Dialogue in green paint

The Cezanne & Pissarro show at the LA County Museum of Art is unlike any art exhibit I’ve ever seen.  It points the way to the kind of art show we might see more of in the future–one that explores the process of making art, and the progress of an artist’s eye. 

You enter the exhibit and see two paintings side by side: One by Pissarro and one by Cezanne.  They are both of the same subject: A country road with trees on the left side and, in the distance, a village on the right. Two figures on the road, one of them a child. Some clouds. Both paintings are called Louveciennes. Pissarro painted his in 1871. Cezanne borrowed it, and painted his own version the following year.

It’s a copy–and yet it’s not.

Pissarro’s original, though beautiful, does not prettify the landscape; it analyzes it. His amazing array of techniques are harnessed to serve the creation of a detailed depiction of nature, light and shadows. His brush strokes are thick here, delicate there, and in some places the paint is troweled onto the canvas. All in service of capturing the ineffable play of light at a moment in time.

It’s important to note that, in his time, Pissarro was a revolutionary artist, and is now generally regarded as the father of the impressionist style.  But in his copy of Louveciennes, and throughout the exhibit, you see how Cezanne starts where Pissarro leaves off. He too wants to see nature as it is, but takes it a step further, into pure form.  Not for Cezanne are the delicately rendered details. To him, the trees, the rooftops, the clouds are all shapes, delineated by color, and organized into a geometric pattern. 

It’s the exact same composition as Pissarro used, but Cezanne finds something else in it, and emphasizes what he sees. His colors are not divorced from nature (as Pissarro renders it), but because they serve a different purpose, they are rendered with greater intensity and clarity.  

Cezanne starts where Pissarro leaves off; and then Cezanne takes us all the way to the doorway of abstract painting, where color, form and composition become pure expressions of an artist’s vision.

Throughout the exhibit (which closes January 16), paintings by each artist are paired.  There are no more “copies,” but many paintings of the same vista, or the same still life subject.  The contrast allows you to see not only the uniqueness of both artists’ visions but also the hinge of European art history, where it swung in a just a few short decades from the formal techniques favored by the Paris Salon  against which Pissarro rebelled, to the departure from representation that Cezanne approached.

I might be a bit out of my depth writing about art, but the show was enlightening and thrilling. More like this, please, curators.  


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