Culture Writer, Lucy Perrior, reflects on Cézanne’s masterful lithographs, as the exhibition foregrounds the popularity of prints throughout the 19th and 20th centuries
Tucked in the Green Gallery Print Bay alcove at the Barber Institute is an original exhibition on Cézanne and the Modern French Print. Lights illuminate the room as you walk through the archway and in the centre ‘Les Baigneurs, Petite Planche’ is lit in a display case. This piece is the collection’s principal work: a black and white lithograph of bathers in a lake set in a vibrantly coloured landscape. This is one of two of Paul Cézanne’s prints of male bathers, the larger of which, ‘Les Grands Baigneurs’, resides at the Tate in London but is not currently on display. There is little information in the exhibition on the process of lithography and the relationship between these two depictions of the bathers, but this is not difficult to find with a bit of online research. Making ‘Les Baigneurs, Petite Planche’ central to the exhibition highlights Cézanne’s mastery of lithographic printing with the help of Auguste Clot the master printmaker.It also brings to light Cézanne’s status as an avant-garde artist who continually reformed the artistic modes of his time.
The bathers’ bodies are outlined and muscular but details of their facial features are absent: of the six bathers, two are looking away into the landscape, and the eyes of the four faces that are in profile are shadowed slits avoiding contact with each other and with the viewer. The use of the medium of print to obscure the facial features of the subjects is displayed in other works in this collection, such as in the etchings ‘Charles Baudelaire’ and ‘La Guerre Civille’ by Edouard Manet, and ‘Les Becheurs’ by Jean-François Millet. These pieces show how the depth of engraving into the copperplates can enhance the ink transferred to the paper thereby obscuring detail in the eyes of the subjects. Creating this effect reinforces the ominous identity of these subjects – the gloom present in Baudelaire’s literature (such as his translations of the brooding poetry of Edgar Allan Poe), the atmospheric despair of the man lying dead in ‘La Guerre Civille’, and the mundane work of the diggers.
The exhibition also highlights the popularity and purpose of prints throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: from the use of printmaking for mass-production of advertisements and posters to its popularity among high-profile artists. The prints by artists in this exhibition highlight the changing perception in the late nineteenth century that the technique is akin to drawing since shading is achieved by the depth of the engraving in etchings and the layers of paint applied in lithographs. This innovative attitude to the method printmaking in this period is particularly present in Walter Richard Sickert’s ‘La Gaité, Montparnasse’, a depiction of the inside of a concert hall. Sickert is noted as one of the first British artists to illustrate a subject like this, and such works highlight the synergy between a medium of printing that had previously been regarded as ‘low’ art, and a subject – the concert hall – previously considered to be unrefined: the combination of which has been transported to the realm of ‘high’ art. It displays the prints and the artists that produced them as revolutionary regarding both form and subject.
The accomplishments of this exhibition are to allow comparisons between Cézanne’s prints and those of his contemporaries, and to show how collectively they transformed the art form of printmaking by working alongside the technical mastery of printmakers. It also provides access to some less well-known works by one of the world’s greatest artists. Of the nine prints produced by Cézanne, three are displayed in this exhibition and so it is an invaluable chance to observe them together. Whilst the Barber Institute has no paintings by Cézanne, the central piece in this exhibition, ‘Les Baigneurs, Petite Planche’, allows an opportunity to compare Cézanne’s depiction of bathers in the print form with his famous collection of oil paintings of similar subjects. This exhibition also highlights how avant-garde Cézanne was not only an innovator of art forms, but also revolutionary within his established canon: adopting printmaking as a new medium in his later life and helping to establish its significance to the wider art community.
Cézanne and the Modern French Print is on display at the Barber Institute until 7th June 2020.