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A Perfect Summer Painting Exhibition That Falls Flat

Arcadia, the pastoral paradise beloved by poets and painters from the ancients to the moderns, is a terrific subject for a summer museum show. Aren’t we all in the mood for green glades, cool streams, lazy afternoons, and a little wine and song? I wish I could report that the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s “Gauguin, Cézanne, Matisse: Visions of Arcadia” fulfills more than a fraction of that promise. But the exhibition, which ought to be a laidback intellectual feast, turns out to be a headache.

Joseph Rishel, the curator in charge, has certainly pulled together an astonishing group of loans, which climax in a room where Bathers, Philadelphia’s own Cézanne, is surrounded by masterworks by Poussin, Gauguin, Le Douanier Rousseau, Derain, and Matisse. But the exhibition is undone by what amounts to a showdown between half a dozen competing visions. What is billed as a gathering of the titans fizzles. While there is no question that, at least in some instances, these artists were involved with related sensibilities and ideas, it is not at all clear that their works speak directly to one another. Just because a beautiful young woman in a painting has taken off her clothes and stood by a stream or sat under a tree does not mean she has something to tell us about another woman who has done more or less the same thing. There is something almost embarrassing about the central room in Philadelphia, because the major works on display shrink away from one another. (I am reminded of the famous evening when Proust and Joyce were brought together at the same table, and failed to produce the revelatory conversation the world was waiting for.)

Maybe Arcadia is too big a topic for an exhibition. The theme is certainly amorphous, encompassing the longing for a lost simplicity, the unpredictability of love, the appeal of ecstatic experience, the inevitability of death—and much more besides. Rishel, a curator with an admirable affection for art historical byways, is quite obviously attuned to all the complexities of the subject. The show begins very appealingly, with a beautiful display of Maillol’s and Matisse’s illustrations for pastoral texts by Virgil and Mallarmé. After that, the story is taken in so many directions—from the Neoclassicism of Puvis de Chavannes and Corot to the Expressionism of Franz Marc and Max Pechstein—that even the most well-informed museumgoers will find themselves with a case of intellectual whiplash. My feeling is that the show needed to do much less—or much more. When the exhibit introduces one of Robert Delaunay’s paintings of abstracted windows—they are generally regarded as quintessential images of early-twentieth-century urban experience—I do understand that Rishel is expanding his Arcadian studies to embrace the idea of an urban pastoral. I believe there is such a thing. But for a museumgoer who has just come from Gauguin’s Tahiti and Cézanne’s Provence, Delaunay’s Paris is quite simply too much of a leap. As for the show’s concluding room, I am confounded by Rishel’s decision to close with the German Expressionists before World War I rather than with the Neoclassicism of Picasso, Matisse, Derain, and others during and after the war. Where is the late Renoir? Where is Bonnard?

Rishel might respond that we know quite enough about Arcadia’s lyric possibilities. And there is no question that this exhibition leaves a museumgoer thinking about Arcadia’s darker side—about the anxiety that shadows pleasure and the death that shadows life. Sitting in the central gallery in Philadelphia—where Gauguin’s Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, Matisse’s Bathers by a River, and Cézanne’s Bathers fail to communicate with one another—I see more forcibly than ever before that Cézanne honors both the light side and the dark side of the pastoral world. In the works of Gauguin and Matisse, joy and sorrow tend to be dealt with separately, as discrete and perhaps irreconcilable aspects of experience. There are hedonistic Gauguins and spooky Gauguins. And in Matisse’s work the ecstatic Dance and the melancholic Bathers by a River surely define two radically different Arcadian possibilities. What is so extraordinary about Cézanne is that he weaves together the calm and the turmoil that define the Arcadian tradition. Perhaps Rishel wants to show us how this is done. Perhaps by ending with the vehement hyperbole of Max Pechstein he wants to remind us of the vehemence that informs Cézanne’s gentleness. What do Cézanne’s bathers think? What do they feel? We do not know. The enigma of human happiness is the enigma of Arcadia.

Jed Perl is art critic for The New Republic.