Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Gauguin, Cézanne, Matisse: Visions of Arcadia

Paul Gauguin: Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1898)

Paul Cézanne: The Large Bathers (1906)

Henri Matisse: Bathers by a River (1909-17)

Philadelphia Museum of Art: June 20, 2012 - September 3, 2012

The theme of an earthly paradise, or Arcadia, has been popular in theater, poetry, music, and art since antiquity. In France during the early 1900s, this idea of a mystical place of contentment and harmony was especially potent--illustrated in mural-sized paintings which were often commissioned for public viewing. This exhibition explores the theme in three such paintings of the time: Paul Gauguin’s Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1898), Paul Cézanne’s The Large Bathers (1906), and Henri Matisse’s Bathers by a River (1909-17). Placed on view together, in a dialogue of sorts, these three masterpieces take visitors to the very foundations of modern art.

Inspired by his travels in Tahiti, Gauguin painted Where Do We Come From? as an embodiment of his vision of Arcadia in 1898. Shortly after its completion, the painting was exhibited in Paris at the art gallery of Ambroise Vollard. Also in Paris at that moment were Paul Cézanne, who happened to be at work on a portrait of Vollard, and Henri Matisse, who had just abandoned his legal studies for a career in art. It’s unclear whether either Cézanne or Matisse was aware of Gauguin’s vast canvas, but it is fascinating to examine their own later masterpieces in relation to it. Cézanne’s Arcadian ideal is exemplified in the 1906 painting The Large Bathers, which combines figures and landscape in a stagelike setting deeply rooted in the past. Matisse, meanwhile, completed one of his own largest paintings, Bathers by a River, in several stages between 1909 and 1917. His vision evolves from a stylized rendering of an idyllic scene to a Cubist-inspired representation that hints at a sinister side of paradise.

This exhibition, which is only being shown in Philadelphia, includes masterpieces by artists such as Albert Gleizes, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Pablo Picasso, and Paul Signac that emphasize the French tradition of grand public paintings. Works by Nicolas Poussin and others establish the prevalence of the Arcadian theme. With major loans from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the Art Institute of Chicago, Gauguin, Cézanne, Matisse: Visions of Arcadia allows visitors to experience works created during one of the most innovative and remarkable periods in the history of art.