Gauguin, Cézanne, Matisse: Visions of Arcadia, Philadelphia Museum
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Gauguin, Cézanne, Matisse: Visions of Arcadia, Philadelphia Museum of Art How Poussin’s melancholy-tinged pastoral idyll inspired painters at the turn of the 20th century Rousseau’s ‘The Dream’ (1910) Share on Twitter (opens new window) Share on Facebook (opens new window) Share on LinkedIn (opens new window) Save Save to myFT Ariella Budick AUGUST 1, 2012 0 What could be more soothing to a metropolis beaten down by summer than a few radiant glimpses of Eden? In Gauguin, Cézanne, Matisse: Visions of Arcadia, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, succulent nudes cavort across canvases dipped in light and vibrating with colour. But like all of life’s most appetising pleasures, fantasies of earthly paradise come with a dollop of melancholy, making the show at once voluptuous and dark. The exhibition centres on one spectacular room in which a quintet of outsized masterpieces by Cézanne, Gauguin, Poussin, Matisse and Rousseau form a steamy wraparound panorama. Rousseau’s “The Dream” borders on nightmare, with a nude reclining on a couch in a riotous, threatening jungle. Gauguin’s famous Tahitian epic quivers with existential doubt. Matisse’s “Bathers by the River” smuggles pastoral nudes into an angular modern landscape. Even in paradise, bliss is tough to come by. The earliest work here is by Poussin, who, incited by Virgil, invented the visual version of Arcadia in the 17th century. “Blessed is he who knows the woodland gods,” wrote Virgil, and Poussin conjures a nostalgic idyll against a darkening glade. The painting depicts a bittersweet bacchanal, with semi-clad nymphs and shepherds carousing as the sun sinks low in the sky. It’s an erotic reverie steeped in wine and somnolent bliss. French painters after Poussin also craved an erotic refuge sweetened by a hint of sorrow, and the show zeroes in on the turn of the 20th century. Impressionism had run its course, young artists had tired of their elders’ emphasis on fleeting optical effects, and Poussin’s powerful paintings experienced a revival after 200 years. New biographies and escalating encomia claimed him as the father of the modern French school. The Poussin room at the Louvre suddenly teemed with post-Impressionists such as Paul Cézanne. “I would like to join the curves of the women to the shoulders of the hills,” Cézanne proclaimed. “Like Poussin, I would like to put reason in the grass and tears in the sky.” For these young painters, Poussin did more than merely model a mode of wistful escape. He offered them a firm link to the past, even as the world was yanking them into the tumultuous present. He gave them a springboard in tradition for their leaps into the artistic unknown, and he bestowed a precedent for bending nature to their artistic will. Cézanne, Gauguin, Matisse and Rousseau – along with German expressionists such as Kirchner and Peckstein – conflated the biblical Eden, Virgil’s Arcadia and primeval fantasies into vistas of a golden age that either existed a long time ago, or far away, or in a distant future, but in any case was nowhere to be found in their lives. At the Philadelphia Museum, the results of this ambivalent longing can be found a few steps away from the Poussin, in Gauguin’s vision of South Pacific bliss “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?”, the blockbuster borrowed from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Gauguin went to Tahiti on a deliberate quest for what he called a land “of ecstasy, peace and art, far from this European struggle for money”. He fashioned himself into an “uncertain posturing Odysseus, wandering the seas, living a life of adventure as well as privation, and longing for a return to the sanctuary and shelter of friends and family”. Paris looked much more inviting from halfway around the globe. The irony is that Gauguin had to search out Tahiti’s ancient ways to become wholly French and thoroughly modern. He desired simplicity and naiveté, but what he produced was a sophisticated amalgam of Polynesian landscapes, western myths and the European art history he was steeped in. Here, he placed a tropical Adam in a painting that synthesises Buddhist carvings, works by Rembrandt, artefacts from anthropology museums, Botticelli’s “La Primavera” and, of course, Poussin’s Arcadia, suffused with innocence and haunted by loss. Other turn-of-the-century French painters, with less ambitious appetites for travel, found their idylls in the south of France. Cézanne was Provençal, and he mined his native landscape for a mixture of monumentality and expressivity. In his late, enigmatic “Large Bathers”, he fused the contours of landscape and the female body, just as he always felt Poussin had: here, tall trees rise from a range of mountainous flesh. But it was the Riviera, rather than inland Provence, that exercised the most powerful hold on the urban imagination, perhaps because its violent beauty seemed already pregnant with sorrow. Matisse arrived as a guest of Paul Signac, a leftist painter whose “In the Time of Harmony” (originally called “In Time of Anarchy”) takes place on the workers’ day off, when farmers, artists and labourers gather to indulge their leisure. It’s worth making a detour to see it before returning to the main gallery for Matisse’s brooding climax. In the Signac, a gauzy violet shade envelopes the foreground, where a man reaches up to pluck a fruit from a tree, a mother proffers a fat fig to her naked baby, and a pair of shirtless hunks toss boules. The sun gilds the middle distance, lighting on a couple as they embrace. And in the background, an artist stands astride an easel, a sower scatters his seeds, and a circle of dancers whirl ecstatically round a tree. Signac believed that the golden age could one day be achieved through political action. Matisse, who had no interest in revolution, preferred to find his heaven in the present. His gloss on Signac’s vision is “Luxe, calme, et volupté” (sadly not in the show), a multi-figured daydream of ecstatic tourism by the sea, complete with picnic blanket and tea set. The monumental “Bathers by the River” started out as a similarly Arcadian exercise, a pastel evocation of nymphs washing themselves by a running brook. A 1909 study recalls the massive Cézanne bathers hanging nearby. But between then and 1917, when the work was done, Matisse reconceived it. Bedevilled by Cubism and discomfited by war, he darkened his erotic dream into a sinister quartet of columnar nudes with blank ovals for faces. Matisse confines a slice of nature within a perimeter of urban hardness. The figures’ limbs are concrete-grey and massive as highway overpasses, and they stand against vertical bands of light and dark, like the shadows of tall buildings. A serpent insinuates itself into the frame, the sin of modernity curdling the vision of Arcadia. Eden would have to be tough to survive its encounter with the 20th century. Until September 3, www.philamuseum.org