The Saline Selection: Cézanne at the PMA

If, by some chance, you visited the blockbuster Cézanne exhibit organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1996 and you’re thinking been-there, done-that — think again. This new show, Cézanne and Beyond, is as different from the earlier one as a raindrop is from a thunderstorm. For starters, there are only 50 works by Cézanne among the 150 paintings, drawings and occasional sculpture in the show and the focus isn’t Cézanne himself but how he influenced and inspired so many artists not of his generation. And where large retrospectives on a single artist can leave the viewer over-saturated and exhausted by the end — “oh no, not another room of paintings? — this one is like a luscious buffet.
You know you’re going to have fun in the very first room where one of the iconic Cézanne card players is close by a large contemporary light box photo of a group of old ladies at a their weekly gin game. This juxtaposition is played out over and over in rooms creatively organized by the theme of the work—bowls of fruit, bathers, trees, interiors. For example, in a room of still life paintings there are one or two by Cézanne, of course, but others by Matisse, Gorky, Picasso and Morandi where you begin to see hints of the master you’d never think to look for. In a series of female portraits, it’s fascinating to see how a modernist like Leger interprets Cézanne’s Woman in Blue. And maybe art scholars are aware of the connection between Cézanne’s Mont Ste. Victoire, a mountain he painted over and over, and landscapes by abstractionists Ellsworth Kelly and Marsden Hartley. But to an avid but relatively untutored gallery-goer like me, it was a revelation.

When important museums organize great shows, it’s their job to help us see things we never would have thought about before, and Cézanne and Beyond succeeds at this without feeling the least bit boring or pedantic. To the contrary, it’s “user friendly” and utterly delightful. Even when you don’t “get it” you’ll love just drinking in the beauty.

Cézanne and Beyond runs at until May 17 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.