To fully understand the exhibition called Pioneering Modern Painting: Cézanne and Pissarro 1865-1885, which has been organized at the Museum of Modern Art by Joachim Pissarro, the painter’s great-grandson (who is also a MoMA curator), it has to be remembered that the two featured patriarchs of pictorial modernism began their public careers as rejected artists. That is, they were stigmatized as rejected artists by the French government’s annual Salon. But such were the paradoxes of governmental authority in the arts that the French also provided the means for exhibiting these great painters by creating an official Salon des Refusés, which allowed unorthodox talents to be admitted (albeit on a segregated basis) without the approval of an official jury. Thus was born the kind of challenge to established opinion that later came to be called the avant-garde.
There’s nothing like sharing a public humiliation to create a powerful bond between the most independent minds, and Cézanne and Pissarro were nothing if not independent. Yet such bonds also have a way of stimulating anxiety and doubt, especially self-doubt. As soon as we come upon the passage in the exhibition catalog in which Cézanne declares, “As for the old Pissarro, he was a father to me. He was a man you could turn to for advice; he was something like God,” we sense that this is a bond destined to be frayed.
In the halcyon days of their association, however, Cézanne and Pissarro drew a good deal of strength and inspiration from each other’s work, and in organizing this exhibition Joachim Pissarro has done a wonderful job of matching (so to speak) the paintings that underscore shared affinities. Pissarro’s was, of course, a more even-tempered sensibility; and when one thinks back to the kind of wild, proto-expressionist paintings that Cézanne produced in his early work, it might even be said that Pissarro had a civilizing influence on him.
“Cézanne’s deference toward Pissarro’s early work is evident in 1881,” writes Joachim Pissarro. “Every work produced by Cézanne at that point appears to refer to an earlier painting by Pissarro. Even though the motif of Cézanne’s Mill on the Couleuvre near Pontoise is not the same as Pissarro’s monumental canvas L’Hermitage at Pontoise, the two paintings clearly belong to the same family. We know that Pissarro’s painting impressed Cézanne, as he referred to it specifically in one of his letters from L’Estaque. If the same serene grandeur presides over both paintings, the Cézanne, executed fourteen years after the Pissarro, displays a boundless energy through the staccato of parallel rows of brushstrokes of color, seen especially in the foliage.”
Despite the close affinities, they were, after all, painters of quite different sensibilities. There is in Pissarro’s oeuvre a softness, a delicacy, a radiant shimmer that’s not to be found in Cézanne, whose touch is so much more emphatic. In the end, as Joachim Pissarro observes, “Pissarro is about to jump from the Cézannian boat and catch the Neo-Impressionist boat, while Cézanne is about to launch his solitary experiment that will lead him to develop and expose his new ‘truth in painting’”—which, from our perspective, can be seen as a prophecy of Cubism.
There’s much to ponder and much to take pleasure in here. This remarkable exhibition—which illuminates so much more than the achievements of two great masters—is a show not to be missed.
Pioneering Modern Painting: Cézanne and Pissarro 1865-1885 remains on view at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, through Sept. 12, and is accompanied by an excellent catalog.