Review: ‘Visions of Arcadia,' paradise at the Art Museum

"Bathers by a River" by Henri Matisse: Magnificent pictures in a spectacular 40-work exhibition.
"Bathers by a River" by Henri Matisse: Magnificent pictures in a spectacular 40-work exhibition.
Posted: June 25, 2012

Arcadia is both a region in the middle of the Greek Peloponnese and a mythical state of mind — a land where simple people lead virtuous lives marked by carefree tranquility, sensual pleasure, and harmony with nature.

The Arcadian dream comes to life in spectacular fashion at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in an exhibition built around a cluster of monumental paintings created just before and shortly after the turn of the last century.

Curator Joseph J. Rishel conceived "Visions of Arcadia" to demonstrate how masters of early modernism, particularly Paul Gauguin, Paul Cézanne, and Henri Matisse, responded to and extended one of the more traditional, popular themes in European art.

In doing so, Rishel has pulled off an amazing coup. Visitors entering the exhibition's central room come upon a clutch of landmark paintings, all loans from other museums, that one would never expect to see together.

On one wall hangs Henri Rousseau's The Dream from the Museum of Modern Art; facing it, at the other end of the room, is Matisse's Bathers by a River, from the Art Institute of Chicago.

Centered on the long wall between them is the Art Museum's premier Cézanne, The Large Bathers. Next to it, Paul Gauguin's Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, presents a Polynesian vision of Arcadian paradise.

In the hanging, these four large-scale paintings all seem to radiate from a smaller canvas on the wall opposite the Cézanne, Le Grand Bacchanal (The Andrians) of 1627 by Nicolas Poussin, owned by the Louvre.

Poussin is one of the primary sources of Arcadian imagery in French art; by including him, Rishel encapsulates 2½ centuries of tradition with striking economy and panache.

This central room, which includes as supporting players a not-so-Arcadian Rose-period Picasso, a Fauvist Bathers by André Derain, and a small bathers by Gauguin's chum Emile Bernard, is like a black hole, in the most positive sense.

Once you enter, the attractive power of these magnificent pictures, especially the elementally hieratic Matisse, is so intense that you don't want to leave; you're rooted to the spot. You should, of course, because you're only at the halfway point, but everything that follows has to be anticlimactic.

The Art Museum announced this show months ago as, in part, a welcome-to-the-neighborhood greeting to the Barnes Foundation. This is more than a pro-forma gesture, however, because there are several direct Arcadian links between the two institutions.

First, and not so noticeable unless you read labels assiduously, there's a Barnes loan in the show, the bright and cheery Women by the Sea by Maurice Denis.

Albert Barnes bought this scene, set in Brittany, in 1912, the year after Denis painted it. It wasn't part of a foundation ensemble when Barnes died, so it could be lent.

The most significant link is The Large Bathers. The foundation also owns a version (a third hangs in London, in the National Gallery), and the aggressively competitive Albert Barnes always insisted that his Bathers was superior to the one acquired by the Art Museum in 1937, perhaps because the latter, although larger, appears to be unfinished.

The magisterial Bathers by a River provides an even more compelling connection. The foundation not only has Matisse's The Joy of Life, a full-blown Arcadian revel in explosive color, but also the three-part lunette mural The Dance, equally evocative of hedonistic abandon.

Add to that another Barnes prize, Cézanne's Bathers at Rest, plus Renoir's Bathing Group, Maurice Prendergast's Idyl, and Gauguin's Haere pape, just to cite a few paintings at random, and you begin to realize that the Barnes collection abounds with Arcadian images.

Despite the new proximity of the museum and the foundation, it's not easy now to make face-to-face comparisons, because the exhibition is special-ticketed and the foundation requires reservations. But if you can manage to book both on the same day, your pleasure and enlightenment will more than double.

"Visions of Arcadia" isn't a large exhibition, only about 40 works, but it's so rich, so persuasively argued, and so comfortably spaced that, like Arcadia itself, it delivers maximum pleasure.

It begins with an illustrated (by Aristide Maillol and Matisse) prologue dedicated to the Roman poet Virgil, who extolled Arcadian virtues, then segues into the 19th century with paintings by Camille Corot and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes.

One could argue that Corot's ethereal landscapes only suggest Arcadia because they lack human animation, although a picture portraying Silenus, tutor to the Greek god Dionysus, certainly qualifies.

Puvis, who rarely appears in thematic shows, is a perfect fit. Even in the 19th century, his neoclassical style and subject matter were anomalous at a time when realism and contemporary life had begun to occupy more progressive painters such as the impressionists.

Consequently, the show jumps over impressionism and into various aspects of post-impressionism and Fauvism — painters such as early Matisse, Gauguin, Georges Seurat, Paul Signac, Henri-Edmond Cross, and Derain. In their work, Arcadian ideals emerge in modern dress and in more demonstrative colors.

After the "black hole," the show dips a toe into cubism, where a huge canvas by Robert Delaunay on the theme of the Three Graces commands the room.

To this point, the artists, except for Picasso, have been French, but in the final section some German expressionists such as Max Pechstein and Franz Marc and several Russians take a turn.

The show ends on a whimsical note, Natalia Goncharova's Boys Bathing, in which two of the "boys" are bewhiskered gents struggling awkwardly to remove their clothes.

The evidence that these artists carried Arcadia into the 20th century is clear, but their motive is less so — why did they bother?

One presumes they were always measuring themselves against past masters such as Poussin; they had to take on the same subjects and prove worthy of favorable comparison.

They also were respectful of tradition and the standards of elevated art. Even though Cézanne and Matisse were modern, they still felt the tug of an aesthetic legacy that valued history painting, which Arcadia represents, above other genres.

Of all the artists in the exhibition, Matisse was most successful in translating the Arcadian ethos into modern language. Bathers by a River is a tour de force, by itself worth the price of admission. Seen in the context of the incomparable "black hole," it becomes an art experience to cherish.

Contact contributing art critic Edward J. Sozanski at edward.sozanski@gmail.com.


Parkway Arcadia

"Visions of Arcadia" continues at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 26th Street and the Parkway, through Sept. 3. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, to 8:45 p.m. Fridays.

Special tickets required: $25 general, $23 for visitors 65 and older, $20 for students with ID and visitors 13 through 18, and $14 for visitors 5 through 12. Order tickets online or at 215-235-7469. Information: 215-763-8100 or www.philamuseum.org.

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