A Celebration of Painting in Boston. (Art)
Wilkin, Karen, New Criterion
The most effective antidote to the dour astringency of the Gerhardt Richter retrospective this spring was probably a trip to Boston to see "Impressionist Still Life." (1) Before anyone says anything about the salutary effect of exhibitions with "Impressionist" in the title on museum revenues, I would like to point out that this one, at least, was not just another crowdpleasing potpourri of everyone's favorite pictures, but a closely reasoned celebration of painting as painting, as intelligent as it was delectable. "Impressionist Still Life" could, admittedly, make even the most jaded museumgoer sigh with delight with its assembly of tasty textbook icons and unexpected zingers, but at the same time, it allowed (or forced) fresh considerations of the role of subject matter in modern painting, the relationship of perception to invention, and even the nature of modernity itself.
The exhibition's impressive selection of justifiably famous Cezannes, for example, was itself almost worth the trip, but the pleasure of seeing these splendid, normally dispersed pictures in close proximity was enhanced by the comparable pleasure of grasping their relationship to other works by other artists in the show. Beginning with the densely loaded Still Life With Bread and Eggs (1865, Cincinnati Art Museum), and ending with a group of rough-hewn late paintings of skulls, by way of such iconic mature masterpieces as the Metropolitan's somber Still Life With a Ginger Jar and Eggplants (1893-94) and the Musee d'Orsay's rosy Still Life With Onions (1896-98), "Impressionist Still Life" offered a miniature survey of Cezanne's evolution. It was possible to trace the way this most rigorous of painters channeled and transformed the brutal energy of his early work into a slow, disciplined process of observation and reinvention, without sacrificing any of the intensity or ferocity of his first efforts. And it was also possible to note how profoundly Gauguin was affected by Cezanne's example in a group of the younger painter's "closeups" of fruit, onions, and crockery from 1889, pictures that paid homage to the Aix master's acute sense of weight and mass while simultaneously announcing how Gauguin filtered that awareness through his own taste for superheated color and sinuous pattern. In the same way, the pairing of the Cincinnati Art Museum's urgently worked early Cezanne of bread and eggs with an almost equally agitated Pissarro of the same period, in a comparable earthy palette, was a reminder of how close the two painters once were and a stimulus, as well, to thinking about the debt even the most stalwart of French modernists owed to Chardin. If in this context, you were disappointed not to see Cezanne's pivotal still life of the early 1870s, The Black Clock, or any of his weird orgiastic scenes with laden tables or servants carrying trays of refreshments, there were plenty of fascinating and sometimes surprising works by other artists to distract you from such quibbles: a glorious Monet from Dresden, a group of sparkling little Fantin-Latours, some first rate Pissarros and Morisots. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
One of the strengths of the show was the curators' broad definition of the term "still life." They took the phrase to refer not only to such traditional subject matter as fruit and flowers, fish and vegetables, glassware and crockery, but also to all manner of inanimate objects, from books to hats and shoes. They included, as well, images of people drinking tea and children daydreaming as long as equal time was given to the tea service or the like; statuary, potted plants (indoors and out), dead game birds, market stalls, an empty bird cage, desserts, and hors d'oeuvres also made the cut. This elastic definition didn't seem capricious but, instead, added welcome variety, wit, and a certain amount of surprise to the selection. More wit and surprise was added by the curators' thoughtful choices. …