Since I feel the same way, I beat feet to Philadelphia to see the Barnes’s latest special exhibition, “The World Is an Apple: The Still Lifes of Paul Cezanne.”
This exhibition of 22 bewitching still lifes was organized by the Barnes in collaboration with the Art Gallery of Hamilton in Hamilton, Ontario It was curated by Hamilton’s Dr. Benedict Leca (through September 22 at the Barnes; thereafter in Hamilton, November 1 through January 31, 2015).
At the Barnes, this exhibition is brilliantly installed, with plenty of space between the pictures, to give them room to breathe. Cezanne’s paintings are so powerful that only a few can hold down an entire wall.
Traditionally, still life was at the bottom of the academic hierarchy At the top was “history painting” (including mythological and religious subjects as well as straight history). Next came portraiture, then genre, then landscape, then animal painting, and finally still life. The painter from Aix-en-Provence challenged all that.
“I want to astonish Paris with an apple,” he is said to have said. That slogan is emblazoned on the wall of this exhibition, as well as on chic black T-shirts for sale in the museum’s still-new gift shop.
The fixation on apples also figured in an article by Columbia University’s Meyer Schapiro that was much admired back when I was in grad school, but really apples are not the only subject in this exhibition.
Indeed, it is remarkable how many other objects Cezanne chose to emblematize in his paintings. In this show, they range from lemons, oranges and peaches to cakes, baguettes, a carafe, a wine flask, ginger pots, flowers, a type of grey ceramic or stone pitcher known as a “cruchon,” and – somewhat startling—groups of human skulls
Even more remarkable are the many different ways in which these objects are arranged, and the variety starting from very simple compositions to very elaborate ones.
Some, like “Some Apples” (1879-80), from Baden in Switzerland, show only a handful of apples. Some like “The Buffet” (1877-79) from Budapest, and “The Kitchen Table” (1888-90), from the Musee d’Orsay, are panoplies of objects, spread out as though for a feast.
The majority of the paintings here, like “Pitcher and Plate with Pears” (1895-98), from a private collection, fall in the middle ground of complexity, but all are painted with the firm, passionate structuralism that make Cezanne still lifes so unforgettable.
His determined (even slashing) strokes of paint look as though he’d slammed his image together, but the truth seems to be that he labored over his still lifes until the fruit that he’d set up to paint from had rotted. Thus he was painting from memory as much as from life, which may help to explain why his fruits (especially the apples) look as hard -- and durable – as rocks.
Albert Barnes seems to have understood Cezanne pretty well. In a letter to Leo Stein from 1914, he wrote, “I love his crudity, his baldness of statements, his apparent lack of skill in the handicraft of painting, and the absolute sincerity of the man.”