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LACMA puts Cezanne and Pissarro's 20-year dialogue on display.

October 28, 2005|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

THERE are two ways to look at "Pioneering Modern Painting: Cezanne and Pissarro 1865-1885," the engrossing new exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art that turns a bright spotlight on the friendly working relationship between two late-19th century French artists. One way is as a competition; the other is as a conversation.

As a competition, it's not a fair fight. Poor Camille!

Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) was a charmer. An artist of great skill and technical finesse, his acute observation of nature was critical to the development of atmospheric color as the core of Impressionist painting.

Paul Cezanne (1839-1906), by contrast, was a flat-out genius, an artist who took the observation of nature beyond its optical limitations to create the foundation of Modernist art for the early 20th century. As you work your way through the 65 pictures in LACMA's galleries, it is Cezanne's paintings that increasingly hold your attention -- even though a few more by Pissarro (34) than by Cezanne (31) are on view.

As a conversation, the show is often fascinating. We live today in an artistic age when competitive urges are paramount, so the tendency to downplay the importance of artistic interactions is familiar. Popular sentiment also regards art as the singular utterance of individual creative expression. In fact, it more often arises as part of a larger artistic dialogue -- of artists making art that speaks with the work of their colleagues and predecessors. Cezanne and Pissarro spent a good deal of energy over the course of nearly 20 years engaged in a painted colloquy. The show brings together many works that reveal the depth and breadth of that discussion.

The first room offers just two canvases -- nearly identical views of the landscape in the rural village of Louveciennes. Pissarro went there in 1871, and his painting shows a woman and a young girl walking along an aqueduct, with tall trees at the left and the village in the background. Cezanne's shows exactly the same scene, right down to the pair of strolling figures, yet his slightly smaller picture feels entirely different.

Where Pissarro conjures atmosphere, a sense of matter dissolving in color and light, Cezanne is obsessed with structure -- with the picture as a crisply constructed composition.

Pissarro's broken brushwork evokes the clear, silvery light of an autumn day. Cezanne's paint makes blunt juxtapositions of dark and light tonalities.

Pissarro's two figures appear to glide through a sun-dappled puddle, trailing long, soft shadows fuzzed by feathered brushwork. Cezanne's figures are markers in space, anchored in the roadway by thick, creamy brushstrokes. Their shadows are conjured from negative space -- from darker under-painting left exposed between brushstrokes of lighter pigment -- while the overall image emerges as a scaffold built from colored marks of paint on the canvas.

More than likely, Pissarro painted his landscape out-of-doors, while observing the village aqueduct. Not Cezanne. He saw Pissarro's finished painting and was taken with it -- so taken that he asked to borrow it to make a copy. To oversimplify a bit: Pissarro painted nature, while Cezanne painted nature as art.

Pissarro was an inspiration to many fellow artists, partly because of his intense dedication, but none more than to Cezanne. Their bond arose from a distinctive sense of their similar positions in the world.

Pissarro was a Jew of French and Creole heritage, born and raised in the West Indies; during a journey to Caracas, Venezuela, he decided to become an artist. He went straight to Paris, against his family's better instincts.

Cezanne was a banker's son from the boondocks -- Aix-en-Provence, in the country's southeast corner, far from the sophisticated capital -- and spoke in a "funny" regional accent. He too had rejected his father's hope, which was that he would study law.

They met in Paris in 1861, when both briefly enrolled at the same training academy. In choosing to be artists, they had turned away from career expectations common in middle-class society. And as outsiders in the modern city, both were instinctively hostile to deeply entrenched establishment tastes. At the end of the decade Pissarro and Cezanne left for the pastoral French countryside outside Paris, to the neighboring villages of Pontoise and Auvers-sur-Oise.

The show's first two paintings, dated 1871 and 1872, set the stage. France had just renounced the monarchy for the final time, and the Third Republic had emerged. A perception of the nation as an independent union of free citizens was leading many artists to look to the rural countryside as a pictorial exemplar of national roots -- literally, a motherland.

Landscape, long considered a minor subject, shot to the top of the charts. Nature became a primary vehicle in making a new social and political tendency seem altogether natural.

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