter.
In fact, “Cézanne and Pissarro” is an unforgettable lesson in seeing. In this show you can learn to discern the difference between the good and the great, the very talented and the simply tremendous.
Put plainly, Pissarro’s work is the more supple, refined, and decorous of the two. Pissarro knew that academic painting was at an end and that something had to be done. But even though he was willing to take the innovative step of forgoing drawing in painting and he learned to build up his surfaces, Pissarro couldn’t quite let go of the structures in place. He was a rule bender, not a rule breaker. Pissarro’s canvases have a harmonious all-overness to them, a tonal homogeneity. His ebbing space is placid and well organized. Light is even and pleasing, color invented, not observed. In Pissarro’s world the weather is always fair.
By contrast, Cézanne is crude, stormy, and untamed. His color is simultaneously more observed and less idealized. Yet it is oddly artificial, as if everything he saw were filtered through some interior lens that broke things down into geometric shapes and culminating points of energy. Houses become cubes, wheat fields turn into ramparts. Cézanne’s filtering is relentless, rebellious, and hallucinatory. It also feels accurate. His world is vibrating and alive. Everything is faceted, as if you’re seeing every atom in motion. Things quiver and are on the verge of splintering. Yet composition is solid, almost classical. Nothing like this had ever existed on a flat surface before.
Stand between any pairings at MOMA, don’t look at the names, and before long you’ll see yourself seeing the difference. Not only are the differences vast, they’re unmistakable. In a Pissarro things move gracefully from foreground to middle ground to background. A road might begin at the front of the picture, establishing an easy entry point, then carry you gradually into the painting. In a Cézanne there is no such logic. Everything is broken up. Structure is established, but space is flattened and erratic and occurs in layers and sheets. The brushstrokes are all individualized, as if each one were also describing its own molecular structure. In Cézanne’s metaphysical landscapes nature turns into a kind of equation of shapes and planes. Cézanne triumphs because he is staggeringly inventive and viscerally physical. We also know how the story ends, that in effect Cézanne is the last prophet and the first saint: He is the last pre-modern and the first completely modern artist. Picasso called him “the father of us all”; Matisse referred to him as “a God.” Modernism, in other words, comes to us through him. For his part, Pissarro—who Cézanne referred to as “a father to me”—continued oscillating between student and teacher. He was a crucial influence on Gauguin, then embraced the neo-impressionist techniques of Seurat and Signac. But the story ends well for Pissarro too. He came into his own at the very end. Old and sick and confined to painting from his apartment window, he depicted the streets of Paris with the kind of affecting humanity that impressionism always lacked.