Cezanne in Oxford: glorious paintings from the collection of the man who sold fridges

Cezanne in Oxford: glorious paintings from the collection of the man who sold fridges

Cezanne, Forest Interior c1890
Cezanne, Forest Interior (Sous Bois), c 1890, watercolour and graphite (view full screen at Pearlman Collection here)

Last week we made a trip to Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum to see Cezanne and the Modern, an exhibition of matchless paintings and watercolours, mainly by Cézanne, but with works, too, by Van Gogh, Sisley, Gauguin, and Degas – all of them from the Pearlman collection, and on show for the first time ever in Europe.

Henry Pearlman was an American businessman from New York who, in 1919, founded the Eastern Cold Storage Company that soon became prominent in the marine refrigeration business.  The wealth accumulated from his business enabled Pearlman to become one of the great American collectors.  From 1945, with his wife Rose, he bought ‘with great discernment’, starting with Soutime and Modigliani before moving on to the artists who influenced them – especially Cezanne and the Impressionists.  He hung his collection in his homes as well as his New York office.


Henry Pearlman in his office at Eastern Cold Storage, New York

It’s the Cezannes that we came for, and they dominate this exhibition – twenty-four works, including sixteen watercolours  and six oil paintings.  Together they constitute one of the finest and best-preserved groups of his watercolours in the world, the majority of them Provençal landscapes.

Cezanne, House in Provence, 1890–94

Cezanne, House in Provence, 1890-94, watercolour and graphite (view full screen at Pearlman Collection here)

The highlight of the exhibition for me was the extraordinary group of Cezanne watercolours ranging from the early 1870s to the final days of his life. With his pencil Cezanne boldly and firmly sketched the angular forms of trees and their branches.  Then, taking up his brush he subtly suggested their foliage in strokes of muted blues, greens and greys.  Two of the best examples are ‘Forest Interior’ (which is, we are informed, in the tradition of what was a favourite subject of French artists in the mid-19th century: the sous-bois) and the one which I would like to have hanging on my own study wall, ‘Path, Trees, and Walls’.  It’s almost abstract in its rigorous composition and geometric planes, and – like most of these watercolours – with areas of paper left blank to reinforce the effect.

Cezanne, Path, Trees, and Walls, c 1900

Cezanne, Path, Trees, and Walls, c 1900,  watercolour with traces of graphite (view full screen at Pearlman Collection here)

This is Alastair Sooke writing about these wonderful watercolours in the Telegraph:

Pearlman worshipped principally at the altar of Cézanne. The core of his collection was an enviable group of 16 watercolours by the French Post-Impressionist. […] These are subtle, glittering works of art, suffused with unexpectedly large areas of cream and off-white, where the paper is allowed to shine through from the background, contributing to a general atmosphere of freshness and brightness.

Using this technique, Cézanne could skilfully summon the lustrous skin of a pear, sunlight irradiating the façade of a house in Provence, or the bleached, luminous cranium of a skull. To accent the graphite design of his underdrawing, Cézanne applied tiny patches and strips of translucent colour, like silk scarves shimmering in a summery breeze. These pictures have the evanescent, sparkling beauty of a dragonfly swooping before your eyes.

Perhaps the most striking example of Cezanne’s radical approach is  ‘Undergrowth’ , a study of a tangle of trees and shrubs composed of rhythmical touches of watercolour made around 1900.  Is this abstraction or realism? Both, perhaps.  Does it even matter?  Not if we consider Cezanne’s own words:

Painting from nature is not a matter of copying the subject but of expressing one’s feelings.

Cezanne, Undergrowth, ca. 1900–04

Cezanne, Undergrowth, ca. 1900–04, watercolour and graphite (view full screen at Pearlman Collection here)

Cezanne, Forest Path, ca. 1904–06

Cezanne, Forest Path, c 1904–06 (view full screen at Pearlman Collection here)

‘Forest Path’ must have been one of the last watercolours that Cezanne worked on.  It’s another radical work that, through as network of pencil lines and brushstrokes, builds up an almost abstract pattern to produce an impression of great richness.

Cezanne, Route to Le Tholonet, 1900–1904

Cezanne, Route to Le Tholonet, 1900–1904, oil on canvas (view full screen at Pearlman Collection here)

The oil paintings here by Cezanne are stunning, too. ‘Route to Le Tholonet’ was first sketched in graphite, then not entirely re-worked (whether intentionally or not) leaving the foreground – in the words of the exhibition guide – ‘unfinished in any conventional sense’.

Le Tholonet was a hamlet with an imposing manor house at the foot of Mont Sainte-Victoire. From 1887, Cézanne had rented a small room there at Château Noir, where he stored his material and works in progress. Between 1887 and 1905, Cezanne painted many oils and watercolours around Château Noir, including the unfinished house that he saw through the trees, the cistern and the well, the pines, the rocks and the caves at the cliffs – and Mont Sainte-Victoire, which he painted almost obsessively.

Cezanne, Cistern in the Park of Chateau Noir, c 1900

Cezanne, Cistern in the Park of Chateau Noir, c 1900 (view full screen at Pearlman Collection here)

‘Cistern in the Park of Chateau Noir’ is ‘a serene and elegiac late landscape’.  Three poles over the cistern echo the strong diagonal outline of the rock in the centre of the painting and make a contrast with the upright forms of the tree trunks.

In 1902  Cezanne moved into the Lauves Studio where he painted the final series of oils and watercolours that is considered to be his supreme achievement.  This view of Mont Sainte-Victoire is unusual in its vertical format.

Cezanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire, c 1902

Cezanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire, c 1902 (view full screen at Pearlman Collection here)

This exhibition is brilliantly concise, consisting of only three rooms. While the first focuses on Cezanne, the second room is entitled ‘Impressionism and Beyond’, with works by Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Manet, Monet, Pissarro, Courbet, Degas, Daumier and Van Gogh, alongside one two more by Cezanne himself. There were two paintings here that I really appreciated.

Alfred Sisley, The Seine at Verneuil, 1889

Alfred Sisley, River View, 1889  (view full screen at Pearlman Collection here)

The first was Sisley’s ‘River View’.  Like many of his Impressionist colleagues, Alfred Sisley painted villages on the outskirts of Paris, both along the banks of the Seine river to the west and surrounding the Forest of Fontainebleau to the south. This painting used to be titled ‘The Seine at Verneuil’, but there is no record of Sisley ever painting there. The consensus now is that it was painted on the Seine or Loing River near Moret, and the original title was lost. It is, however, indubitably a ‘river view’ – and a highly evocative one.  The landscape shimmers in heat haze, and the leaves of the poplars seem to shiver in a light breeze. The blue summer sky has been richly worked by Sisley in swirls of oil paint reminiscent of Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’. Curiously, perhaps, the painting reminded me of a stretch of the river Mersey near Didsbury, just south of Manchester.

Van Gogh, Tarascon Stage Coach, 1888

Van Gogh, Tarascon Stage Coach, 1888  (view full screen at Pearlman Collection here)

The other striking painting in the second room was, in fact, by Van Gogh.  ‘The Tarascon Stagecoach’ was painted in one sitting in the courtyard of an inn in Arles, and is as vibrant and vivid in colouring as any of his paintings. Pearlman bought the painting – which Van Gogh experts knew existed but had been unable to trace – from a dealer in Argentina.  Van Gogh had mentioned the work in his letters, in one instance citing finding inspiration in a novel by Alphonse Daudet, published in 1872, in which a stage coach laments its glorious past, before the advent of the railway. 

The third room of the exhibition is entitled ‘Figurative Modernism in Paris’, and I have to admit I found little here to excite me after the foregoing jewels. The room is dominated by the densely painted canvases of Chaim Soutine which fairly shriek at you.  In the Financial Times, Jackie Wullschlager made this interesting observation about why Pearlman might have been drawn to these overwrought canvases:

Pearlman was a positive, energetic American entrepreneur who had never visited Europe; Soutine was a neurotic, alienated émigré who died in 1943 on the run in Nazi-occupied France. But collector and artist had common roots: they were born, two years apart, to poor Russian Jewish parents, and America made both their fortunes – Pearlman founded the Eastern Cold Storage Insulation Corporation in 1919, Soutine was starving and unknown when Philadelphia millionaire Albert Barnes became his patron in 1922.

In his review for the Telegraph Alastair Sooke commented somewhat critically on Pearlman’s significance as a collector :

The catalogue reprints Pearlman’s short memoir Reminiscences of a Collector. Down-to-earth and gossipy about the art trade, it is enjoyable but also striking for its lack of impassioned engagement. He doesn’t attempt to explain why he considered himself a “worshipper of Cézanne”, for instance. Instead, he prefers to talk about the cut and thrust of negotiating with wily dealers. I guess he was a businessman, after all.

As a result, Cézanne and the Modern offers a reminder of the dispiriting way in which the market can diminish artworks by turning them into trophies for the very wealthy. Like Pearlman, I’m happy to worship Cézanne, but I don’t see why we have to bow down before rich collectors as well.

I absolutely agree with Sooke’s observations: too many great works of art are bought up by wealthy collectors and then disappear from public view (in some cases in these times of austerity, cash-strapped public institutions are forced to sell great works in order to survive.  In the case of Pearlman, though, it must be said that since the mid-1970s, the Pearlman Collection has been on permanent loan to Princeton University, where students and gallery visitors have been able to study the works. The Pearlman Collection website also offers a worldwide internet audience the opportunity to study the watercolours, drawings and oil paintings in remarkable detail.

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From Nineveh to Mosul: what’s that fluttering in the breeze?

From Nineveh to Mosul: what’s that fluttering in the breeze?

Assyrian relief from Nineveh, depicting a soldier escorting captives and loot from a Babylonian city in central or southern Iraq. Early 7th century BC.

Early 7th century BC Assyrian relief from Nineveh: a soldier escorts captives and loot from a Babylonian city in southern Iraq (photo: Ashmolean Museum)

Two days ago I was looking at this Assyrian relief in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. It’s one of several carved marble reliefs in the Ashmolean that came from the ruined palaces of Nineveh. Most, like this one, commemorate the achievements of their rulers – and their impact on neighbouring peoples and provinces. Here a soldier escorts captives and loot from a Babylonian city in southern Iraq.

The ruins of Ninevah lie near Mosul, Iraq’s second biggest city, seized this week by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isis) forces that now threaten Baghdad.  The Asmolean’s relief was a reminder that this week’s scenes of looting, destruction and columns of refugees fleeing the cities captured by ISIS have recurred for millennia in these lands.

Reporting from Baghdad in today’s Guardian, Martin Chulov writes of ‘the fragile ties that have bound together the ethnically diverse country since the fall of the Ottoman empire’ and of present-day grievances amplified by ‘historical unfinished business’ in a country divided along religious and ethnic fault lines that ‘are seriously testing the post-Ottoman borders’.

Also in the Guardian today, Michael Goldfarb – who covered the fall of Mosul in 2003 – writes that:

Mosul must have been magical once. Smothered in history, it is yet another place where the past never dies and isn’t even past. And that past goes back to the beginning of civilisation. This was the home of the Assyrian empire. The ruins of Nineveh are directly across the river Tigris from Mosul. All subsequent imperial traffic has left a mark here.

Goldfarb’s translator, Ahmad, was a Kurd married to an Arab, but also a Shabak – one of the many obscure sects including Yezidis and Mandeans ‘that have been born in this region over the millennia and still survive’.  He continues:

The mix of Christian denominations is ancient and mind-boggling: Syriac Catholic, Syriac Orthodox, Chaldean Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Assyrian.

That’s just religion. Ethnically, Mosul was home to Arabs, Turkmen, Kurds, Armenians and Assyrians. All the groups mixed freely and fairly easily, although in the last decade of Saddam’s regime that had already started to change. Radical Islam was already making inroads in Mosul in the 1990s. Then came the war, and when Saddam was gone a different conflict began. In the bazaars and at night there were whispers and threats against Christians, Kurds, Turkmen and those who tried to make democracy work.

When Martin Chulov refers to ‘historical unfinished business’ in Iraq he means the way in which the region was carved up between the victorious imperial powers, France and Britain, at the end of the First World War. On 10 June, as Professor Toby Dodge, director of the LSE’s Middle East Centre, notes in another Guardian piece, Isis posted a photograph of their fighters demolishing barriers marking the dividing line between Syria and Iraq.

They were, they claimed, ‘smashing the Sykes-Picot border’. This was a reference to the British diplomat Sir Mark Sykes and his French counterpart, François Georges-Picot who, in May 1916, concluded secret negotiations to divide the Middle East into French and British zones of imperial influence. Isis’s symbolic destruction of the border was an attempt to give credence to its claim to be sweeping away the false states created by the nefarious European powers, uniting all Muslims in one pious community.

This chimed with something else for me: I’m currently reading Peter Englund’s magnificent The Beauty and the Sorrow, in which he draws on the diaries and letters of twenty unknown individuals on both sides of the conflict, all around the world. It’s a brilliant book that serves to remind us that the war was not only fought in the trenches along Europe’s western front. One of the individuals whose experience of the war he narrates is Edward Mousley, a New Zealand artilleryman in the British Army.  In 1916 Mousley is one of 8,000 British and Indian soldiers beseiged by Ottoman forces in the town of Kut-al-Amara, 100 miles south of Baghdad. On Monday 10 April 1916, Mousley records in his journal how the encircled garrison are forced to slaughter their horses in order to survive.  This is how Englund tells it, drawing upon Mousley’s journal:

They have been slaughtering the draught animals and the mules for some time but they have consciously been sparing the riding animals. That is no longer possible. Another attempt to relieve them has run into the sand and orders have now been given that the last horses will have to be slaughtered in order to feed the besieged garrison, which will soon be starving.

Mousley tears up some fresh grass and goes to where the horses are lined up. His own horse Don Juan obviously recognises his owner and welcomes him eagerly in the way he has taught the horse to do. Mousley feeds him the grass.

Then the slaughter begins.

A non-commissioned officer shoots the horses. There is the crack of a gunshot and one by one the big, heavy animals crumple to the ground. The blood flows. At first Mousley watches, noting that the horses follow the proceedings, trembling as they wait their turn. Like the other horses Don Juan stamps uneasily but otherwise remains quite still. When it is almost Don Juan’s turn Mousley can watch no longer; he asks the man with the gun to take careful aim and to tell him when it is all over. Then he kisses the horse’s cheek and walks away. He can see how the horse turns and watches him go.

Then there is another crack from the gun.

His dinner that evening is Don Juan’s heart and kidneys. (These parts of the horse are always reserved for the owner – Mousley has also kept Don Juan’s black tail.) Admittedly it feels strange, but he does not think there is anything wrong about it. He writes in his diary: ‘I am sure he would have preferred that I, rather than another, should do so.’

On 29 April 1916 after a siege of 147 days, the British surrendered. 13,000 Allied soldiers were taken prisoner and then marched under Ottoman guard, first to Baghdad, then on to Samarra and Mosul before being forced to trek west across the desert to Constantinople. 70% of the British and 50% of the Indian troops died of hunger or disease or were killed their Ottoman guards during the long march. (However, the British General, Charles Townshend,  himself was taken by the Turks to the island of Halki on the Sea of Marmara, where he sat out the war in luxury.)

Drawing upon Mousley’s written record, Englund writes::

The march has been terrible … and they are leaving a trail of sick and dying men, collapsed mules and discarded equipment along the way. Corpses, dried and shrivelled by the burning sun, mark out the trail of those who preceded them. Meanwhile their progress is also being shadowed by armed Arabs, waiting to plunder and kill those who fall by the wayside. They have been tormented by sandstorm, heat, hunger and, worst of all, thirst. They have survived on figs, black bread, tea and, in particular, raisins – all bought at excessive prices in the places they have passed through. Like everyone else, Mousley has more or less lost all sense of time. ‘I knew two seasons only,’ he writes in his diary, ‘when we walked and when we did not.’ He is weak and feverish. He has lost almost two stone in weight, has severe stomach problems and his eyes are painful.

Toby Dodge, by the way, doesn’t give much credence to the argument that the source of Iraq’s present-day woes lies in ‘the false states created by the nefarious European powers’ at the end of WW1.  He argues that Isis’s expansion from Mosul into other towns and cities in northern Iraq ‘has much more to do with the profound failures of the Iraqi government and the legacy of invasion than the historical artificiality of the Iraqi state’:

Iraq’s present prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, first came to power in April 2006 in a deal brokered by the then British foreign secretary, Jack Straw, and the American secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice. Maliki’s ascendancy was an Anglo-American attempt to create a facade of democracy in the midst of a vicious post-invasion civil war. After 2006 Maliki used his power to rule in an authoritarian way, deploying a compliant judiciary and a million-strong security force to break the opposition. […] It is this failure to build a sustainable and inclusive political system after regime change in 2003 and the authoritarianism of Maliki, America’s candidate for prime minister, that explains the rise of Isis and current crisis, not the state’s supposedly “false” creation.

Dodge concludes that:

The more drastic solution of breaking up the Iraqi state – an institution that has since 1920 become the focus of a robust nationalist identity for the vast majority of ordinary Iraqis – would also not deliver stability.

But gazing on the relief from Ninevah, carved nearly 3,000 years ago, one wonders whether we may be about to see just one more example of the relentless rise and fall of empires, states and spheres of influence in this part of the world.

What’s that fluttering in a breeze?
Its just a piece of cloth
that brings a nation to its knees.

What’s that unfurling from a pole?
It’s just a piece of cloth
that makes the guts of men grow bold.

What’s that rising over a tent?
It’s just a piece of cloth
that dares the coward to relent.

What’s that flying across a field?
It’s just a piece of cloth
that will outlive the blood you bleed.

How can I possess such a cloth?
Just ask for a flag my friend.
Then bind your conscience to the end.

– ‘Flag’ by John Agard

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