Monday, November 7, 2011

"But you the viewer...": Camille Pissarro, Paul Cezanne, and Vincent Van Gogh

David Hockney was talking about his trees-in-Bridlington paintings with his friend and (best?) critic, Lawrence Weschler:  Hockney says " 'I've taken to thinking of these recent canvases of mine as figure paintings.' He waited two beats till I obliged him: 'But they're just landscapes,' I pointed out. 'There are no figures in them.'  'Ah,' he corrected me triumphantly, 'but you the viewer are the figure in them.' " (from True to Life: 25 Years of Conversations with David Hockney, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008, p. 222).

We visited the legion of honor and saw the new exhibit "Pissarro's People"; this was the first chance I have had to see the whole range of his art.  Pissarro seems, at least to me, the least well-known of his contemporaries.  He lost hundreds of paintings when he was forced to abandon his home during the Franco-Prussian war; this loss would have demoralized many artists, but he kept painting. Cézanne would call him "the first Impressionist," but, then,  Pissarro moved on to his own form of Post-Impressionism, and to pointillism. His final works seem free and loose, perhaps finally beyond "-isms."

The show at the Legion of Honor focuses on "People" and brings together pictures of Pissarro's family, of household servants, apple-pickers, people attending markets in Normandy and Picardy, and of men and women bringing in the harvest. The colors are generally muted and soft, and brushstrokes are dominant.  My husband pulled me over to a painting. "Look," he said, "it's Cézanne's tilted table." And, if you look at this one work, "The Little Country Maid," from 1882, you can see that in addition to the single, front-view perspective, Pissarro has added a second viewpoint, almost an overhead glance at the chair seats and tabletop:

It's very casual, almost tossed-off, but it's definitely there. When we got home, we did some research on the interests and influence of Pissarro. He loved Japanese prints, and he was impressed enough with pointillism after seeing Seurat and Signac to work for three years in that style. Pissarro exhibited with the Impressionists at the Salon des Refusés in 1863 and, later, became "a father for me," said Cézanne. Vincent Van Gogh showed Pissarro his work and was influenced by him. I think if we look at three works by these artists, we will see the line of sight they shared. The first painting is a pastel by Pissarro:

Look at these colors... look at the forms! Now, here is a Van Gogh, "Shelter on Montmartre," from 1886, (in the permanent collection of the Legion of Honor):

Again, the shapes and the colors ... along Pissarro's lines, but developing into what we think of as the style of Van Gogh.  And here is an 1895 painting by Cézanne, "Large Pine and Red Earth":

In their way, I think, these painters are best seen, at least once, as a group; there, they are complete, finished, as it were, by all of us, as Hockney notes.

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