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Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Art Review

Now you see it. Now you don't. The Card Players from Barnes, in photo, at  the Met. Actual painting not on view at Barnes. Photo: Richard Carreno/Writers Clearinghouse
At Met 'Party,'
Barnes Cézanne is No-Show


By Richard Carreño
[Writers Clearinghouse News Service
Imagine if the Metropolitan Museum of Art gave a party for Paul Cézanne and two celebrity guests, one from Philadelphia, failed to show up.

hat's what happened this week when the Met, in New York, tried to narrate Cézanne's iconic Card Players compositions in a one-all, tell-all installation. The result was well-conceived, ill-executed; two of the five paintings in the thematic series, including the one held by the Barnes Foundation, weren't there.

In place of the real thing, full-sized photographs of the works figure in the show. Moreover, these MIAs, depicting the largest canvases in the series, are also positioned on featured wall space.



Was the Met's Gary Tinterow, who curated the show in concert with The Courtauld Gallery, in London, trying to tell us something?

Could be. But nuance doesn't come easy to Tinterow, whose personality is as starchy as his title, Englehard chairman of the Department of Nineteeth-Century, Modern, and Contemporary Art. In other words, he's a one-man band.

The show, titled 'Cézanne's Card Players,' is really a mis-nomer, given that the Met and The Courtauld, where the exhibit was first installed through early this year, knew all along that a more appropriate title would have been 'Cezanne's Card Plays -- Minus Two.' The exhibit runs through May 8.

Actually, it gets worse.


As part of the over-all story line, Tinterow had also hoped to include Cézanne's The Smoker in the show. But that canvas, owned by the State Hermitage Museum, is also missing-in-action, caught up in a diplomatic squabble involving government-run Russian museums over a ruling in a American court. At the heart of the dispute is whether a cache of orthodox Jewish documents in Russia should be transferred to a Hasidic sect, the Chabad-Lubavitch movement based in the United States. Until that issue gets resolved, the Russian-owned works are staying put.

Why the five Cézanne pictures, depicting peasants from Aix-en-Provence intently playing their card games, have not been reunited also involves legalities -- as well as a stifling misunderstanding of public service. Yes, the specter of Dr. Albert C. Barnes (1872-1951), the eponymous founder of the soon-to-be Philadelphia-based museum, again rears his head. The Grinch who won't go away.

'It'd take a court order,' Tinterow told me, when I asked whether he actually had sought the Barnes work. 'It's not going to happen.'

Well, maybe.

The small show, of only about a score of major oils and drawings displayed a foyer and two gallery rooms, is the little engine that could. Despite the contretemps over the missing pictures, Tinterow & Co. were able to enlist other loan-friendly museums in fleshing out Cézanne's exploration in composition, color, and size in the five similar pictures. Two line drawings are on loan from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, an institution whose director, Timothy Rub, appreciates the operative maximum, 'If you don't give, you don't get.'

Credit for getting it also goes to the Worcester Art Museum; the Pierpont Morgan Library; and the National Gallery of Art, Washington. The three Card Players oils are from the Musée d'Orsay (its version, circa 1892-1896), The Courtauld (also circa 1892-1896), and from the Met itself. The Met's version was created by Cézanne (1839-1906) late in his life, sometime between 1890 and 1892.

A fourth in the series is privately held.


The fifth, created about the same time as the version at the Met, is squirreled away at the Barnes, where it remains grounded, quarantined by of Dr. Barnes' injunction that pieces in his collection never be loaned. The work, amazingly enough, is among about 60 works by Cézanne owned by the Barnes.

Bad guys? Dr. Barnes is surely one. Could his will have been over-riden, as was done allowing the museum to move to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway? Probably. But Barnes director Derek Gilmore and foundation trustees are between a rock and hard place. With the controversy surrounding the museum's Center City move still an open wound, it's likely been decided that over-turning Dr. Barnes' mean-spirited, anti-loan policy needs to wait until the dust settles around the relocation issue.

Yet one wonders, if the Cézanne show had been organized by Michael Taylor, the PMA's modern art curator, whether the Barnes picture would have at least been in the exhibit. An example of Taylor's skill in assembling complex exhibitions, highlighted by a complicated web of loans, will be on display next month when his Marc Chagall show is launched. Taylor is a brilliant tactician. And a master schmoozer.

Meantime, if you hope to round out the Met's 'Cézanne Card Players' experience with a side visit to the Barnes, don't plan on an excursion any time soon. The Barnes' Joueurs de cartes is, according to the museum's website, 'not on view.'

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