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Six Degrees of Vollard

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On a wall is Paul Cezanne's portrait of "Madame Cezanne," owned by the Art Institute of Chicago.  And opposite her, hangs Cezanne's portrait of "Boy in a Red Waistcoat," fresh in from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.  Reunited, here's what I imagine the two paintings have to say to each other:

“Madame Cezanne, remember that last wild night at the old man's studio?”

 “Oh yeah, when he had the break-through with the burnt sienna.  Your waistcoat, my dress.  That was one for the history books.”

“Yeah, well, you look fantastic--haven't aged a bit-- it's like your paint's still drying.”

“Say it into my right ear, sonny boy.  He never did paint me a left one.”

This might be part of the conversation taking place between paintings at their reunion down at the Art Institute of Chicago at the exhibition "From Cezanne to Picasso."  What do all the paintings have in common?  One man.  Art dealer extraordinaire Ambroise Vollard.  All of the 250 works on display passed through the hands of Vollard, sometimes from artist to artist, sometimes from bohemian to baron.

This exhibition is a chance to see each work of art—not as sterile pieces living within museum walls—but as objects alive in the world with long complex life-histories.  Two paintings may have first met in the artist's studio, painted within earshot of the other, or with one hanging on the studio wall, informing and inspiring the other as it is born; or they may have crossed paths at Vollard's gallery, as one artist consigned his own work in exchange for the admired work of another; or they may have been sold to the same major collector, or perhaps endowed to the same museum.  Yes, they'll all seen or heard of each other before—and there's a lot of catching up to do.

It's one big inter-connected conversation of modernism.  See the Cezanne bathers that Vollard traded to Matisse—think of Matisse's own dancers to come in the following decades—and say, of course!  Matisse had to have that Cezanne, and he must have looked at it and loved it every day, and it must have changed the course of his own paintbrush.  See the Renoir nude that Vollard sold to Rodin-- think of Rodin's future Eve in the Gates of Hell --and say, of course!  Rodin had to have been drawn to the softness of Renoir's female nudes, but also their sculptural weightiness, their bodily substantiality.  See Cezanne's commissioned portrait of Vollard--which Vollard left to the Petit Palais upon his death-- and say, of course!  This is the kind of shrewd business that cements one's place in the annals of art history. 

It's an unending dialogue: the paintings are still chatting, exchanging colors and forms, playing upon each other's strengths and weaknesses, like all old good friends do.  Go and have a listen.

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