History on display

  • Cezanne exhibition: The World is an Apple: The Still Lifes of Paul Cezanne will be on view at the Barnes, at 20th and the Parkway, through Sept. 22. PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE BARNES FOUNDATION

  • Cezanne exhibition: The World is an Apple: The Still Lifes of Paul Cezanne will be on view at the Barnes, at 20th and the Parkway, through Sept. 22. PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE BARNES FOUNDATION

  • Cezanne exhibition: The World is an Apple: The Still Lifes of Paul Cezanne will be on view at the Barnes, at 20th and the Parkway, through Sept. 22. PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE BARNES FOUNDATION

Sev­en weeks ago, the Barnes Found­a­tion de­b­uted an ex­hib­i­tion aim­ing to of­fer vis­it­ors an un­pre­ced­en­ted as­sess­ment of the still life paint­ings of 19th-cen­tury Post-Im­pres­sion­ist Paul Cez­anne. But for those who haven’t had the oc­ca­sion or the in­clin­a­tion to vis­it the Barnes since its con­tro­ver­sial move from the Main Line to the Ben Frank­lin Park­way two years ago, the Cez­anne show presents an ap­pet­iz­ing op­por­tun­ity to take a closer look at the mu­seum it­self, too.

North­east Philly folks might just find they share some things in com­mon with Al­bert C. Barnes, the late col­lect­or and edu­cat­or who es­tab­lished the found­a­tion in sub­urb­an Merion 92 years ago — not the least of which would be his work­ing-class be­gin­nings and his loath­ing of the elit­ist art es­tab­lish­ment.

The World is an Apple: The Still Lifes of Paul Cez­anne will be on view at the Barnes, 20th and the Park­way, through Sept. 22.

“[Barnes] def­in­itely be­lieved that every­one should be able to ap­pre­ci­ate art and that they didn’t have to have a high-falutin edu­ca­tion to un­der­stand it,” said Ju­dith Dolkart, the found­a­tion’s deputy dir­ect­or of art and archiv­al col­lec­tions and Gund fam­ily chief cur­at­or, dur­ing a re­cent in­ter­view with the North­east Times. “That’s why the form­al prin­ciples of light, line, col­or and space were so im­port­ant to him, be­cause he be­lieved every­one could un­der­stand them.”

In Cez­anne’s work, Barnes found a fa­vor­ite vehicle to con­vey his aes­thet­ic and philo­soph­ic­al sens­ib­il­it­ies. The found­a­tion’s per­man­ent col­lec­tion in­cludes 69 paint­ings by Cez­anne, second only in num­ber to the 181 by the pre-em­in­ent Im­pres­sion­ist Pierre-Au­guste Ren­oir.

The World is an Apple fea­tures 21 ad­di­tion­al paint­ings on loan from a vari­ety of mu­seums, aca­dem­ic in­sti­tu­tions and private col­lec­tions. As a group, they shed new light on Cez­anne’s use of table set­tings, flower ar­range­ments and even hu­man skulls as sub­jects throughout his ca­reer to de­vel­op his own tech­niques and style.

“As a cur­at­or, you al­ways look for holes in the schol­ar­ship,” said Be­ne­dict Le­ca, the ex­hib­i­tion cur­at­or and dir­ect­or of cur­at­ori­al af­fairs at the Art Gal­lery of Hamilton in Ontario, which will host the ex­hib­i­tion after it leaves Phil­adelphia. “Cez­anne is one of those fig­ures who have been stud­ied every which way. … The still lifes, oddly enough, are the one area that had not been ap­proached [by schol­ars] as a dis­tinct group of works from a genre per­spect­ive.”

Per­haps not co­in­cid­ent­ally, the art es­tab­lish­ment of Cez­anne’s time (span­ning the early 1860s un­til his 1906 death) didn’t think much of still life as a genre, com­pared to no­bler sub­jects such as por­traits or his­tor­ic­al themes. From his earli­est years, the artist set out to dis­tort that per­cep­tion, fam­ously “vow­ing to astound the world’s art cap­it­al with a humble apple” upon his ar­rival in Par­is, as stated in the ex­hib­i­tion text.

“What he’s say­ing is that with a very mod­est ob­ject and with a genre of paint­ing that is very low, if not the low­est on the hier­archy of paint­ings, he’s set­ting him­self this chal­lenge and de­clar­ing his am­bi­tion to use still life to make his name,” Dolkart said.

“When you’re in mid-19th cen­tury France and you de­cide that you’re go­ing to spe­cial­ize in land­scape and still life, you’re mak­ing a state­ment right off the bat. … You’re for­ging an op­pos­i­tion­al iden­tity, which is what he wanted to do.”

For Cez­anne, the apple was not a sym­bol­ic icon, a tool to evoke a Bib­lic­al story or a Greek myth. It was an ob­ject with a simple, yet pro­found form and col­or. He treated pears, vases, bowls, pitch­ers, glasses and skulls with the same dis­as­so­ci­ation from con­ven­tion­al con­text. Mean­while, he broke new ground in his use of col­or, line, space and in­ten­tion­al dis­tor­tion. Al­though his con­tem­por­ary crit­ics gen­er­ally dis­missed his work as crude, he gained a strong fol­low­ing of young­er artists dur­ing his life­time.

“What stands out most prob­ably for oth­er artists is the paint ap­plic­a­tion, the in­di­vidu­al strokes, the thick­ness of the paint and also the will­ful in­eptitudes,” Le­ca said.

Barnes also re­cog­nized these qual­it­ies when he began col­lect­ing art. As the son of a butcher who had lost an arm in the Civil War, he gradu­ated from Cent­ral High School in about 1890, be­came a phys­i­cian and chem­ist and made his for­tune by co-de­vel­op­ing and mar­ket­ing an anti-go­nor­rhea drug. A high school friend, Wil­li­am Glack­ens, helped him pur­chase his first 20 paint­ings in Par­is in 1912. Glack­ens was an im­port­ant Amer­ic­an av­ant garde artist in his own right and will be the sub­ject of a fu­ture Barnes ex­hib­i­tion.

Be­fore his 1951 death, Barnes ac­quired some 800 paint­ings by European and Amer­ic­an mas­ters, as well as Afric­an sculp­ture, Nat­ive Amer­ic­an ceram­ics, jew­elry and tex­tiles, an­tiquit­ies from the Medi­ter­ranean and Asia, along with dec­or­at­ive arts, such as met­al work.

He built a private gal­lery ad­ja­cent to his Merion home, where he me­tic­u­lously ar­ranged his found­a­tion’s vast hold­ings and con­duc­ted ex­tens­ive edu­ca­tion­al pro­gram­ming, while tightly re­strict­ing pub­lic ac­cess to the col­lec­tion. He fam­ously re­jec­ted re­quests by James Michen­er and T.S. Eli­ot to vis­it the gal­lery, al­though he freely al­lowed and en­cour­aged stu­dents to come.

Upon his death, Barnes willed that the found­a­tion main­tain the gal­lery in its pre­cise state while con­tinu­ing its edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion. In the early 1990s, lead­ers of the found­a­tion cited mount­ing fin­an­cial pres­sures for seek­ing to break the terms of the will. Ul­ti­mately, the found­a­tion over­came two dec­ades of leg­al battles to move the col­lec­tion to the Park­way.

“One of the things that Barnes really loved was artists who ut­terly trans­formed paint­ing through their own en­gage­ment with paint or the sub­ject mat­ter,” Dolkart said. “Cez­anne was one of those artists. Cez­anne was en­ga­ging in tra­di­tion­al sub­jects but he defined them in a whole new way.” ••

You can reach at wkenny@bsmphilly.com.

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