Cezanne's Shadow: A Master's Influence Lingers From Matisse to Mondrian, Braque to Giacometti — the list of venerable artists who were inspired by Paul Cezanne reads like the syllabus of an art history class. Now, a new exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art celebrates the master painter's legacy.
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Cezanne's Shadow: A Master's Influence Lingers

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Cezanne's Shadow: A Master's Influence Lingers

Cezanne's Shadow: A Master's Influence Lingers

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Pablo Picasso called painter Paul Cezanne the father of us all. Jasper Johns paid more attention to Cezanne to any other artist. And in the century since Cezanne's death, his influence on other artists has kept growing. NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg says that's the point of an exhibition opening today in Philadelphia. The show is called "Cezanne and Beyond."

SUSAN STAMBERG: Any art history class would include these names, Matisse, Mondrian, Picasso, Braque, Giacometti, and that's the short list. Every single one of them was touched artistically by Paul Cezanne, a 19th century post-impressionist French master who stripped what he saw down to the bare essentials.

Why would you choose to introduce us to a naked man at the beginning of this show?

Ms. KATHERINE SACHS (Curator, Philadelphia Museum of Art): Well, he's a very famous naked man.

STAMBERG: He is "The Bather," not totally naked; he wears a little white swimsuit standing there in oil paint, hands on hips, contemplating the water. Curator Katherine Sachs says for decades this Cezanne was one of the first things you saw at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Hundreds of artists met Cezanne's 1885 painting at MoMA and carried it away in their mind's eye. Ellsworth Kelly for example, his work is part of this Philadelphia Art Museum exhibition. Eighty-six now, Kelly says he's been hypnotized by Cezanne forever. The Philadelphia show has evidence of Kelly's devotion.

Mr. ELLSWORTH KELLY (Artist): This is the water color I did when I was a student.

STAMBERG: Oh.

Mr. KELLY: In 1947. And you see his hand is here.

STAMBERG: Yes, he's resting…

MR. KELLY: And this hand. Now look at that one in the corner.

STAMBERG: Well there's the Cezanne and he's sitting resting his head on his hand. I think you were influenced.

Mr. KELLY: Yes, I was. I wanted to do this after his painting. Anything I look at, really, it gets up here and then I want to sort of make a fragment of it.

STAMBERG: When he was only 14, Ellsworth Kelly's mother gave him an art book, all the masters, from Giotto to Picasso. Kelly's favorite reproduction was Cezanne's "Chestnut Trees," an avenue of slim, winter-into-spring trees that Cezanne could see from his window in Provence, reproduced in Ellsworth Kelly's book.

MR. KELLY: And so I took it out of the book and put it on the wall.

STAMBERG: More than a decade later, Kelly remembered Cezanne's chestnuts and made a series of pure, elegant sketches.

MR. KELLY: And then I did this one, which is "The Three Trees" and then I just whacked the shaped.

STAMBERG: Yeah.

Mr. KELLY: So…

STAMBERG: So you pared away the shading and you just looked at the lines themselves.

Mr. KELLY: That's it, in a way, the way perhaps I work, I would see something and do it.

STAMBERG: Ellsworth Kelly's simple supple lines are as pure as those of Matisse — another artist who admired Cezanne. The Philadelphia show includes a Cezanne painting which Matisse bought in 1899 and cherished.

Ms. SACHS: When he gave it to city of Paris in 1936, he said, please take good care of it. It has nurtured me every day of my life.

STAMBERG: From Cezanne, Matisse learned simplicity and color. Curator Kathy Sachs says Matisse's friend and rivaled Picasso approached Cezanne more playfully.

Ms. SACHS: He would take the figures out of context and he would just move them around in the space and create something very, very solemn. Eventually, you know, cubism.

STAMBERG: What both Picasso and Matisse admired in Cezanne was that he broke the century's old tradition of painting as a window on life.

Ms. SACHS: He didn't reproduce the world as he saw it. He reproduced, really, or he represented his own personal emotions in front of the object. So it is that very personal expression which is very characteristic of a 20th century painting.

STAMBERG: Jackson Pollock and his ropes of paint, Willem de Kooning with his geometric women, personal expressions in layers of color and shape.

Ms. SACHS: I think Cezanne gave many artists permission to be able to paint, as Cezanne said, his sensations.

Mr. JEFFREY WALL (Photographer): It looks great. It really is fantastic. Thanks for letting me view the show.

STAMBERG: This is photographer Jeffrey Wall, 63-years-old, Canadian. He makes light boxes, large photos lit from behind. What are your three ladies of a certain age, playing cards and drinking tea, doing, do you imagine, in this room with Cezanne's and some others?

Mr. WALL: Well, there's some men playing cards just nearby painted by Cezanne. You know, I've always loved Cezanne, since I was a child. So even if they weren't playing cards, even if they were doing something else, they would probably be related somehow, to - if that not picture, another one - because these pictures have been going through my head for 50-odd years. If you're interested in pictures, then you have to be involved with him somehow, because his paintings almost define the way pictures have been, at least for the last 100 years.

STAMBERG: Yes, but Jeffrey Wall isn't a painter. He takes photographs. Well, Wall says painting and photography both aim for the same thing.

Mr. WALL: Making an image, and trying to make it so that the way it occupies the rectangle that it's on, is the kind of problem that we all have. You know, we never get passed those basic problems. We never get passed the basics. We don't want to.

STAMBERG: Pretty nice company to be in then.

Mr. WALL: It's the best.

STAMBERG: Back in 1996, the Philadelphia Museum of Art put on a knockout Cezanne retrospective, some 200 oils, water colors, drawings - it was a blockbuster. And over the years in various part of the world, there have been lots of showings of the artist's work.

Why do we need another Cezanne Exhibit?

Mr. JOSEPH RISHEL (Co-curator of "Cezanne and Beyond"): Oh I think, why do we need to go back and do a Shakespeare play or listen to a Beethoven symphony?

STAMBERG: This is Joseph Rishel, co-curator of the Philadelphia show.

Mr. RISHEL: You know, they're the fundamentals. They're the things that nurture us every day of our life. And you can't have enough of them.

STAMBERG: The exhibition "Cezanne and Beyond" remains at the Philadelphia Museum of Art until Mid-May. When today's artists come to see it, and they will, the influence of Cezanne will be extended once again.

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: You can compare the work of Cezanne to some of the artists he's influenced at npr.org. And this is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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