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First Impressions

Museum Associates/LACMABlockbuster art shows are supposed to be, by definition, spectacular and sensational. Designed to appeal to the broadest possible range of the art-consumer population (and hopefully herd them through in record numbers), they usually focus on a handful of reliable big names and avoid any nuanced or thought-provoking curatorial strategies that might impede the swift and superficial absorption of what is essentially a walk-through participatory theatrical event with You as the star — and really fancy props. “I can’t wait to repeat this snippet of art historical gossip from the audiotour to my friends at Pilates.”

Which is just the first extraordinary thing about “Pioneering Modern Painting: Cézanne and Pissarro 1865–1885,” now entering its homestretch at LACMA. Organized by New York’s MoMA as last summer’s follow-up to its more conventionally bustery “Matisse Picasso” show, “Cézanne and Pissarro” follows few of the genre’s conventions. I suppose Paul Cézanne is a big name in certain circles (though if Hollywood’s never done a biopic, he remains what is known as an “artist’s artist”). But Pissarro? Is that like the Bizarro-world Picasso, except that instead of everything getting all cubist and weird it goes the other way because Picasso’s already all cubist and weird? Exactly.

While Cézanne is rightly lauded as the painter whose insistence on the autonomy of the formal and material qualities of painting was the central guiding concept of Modernism, Pissarro is generally known — if at all — as a pleasant, minor, Impressionist landscape artist whose frothy, atmospheric canvases epitomize the innocuous prettiness that has allowed what was once an extremely controversial upheaval of artistic conventions to morph into a multimillion-dollar fridge-magnet, oven-mitt and wall-calendar industry unto itself.

In fact, Camille Pissarro had very little in common with this stereotypical reading. Both his work and his influence were wide-ranging and profound, and his role in the history of early Modernism was arguably as great — if not as widely acknowledged — as Cézanne’s. This corrective may be the hidden agenda underlying the LACMA show, which was organized by Joachim Pissarro, who — in addition to being a well-respected curator — is the artist’s great-grandson. Happily, the argument isn’t made through didactic academic discourse (although plenty of that’s available if that’s how you roll), but through the judicious arrangement of 30-some canvases by each artist, documenting the two decades when their friendship and mutual influence were at their height.

The two first met when Cézanne, rebellious son of a conservative banker from Aix-en-Provence in the south of France, ditched his law studies to pursue painting in Paris in 1861. Pissarro, born on the West Indies island of St. Thomas to a French Jewish father and Creole mother, had made a similar decision a few years earlier, and was already hanging out with many of the artists with whom he would eventually form the Societe Anonyme des Artistes (Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs etc.) — the group which would be derisively labeled as the Impressionists by art critic Louis Leroy. In spite of his rustic manners, Cézanne fell in, bonding particularly with fellow outsider Pissarro.

Over the next 24 years, the pair maintained a close friendship. They often worked together in the countryside outside Paris, and even when circumstances (the Franco-Prussian war, for example) kept them out of contact, they remained one another’s number-one fans. This history of mutual admiration is laid out in the most concrete way in “Cézanne and Pissarro,” visible to the naked eye in the shifting, playful, experimental dialogue spelled out in color, form and surface — and, not incidentally, in a reordering of humanity’s relationship to the world. Although the Impressionists’ unpolished surfaces and plein air improvisations were at least partly a specific “Fuck you” to the stuffy government-sponsored Salon de Paris and its narrow conventions, they came to embody a radical reconsideration of man’s place in the order of things, often in an explicitly political sense.

Pissarro in particular believed in a fundamental link between the visual innovations of his community and his lifelong anarchist convictions. But most of the Impressionists sided with their resident mythographer Émile Zola in 1898 when he published his open letter “J’accuse,” which exposed the rigged conviction and imprisonment of Capt. Alfred Dreyfus and eventually brought down the corrupt, anti-Semitic Second Republic. Degas and Renoir sided with the authorities — along with Zola’s childhood chum Cézanne, who excommunicated the novelist after his unflattering fictionalization in 1886’s L’oeuvre. Cézanne had a habit of cutting off old friends — he severed ties with Pissarro in the late 1870s for unknown and hard-to-imagine reasons.

Pissarro was renowned for his personal generosity, warmth and equanimity and for his unwavering support for progressive political causes. He had devoted tremendous energy to mentoring Cézanne and championing his work — not to mention running interference for his sociopathic personality. Cézanne was bad-tempered, paranoid, self-aggrandizing and apolitical. It always bugged me that I liked his paintings so much more than Pissarro’s. But then I’d never seen so many together in one exhibition.

Pissarro’s The Conversation
(La Causette, chemin du
chou à Pontoise)
, 1874

As I moved through the LACMA exhibit, reveling in the exquisite tag-team choreography of painterly technique — slathered on with a palette knife, poked at with a dry brush, scribbled, scumbled, smeared and encrusted — I sensed a structural dissolution of individual authorial voice equivalent to the complex geometric compositional fragmentation and utopian aspirations for which Cézanne was ultimately given credit. The bottom line, though, was that Pissarro could have done what Cézanne did. He was just too well-adjusted.

What makes Pissarro’s work seem less virtuosic than Cézanne’s (apart from a hundred years of marketing) is that Pissarro wasn’t constantly striving to make a single great work that would triumph over all his detractors, all his peers, and his dad. The same confidence that allowed Pissarro to be compassionate allowed him to try anything in his work, even when it meant straying from an increasingly hard party line, and losing his place in history.

Historicism is authoritarian, and Cézanne’s Modernist pyramid scheme finally crumbled when Clement Greenberg’s predictions of the Apocalypse didn’t pan out in the 1960s. But Pissarro’s approach is as valid now as it was then — because it’s about art serving personal and transpersonal evolution as opposed to the accumulation and maintenance of power through celebrity. Late in life, when Cézanne finally began to receive the acclaim he craved, it didn’t make him happy. But his happiness is palpable midway through “Pioneering Modern Painting: Cézanne and Pissarro 1865–1885,” when he was tramping around Pissarro’s home in Pontoise, far from neurotic familial and competitive contexts, immersed in a creative anarchistic community of two, engaged in an experimental pas de deux that would ultimately transform the world. That’s immortality.

Pioneering Modern Painting: Cézanne and Pissarro 1865–1885 | Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd. | Through January 16

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