Arcadia to Abstraction at the Budapest Fine Arts Museum
The STORIES of modern painting conventionally begin with Paul Cézanne (1839-1906); and yet its relationship with later avant-garde artists is fraught with contradiction. The Budapest exhibition “Cezanne to Malevich” (the gallery and the artist’s descendants prefer the spelling of the artist’s name without the conventional accent, reflecting its own use of the dialect) reminds us that it is less he who influenced them that they or they who reinterpreted it.
The story of an appropriation (diversion) is usually told in terms of jarring visual philosophies. Where Cézanne freely dialogued with classical tradition in paintings of classical Arcadia, such as The great swimmers (1898), later modernists simply ignored it. Where Cézanne used geometric accentuation to anchor the perception of real objects, Cubists used real objects to celebrate geometry, and Mondrian got rid of external referents entirely in favor of mathematical abstraction.
The exhibition captures Cézanne’s familiar revisionist tale well, while expanding it geographically to cover the less familiar subject of the artist’s reception in Central and Eastern Europe. The exhibition ends with an exploration of the work of the Russian “supremacist” painter Kazimir Malevich (1879-1935).
© photo MASP João MusaPaul Cézanne (1839-1906), Madame Cézanne en rouge, 1888-90, Collection Museu de Arte de São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand, São Paulo, Brazil
Cezanne’s enthusiastic reception at the start of the avant-garde in Moscow was characterized by Malevich, who wrote that “In Cézanne’s personality our history of painting reaches the peak of its development. In Self-portrait and Portrait of Piotr Konchalovsky, (1910), Ilya Mashkov (1881-1944) placed a work entitled Cezanne next to the Bible on the shelf behind him.
Nonetheless, for others, the response to this new stimulus from France was, paradoxically, a diversion from Western pictorial tradition – and even from Cézanne himself. “Long live the splendid Orient! . . . Long live nationality! We are against the West. . . Today it is Cézanne and Picasso against whom we must fight! thundered Mikhail Larionov (1881-1944) in a 1913 manifesto.
Larionov and his supporters set out to dig deep into the traditions of Russian decorative art and Orthodox iconography, provocatively drawing the vernacular into the gallery and the sacred into the secular sphere. These currents combine in that of Larionov Venus from 1912, where, shockingly, the erotic mythological subject appears against a background of a golden yellow icon, while the decor is suggested using sparse motifs from Russian folk tradition.
There is a certain irony here. Larionov sought to escape Cezanne by unwittingly following his own path of renunciation. The exhibition reminds us that Cézanne was also inspired by the domestic ecclesial tradition. His in-depth study of figurative patterns in medieval parish churches in Aix-en-Provence shaped his own reshaping of facial representations, as evidenced by the portraits of his son Paul (1885) and his wife Hortense (vs. 1890).
Malevich, on the other hand, remained closer to Cézanne in his proclaimed sympathy, but, ironically, moved away from him in the loosening of conventions of representation. His work testifies to a complex negotiation with both Cézanne’s legacy and Christian belief.
In White square and dissolution plan (1918), the subject appears to be a tomb, and the upper dissolving rectangle extending beyond the edge of the sheet could (as the catalog suggests) “be taken for a mystical substance, as if it were was about a soul leaving a body ”.
Collection Stedelijk Museum AmsterdamKazimir Malevich (1879-1935), Mystic Suprematism (Red Cross on black circle), 1920-22, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam
Mystical suprematism (red cross on black circle) (1920-22) suggests the death of faith itself more than that of a believer. Leaning crosses are a familiar sight in Orthodox cemeteries, but the violent red is reminiscent of the Soviet revolution of 1917, the force of which detached the minor crossbars, which are scattered all around. The black halo suggests the eclipse of metaphysical belief itself.
What the exhibition could have explored in more depth is the contrast between Cézanne’s vision of art as a gateway to the spiritual (in the literal sense of the term iconic) and the tendency of his performers and disciples to consider the artistic process and its fruits as spiritual in and of themselves.
In his pioneering 1913 study Cézanne and Holder (cited in catalog), Fritz Burger wrote of Cezanne in terms that speak of a spirituality beyond theism, arguing that he “shows us everywhere the grave and solemn face of the cosmos behind the insignificant details”, and even speaking of “a darkening veil of mystery extending over the luminous freshness of vitality.” The Dutch abstractionist Van Doesburg went further in 1915, asserting: “The new style… represents the absolute, the absolute. Eternal, God As such, the new practice of art is a priesthood in the universal sense of the term.
These interpretations, however, ignore Cézanne’s own biography. He first learned to draw under the guidance of his high school teacher, the Spanish monk Joseph Gilbert. Although Cézanne’s adult Catholic practice was intermittent, he returned to it from 1891 with sustained ardor throughout his last 15 years.
The importance of these facts to understanding his art is evident from his own claim. “When I judge art, I take my painting and place it next to an object created by God like a tree or a flower. If it collides, it’s not art.
Contemplating this context will help us better understand why Cézanne himself never completely crossed the line from Arcadia to abstraction.
“Cézanne to Malevich: from Arcadia to abstraction” is in the Museum of Fine Arts, 1146 Budapest, Dózsa György út 41, Budapest, until February 13. www.mfab.hu