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THE ARTFUL TRAVELER: Philadelphia’s French Art Fling


Henri Matisse, Woman Seated in an Armchair (1923): Models battle textiles for the spotlight.

By Ed Wetschler

    Philadelphia has always been nuts about Impressionism and modern art, but now the city has gone too far. Between the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the PMA's Perelman annex, and the Barnes Collection, William Penn's village is displaying more Matisses and Cezannes than you'll see in Paris, and then some. Just imagine the Parisians pouting their way through the Louvre, sighing at the shortcomings of Mona Lisa and feeling desolee. All this, while restaurants in Philly serve up special Cezanne menus. C'est la vie.
    This won't last forever. PMA's Cezanne and Beyond exhibition ends May 31, 2009, and Henri Matisse and Modern Art on the French Riviera closes in November. After that, the Cezanne show will not be playing at a museum near you; when it's over, it's over. 


Zinc Bistro a Vin (above)

Philadessert (2)

 whose Cezanne menu includes artful desserts (above photo by Ed Wetschler)

    Granted, much of the art in the Matisse and Cezanne exhibitons is from PMA's permanent collection, so you can still savor a Post-Impressionist binge in 2010. But the way Philly curators have juxtaposed these great works is a real eye-opener, and for dessert, there's the Barnes Collection's idiosyncratic displays. And, of course, the wildly painted Sa palette au chocolat at Zinc Bistro a Vins.  


Henri Matisse, Interior at Nice (Room at the Beau Rivage) (1917-18): Here, the textiles win.

Henri Matisse and Modern Art on the French Riviera

    I have this image of Matisse as a kinder, gentler counterpart to Picasso, but tell that to the critics who trashed a 1905 exhibition in Paris featuring Henri and friends. "Les Fauves," they sputtered, "the beasts." And that, boys and girls, is how the Fauvists were born.
    It's not a term Matisse ever liked, but this smallish exhibition shows you why his art threw the critics for a loop. Living from 1917 to 1930 in Nice, with its shimmering sea, skies, and sun-glazed hues, Matisse took pure color to extremes that shocked even Parisians who'd come to accept the Impressionists. The ladies who served as Matisse's models were pretty, I'm sure, but they're no match for the boldly hued fabrics he drapes over tables and screens, the startling blue he uses to paint the sea. 
    There were other art beasts on the Riviera, too–Pierre Bonnard, Andre Derain, Raoul Dufy — who lobbed thick yellows that shimmered against purples, oranges and reds against greens. This exhibition shows how their sunny home in the South inspired them, and how they inspired each other to slip away from realism and revel in the Riviera's colors and sensuality.


Arshile Gorky, Staten Island (1927-28): Homage to Cezanne's paintings of the Bay of Estaque.

Cezanne and Beyond           

    This show's a blockbuster, with 150 pieces by Cezanne (1839-1906), Braque, Bonnard, Matisse (again), Picasso, and other A-Listers. There's not one work in these galleries that you can just walk past without stopping, looking, enjoying, and, yes, thinking.
    "Artistic influence is a notoriously tricky argument to make," says art critic Jori Finkel.  “The most powerful artists take great pains to cover up their debts in the hope of making their own work seem supremely original." Quite right, but they broke that rule for Paul Cezanne. Even Picasso, a man with precious few self-esteem problems, acknowledged him as "my one and only master."
    Piet Mondrian praised Cezanne for having taught artists that "beauty in art is created not by the objects of representation, but by the relationships of line and color." And in this smart exhibition, you really can see how indebted modernists are to this man, why he's still their Elvis.


Marsden Hartley, Canuck Yankee Lumberjack (1940-41): Homage to Cezanne's seminal painting, The Bather

    Enter the show, and you're faced with Cezanne's iconic The Bather, with his arms akimbo and mismatched nipples, looming over an indistinct beachscape where sea foam's color matters more than reality. Now glance to your left; there's Marsden Hartley's Canuck Yankee Lumberjack (above). Hartley's figure has a better suntan, yet the subject, his pose, the break with classic perspective they're pretty much all straight from The Bather.
    In other galleries you see Cezanne's famous still life paintings, with fruits looking as if they should roll out of bowls and off tables set at vertiginous tilts. Yet there they hover, yellow and red bursts of color that defy gravity. And alongside them, Cezanne-like still lifes by Gorky, Matisse, and Morandi. Meanwhile, Jeff Wall, a photographer, plays off Cezanne's seminal The Card Players, and Cezanne's Bay of L'Estaque inspires a slew of paintings, including Arshile Gorky's Staten Island. Note to Gorky: I come from Staten Island, and you have not painted Staten Island. You've painted the Bay of L'Estaque. But you knew that.
    Some of the links between modern artists and Cezanne are not so obvious. Is Ellsworth Kelly's Train Landscape three pastel rectangles–really derived from Cezanne? I think so, but even if Kelly only flatters himself with his claim to kinship, who could blame him?


North wall of Room 14 at the Barnes Foundation, in Merion: The apotheosis of symmetry.

The Barnes Foundation

    After turning a 1902 drug patent into a cash cow, Dr. Albert C. Barnes went on a decades-long shopping spree that included 181 Renoirs, 69 Cezannes, 60 Soutines (in one day!), and truckloads of other extraordinary works. Then he built a museum to display it all in the Philadelphia suburb of Merion.
    See it soon, because the collection will be taken down in a year or two so it can be carefully boxed for relocation to the Barnes' new home downtown. Conveniently located near the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Rodin Art Museum, the new building will have facilities lacking in the current building.
    No matter; the neighbors are furious about this act of desertion. "The Barnes belongs in Merion," proclaims the signs on virtually every lawn on this residential street. "Albert Barnes was the greatest collector America has," declares Nancy Herman, who lives across the street from the museum. "It's a shame not to honor his will."
    This was the will that launched not just 1,000 signs, but 1,000 lawsuits. Can't we all just get along? Well, all sides can agree on these three points: 1. Dr. Barnes had (very) deep pockets. 2. He was blessed with an extraordinary eye for art. 3. His system of displaying art threw buckets of ice-water at curator's faces. Well, figuratively speaking.
    Unlike conventional displays of art, Barnes's was not about who begat whom. Instead, he grouped works in symmetrical "ensembles," keeping the labels so small (and terse) that you often can't read them. What's more, these ensembles mix pieces from different periods, even different continents. Thus, Impressionist and Medieval paintings might be hung on the same wall along with iron implements from rural Pennsylvania. 
    A pastel-pretty Renoir shares pride of place in Gallery I with the perspective-busting rebel Cezanne, which helps you see connections and distinctions not always discussed in art history classes. In another gallery, paintings of drunken carousers flank a tryptich. That'll get your attention.
    The subjects in Renoir's Mussel Pickers have such cute apple cheeks, you want to pinch them, while the subject in a rare Van Gogh nude has crude, even brutal features. Modigliani's beautiful boy in a sailor's suit looks straight at you, while an old man painted by Soutine decomposes before your very eyes.
    As someone who once taught art history, I expected to find these arrangements merely wacky, but you know what? Deprived of my chronological and geographical touchstones, I was left with only (only!) size, color, form, and subject matter. Bereft of the usual art history references, I could do nothing at the Barnes Foundation but see.

Philly Facts


    My wife and I stayed at the Sofitel Philadelphia (above) because we wanted to wallow in the French experience; besides, it's offering a Cezanne package that includes tickets to the Cezanne exhibition, among other goodies (800) 7…. If you want something less pricey, visit gophila.com; there are a dozen or so Cezanne hotel packages in Philadelphia.
    General admission to the Philadelphia Museum is $14 for adults. "Henri Matisse and Modern Art on the French Riviera" runs through Nov. 1, 2009, in the Perelman Building of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, at Fairmount and Pennsylvania avenues. Call (21…. The $7 general admission is optional on Sundays; the flip side is that Saturdays are less crowded. Tickets for "Cezanne and Beyond," issued for a specific date and time and including an exhibition audio tour, cost $24 for adults. Of course, if you stay at one of the Cezanne package hotels (see above), tickets to the Cezanne exhibition are included.
    The Barnes Foundation is only open three days a week through June, and five in the summer. Tickets, which must be reserved in advance, cost $12 per person, age three and over. Parking is an additional $10. The audio tour (and extra $7) or a docent-led tour (tricky, because they fill up fast) is recommended. Call (610) 667 0290, option 5.
    For further information visit the Official Visitors Site to Greater Philadelphia or call (80….

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