Wrestling with Cézanne: Picasso Landscapes

Charlotte’s Mint Museum Showcases Cubist Pioneer’s Painted Treasures

By William Corwin

The project of Cubism instigated by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque was a ménage à trois with a third, ghostly partner: Paul Cézanne.  Cézanne’s presence in the relationship, as well as his own obsession with landscape, meant that genre of painting defined the movement’s early direction as pursued by Braque and Picasso—and that Cubism emerged overwhelmingly from depictions of the natural world (and had very little to do with trompe l’oeil—it bears noting).  “Picasso Landscapes: Out of Bounds,” at The Mint Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina (February 11–May 21, 2023), marks the 50th anniversary of the painter’s death and traces Picasso’s own personal relationship with painting the landscape, from youthful depictions of the dry mountains of Málaga to the lush palm-filled canvasses of the end of his life in Mougins.

The Reservoir, Horta de Ebro, summer 1909, oil on canvas, 24 1⁄8 x 20 1⁄8 in.
Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. David Rockefeller, 81.1991. Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY © 2023 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy American Federation of Arts.

The “Out of Bounds” exhibition can be encountered as a before-and-after scenario: Picasso had to contend with the wholly novel conception of space he had unleashed on the world with the Pandora’s Box of Cubism, and his decisions post 1908–1914 can be seen as modifications and variations thereof.  It is especially his considered rejections of those spatial conventions—such as his embrace of Poussin, Velázquez, Delacroix, and especially Manet in his later work—that inform the landscapes.  Picasso’s landscapes form a dialogue with Cézanne though; it was the mentor, Cézanne, who set the ball, or cube, rolling.  With Post-Cubism, a second conversation begins with Matisse.  Through the extent of “Out of Bounds,” we watch in rapture as the Spanish magician conjures up the deep space of mountains, renders it into an infinite mathematical mosaic, and then smoothes and molds space into soft curves that flow from the figures of his models.

“Picasso Landscapes: Out of Bounds” begins with a simple duality of land and sky in the Lilliputian oil-on-wood Mountains of Málaga, painted by Picasso when he was 15, in June 1896.  The ruddy pink and beige mountains topped with pale green scruffy trees form an almost fleshy expanse of land posited against a thin and pale blue summer morning sky.  While simple, the painting is meticulous, concerned primarily with describing the landscape, the dryness, the rivulets and paths through the rocks and bushes, and the ethereal blue mountains in the distance.  Grove, painted a year later (1897–1898), conversely focuses on the impression of the silvery bark of a copse of four trees.  The luminescence of the four verticals is played against the mellow dappled green highlights in the foreground; however, other than that significant gesture, all details, including branches and leaves, melt into a dark, looming background.  It’s impossible to gauge any sense of innovation in these works beyond a desire to experiment and inhabit other artist’s styles in the quest to find his own voice, and we see this in several other works in the exhibition with an (unsurprising) increasing French influence, drawing from sources such as Daumier and Monet, as in the unrepentantly impressionist Clichy Boulevard (1901).

Picasso’s unique interpretation of a Cubist landscape emerges during the summer of 1909 in Horta de Ebro, and the “Out of Bounds” exhibition presents many examples that chart this transformation.  In 1908, Braque decamped to L’Estaque (only a few miles from Marseilles) to literally and figuratively commune with Cézanne’s landscape.  This is arguably the launch of Cubism, though Picasso had been experimenting with proto-Cubist figurative paintings in 1907.  Picasso’s proto-Cubist landscapes are meditations on the shimmering textures of Hunter green, Olive green, and Evergreen in the thick vegetation of La Rue-des-Bois (a small village north of Paris), but the artist has not yet transitioned from organic vegetal forms to the sharp geometricity of Braque and Cézanne—although a cube does rudely intrude amongst the trees in Landscape (La Rue-des-Bois or Paris), painted in 1908.  It is at Horta de Ebro the following year where that transition truly takes place.

In a mountain landscape, worlds away from the painter’s teenage depiction of Málaga, Landscape, Horta de Ebro (1909), is a stark diagrammatic peak, a line snaking up and down like a stock market graph on an almost monochromatic field of grays and whites.  Picasso distinguishes vegetation in a sharp unvarying blue-green and human habitation by two beige squares that awkwardly achieve three dimensions with arbitrarily angled receding sides in gray.  The carefully rendered mountain scrub of the semi-desert Málaga has been exchanged for four upright poplars and a tranche of bubble-like green spheres flowing between mountains.  Cubism has arrived.  Picasso has not completely dispensed with the sky/ground division, but he has flattened the space by painting both the same color, making the inverted V of the mountain an idea rather than a reality.  Picasso will continue to tackle this most basic division throughout his experiments in landscape, but he never takes the sky seriously again.

The Village of Vauvenargues, April 29-30, 1959, oil on canvas, 21 5⁄16 x 25 9⁄16 in.
Fundación Almine y Bernard Ruiz-Picasso para el Arte, Madrid. Image © FABA. Photo: Hugard & Vanoverschelde Photography © 2023 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy American Federation of Arts.

In The Reservoir, Horta de Ebro (1909), Picasso seems willing to engage with some degree of naturalistic color, at least conceptually.  A diaphanous green mountain rises up and dissolves against the pale gray sky, while the crystal-like angular citadel holds center stage, crisp and distinct as the city around it begins to blend into a confusing, non-volumetric miasma of triangles and quadrilaterals.  As Peter Jonathan Bell notes in his essay “Picasso and the European Landscape Tradition,” which is part of the exhibition’s catalog, the artist methodically and intentionally engaged with many key figures in landscape painting.  For example, in The Reservoir, he seems to be at the very least flirting with El Greco’s View of Toledo (1596-1600), which also renders a Spanish citadel in almost cube-like visual notations, against a morose gray sky—in a very simple and stark palette.

Post-Cubism, the question the exhibition poses—What was Picasso trying to accomplish through landscape?—becomes clearer.  It’s a question that is never answered, but the viewer is presented with the artist’s many experiments, most of which seem to be attempts to either extend Cubism or reject it, which as proposed earlier is more or less a long conversation with Cézanne.  Laurence Madeline, curator of the exhibition, is quick to point out, in her catalog essay “Picasso. Landscape. Revolution.,” that the vast majority of Picasso’s output was figurative; that only 1 out of 200 canvasses was a landscape in the last sanctioned exhibition of the master’s work in 1973, at the Palais des Papes in Avignon; and that all major exhibitions of his paintings in his lifetime were similarly lopsided.  Regardless of what Picasso was trying to do with the genre, it only could ever be a side-pursuit vis-à-vis his fascination with the figure.  A 1920 Landscape of Juan-les-Pins negates Cubism’s precepts against bright contrasting color, and also embraces a use of “meta” symbols, such as sun and sea, in contrast to Cubism’s more subtle vocabulary of bottles, cigarettes, and guitars.  The geometricity is still there, as the roof of a small structure centered on the canvas becomes a strident brick-colored ziggurat, with razor sharp solid black shadows, sitting on a base of zig-zags (an approximation of the balusters of a classical terrace). Directly above this colorful architectural folie sits the sun, a shallow yellow oblong with white and red rays sprouting top and bottom, clearly an eye with its attendant lashes.  While a distant cousin of Cézanne’s original notion of facetized deconstruction of color, and the flattening of space that comes with it, Picasso has reinstituted depth into the picture plane by virtue of chromatic contrast and color saturation.

In his painting Boisgeloup in the Rain, with Rainbow (1932) we begin to see what Madeline characterizes as an interest in amateurism and dilettantism that Picasso began to play with in his painting, and especially in landscape, with its traditions of easel and plein-air painting.  Once the whole conceit of rendering the space in front of the viewer had been expanded into a philosophical time-space continuum by Cubism, Picasso became intrigued by the mise-en-abîme potential of painting the idea of painting, an almost literary approach to the landscape.  In Boisgeloup in the Rain, with Rainbow this is effected with the absurd framing mechanisms of the trees on one side and the edge of a house on the other, like flats in a stage set.  The over-the-top rainbow, over the top of the painting, adds a saccharine sentimentality to the whole, confirming the artist’s cheeky contention that what we are looking at is definitely a painting, jokily recasting the attacks on Cubism as to whether it was art or not.  Picasso does bring Cubism into the argument in Boisgeloup in the Rain, with Rainbow, and the similar Boisgeloup in the rain (March 29, 1932), and Boisgeloup in the Rain (March 30, 1932), through the device of the rain itself, where a series of raking straight lines cut across the small village, cutting the houses, trees and church into indeterminate scalene triangles and trapezoids, forcibly leveling the depth of field into an irregular mosaic of pastels.  Old habits die hard.

Boisgeloup in the Rain, with Rainbow, May 5, 1932, oil on canvas, 13 3⁄4 x 13 3⁄4 in.
Fundación Almine y Bernard Ruiz-Picasso para el Arte, Madrid. Image © FABA Photo: Hugard & Vanoverschelde Photography © 2023 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy American Federation of Arts.

Perhaps propelled by his friendly rivalry and long-term dialogue with Matisse, Picasso increasingly employed the former’s simplicity and expanses of paint laid down in blunt uninflected, often thin, layers.  This inclination was strengthened by Picasso’s pretense to amateurism, especially during and right after the Second World War.  View of Notre-Dame, Paris (1945) seems the apotheosis of this inclination, where a cartoonish view of the Ile de la Cité composed of simple rectangles dotted with forceful short black brushstrokes for windows is only identifiable by a circle for the cathedral’s rose window, and the two square towers, bent towards the viewer, a slight nod to Cubism.

The convergence of the figure and the landscape seems to be Picasso’s antidote to Cubism.  In “Out of Bounds” there are numerous examples of his transmogrification of the female body into the landscape itself, such as the magnificent The Painter, Boisgeloup (1934), on loan to the exhibition from the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art.  These hybrid portraits/landscapes arguably inform his pure landscapes such as The Village of Vauvenargues (1959), Landscape (1965), and Landscape of Mougins II (1965), where swirling cloud formations and the lines of planted fields twist and turn into bulbous forms and thick lugubrious brushstrokes.  Picasso unites both his pursuits: deconstructing space and elevating the human form in Landscape of Mougins II. While the facets and geometry of Cézanne and Braque have been purged, the painting is chock-full of symbolic shorthand: painterly squiggles are simultaneously clouds, furrows and hedges, and the artist’s notation for landscape; concave forms are both lakes and the act of containing, and like the disembodied gray lines of the mountain peak in Landscape, Horta de Ebro, which was completed 56 years earlier, the watery and brushy blue line of the horizon in Landscape of Mougins II is impossibly curvy and steep—it is the imagined form of a silhouette or profile.  Half a century previously, Picasso had embedded an intense analysis of space into the landscape.  At the end, he embeds a visceral humanity.

“Picasso Landscapes: Out of Bounds” is organized by the American Federation of Arts with guest curator Laurence Madeline, and the exceptional support of the Musée national Picasso-Paris.

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