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Review: MoMA reunites Cezanne and Pissarro

Friendship as challenge, art as dialogue

By Porter Anderson
CNN

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Paul Cezanne's 1877 "Orchard, Cote Saint-Denis, at Pontoise" is paired at MoMA with Camille Pissarro's treatment of the same subject.

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NEW YORK (CNN) -- There's contemplative comfort waiting for you in the Museum of Modern Art's new exhibition, "Pioneering Modern Painting: Paul Cezanne and Camille Pissarro 1865-1885."

In an age that celebrates competition, hoards tricks of all trades, shares few secrets and keeps all eyes on prizes, this show frames redemption in collaboration.

The 85-piece exhibition, which opened to the public Sunday and runs through September 12, hangs cloud-high on the redesigned museum's top exhibition floor.

The mist of gray areas holds no fear for curator Joachim Pissarro, the painter's great-grandson. In fact, the first irony you may notice as you leave the sixth-floor catwalk and enter the exhibition's gallery is a contradiction: You're looking at an intimate blockbuster.

The show impresses you, one canvas after the next, with a quiet build to each man's "Orchard, Cote Saint-Denis, at Pontoise." The goldenrod-granular world of Pissarro's orderly vision hangs steady and dependable beside the queasy cascade of a leafy mystique -- the emotionality that would mark Cezanne's aesthetic throughout his life.

But how easily the two views complement each other, both sensibilities respected, skills in close proximity -- the way they were honed.

As curator Pissarro explains it, these men knew themselves as outsiders in the art world of their day. And so together, in some cases standing at easels in the same studio, they painted a road to impressionism.

'Serious work' and 'sensation'

Pissarro was born on St. Thomas in 1830, nine years before Cezanne was born in France's Aix-en-Provence. Each had a father who'd have preferred a regulation careerist for a son. Each had a more supportive mother.

When they met in Paris in the late 1850s, Pissarro and Cezanne were at odds with the government-run Salon program, official exhibitions in the velour-draped seat of a dying era's mannered formality.

As they were spurned by the Salon juries that exalted some artists and dismissed others, they found friendship and definition in the writings of novelist and critic Emile Zola. Curator Pissarro points out in his "Cezanne and Pissarro" catalog that in the turnaround First Impressionist Exhibition of 1874, "critics and artists worked hand in hand to transmit the message" of personal truth, the artist's "sensation" as touchstone of reality.

If nature stood as the prime subject for these brothers-in-art, "serious work," as Cezanne termed it, was their key technique. Through work, they reasoned, an artist defines him- or herself. Work is an exercise in personal development, all but synonymous with character itself.

By the time the two artists were in touch as side-by-side painters for the last time in the early 1880s, their styles had stabilized in clear divergence.

There's a feathery, puffy quality to Pissarro's 1882 "Path and Hills, Pontoise," akin to the work of Alfred Sisley, a contemporary.

Cezanne, on the other hand, produced "Houses at Pontoise, near Valhermeil" in the same period, but as a scene bristling with marching grass strokes in the foreground. They're gathered into a swirling funnel of concentrated color at the painting's center, a vortex of picturesque houses that could only be his.

Position and posterity

Today, it's Cezanne whose name is better known, of course, more richly remembered.

But in the spirit of this special relationship, MoMA's show undertakes a tough but worthy mission, bringing to parity the work of two figures normally considered teacher and student. As you study boxy villages, sunny hillsides and shaded forests, what you see is an even-handed exchange, a friendly and yet determined exploration of talent, opinion and result.

Village lanes in Auvers-sur-Oise and cottage chimneys in Pontoise are hung in telling alternation -- a Pissarro, a Cezanne, another Pissarro, another Cezanne. The elder man sometimes approaches pointillism. The younger moves from his early scenes of fantasy to what he would ultimately term "truth in painting."

And as you leave the show's galleries, you finally see it: The evergreen 1894 "Forest (Sous-Bois)" makes new sense. Cezanne has learned that his "truth" bends tree trunks and splays woodland branches in a choreography as graceful as his bathers' gatherings.

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Camille Pissarro painted his portrait of Paul Cezanne in 1874.

You walk out newly directed toward post-impressionism, the white light of Cezanne's "L'Estaque" (1879-'83) behind you, tumbling down to the sea and scooting over clutches of dark vegetation. And you know a bit more about why those clumps of roadside green in Pissarro's 1875 "L'Hermitage" from Pontoise might ring a peculiar bell.

In this close-up promenade of Cezanne's color and Pissarro's line, arm-in-arm, MoMA's show brings the two artists to new terms with each other, it debates inspiration and incentive, and it champions the cooperative underpinnings of success.

Smartly viewed in 90 minutes to two hours, "Cezanne and Pissarro" will stick with you much longer.

Every time your own "truth" shifts from that of a master to a scholar, from conflict to resolution, from light to shadow -- whenever you trade places and come back wiser and better -- you may think of this show and its lesson about the art of shared ambition.

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