On Cezanne’s “The Card Players”

by Thomas Larson

Not long ago, in Philadelphia’s Barnes’ Foundation, I stood close enough to touch Paul Cezanne’s monumental, “The Card Players.” I was mesmerized how paint, texture, composition, and pose achieve an almost granitic-like intensity—three burly men around a table, cards in hands, another man holding a pipe and looking on, and a fifth, a feminine boy, his eyes downcast, echoing and softening the self-absorption of the men before him. The standing man and boy are witnessing the huddle of the three; the two standing invite us to witness the subject and its witnesses, a triangulation of viewer, inner viewers, and inner seen. A painting with its audience internally present and, thus, externally implied.

This canvas, from Cezanne’s final period in the 1890s, is the fifth and most complicated of the paintings he composed of this men-playing-cards motif. Four other “Card Players” were done between 1890 and 1895, all smaller and with fewer figures than this one in the Barnes, measuring 4.5 x 6 feet—but feeling much larger. The figures, who sat for many sketches, are Provence farmhands; the game they appear to be playing is gin rummy, for fun, it seems. No bets are on the table. One critic has called the Barnes painting, a “human still life,” in homage to Cezanne’s love of discovering form and shape with color and palette knife, recognizable as his tilty sensibility when painting fruit on tables and tablecloths in kitchens. He leaves narrative  behind in most of these time-stolid works, though the great Barnes’s “The Card Players” with its five massive figures to me does sketch a mysterious tale. Read more »

Malevich at the Tate Modern until 26 Oct 2014

by Sue Hubbard

021Iconic is a much overused word but there are certain artworks that have changed the course of art history. Without them what we take for granted as contemporary art might have been totally different. Picasso’s 1907 Desmoiselles D’Avignon reconfigured the human form. His chthonic women act as a metaphor for psychological insecurity and the breakdown of old certainties rather than as a description or likeness. Duchamp’s Fountain, 1917, introduced the readymade and challenged the concept of elitist craft-led art, while Andy Warhol’s early 1960s soup cans appropriated banal everyday commodities, placing them within the sanctity of the museum and gallery. But without Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square, 1915, what he called ‘a bare icon… for my time’, contemporary abstract painting, as well as contemporary architecture, sculpture and design might have taken another direction altogether. It’s rare that an artist does something completely new. But Malevich, it might be argued, did. After him, painting no longer represented the world but became an end in itself, a new reality.

Born of Polish stock in Kiev in 1879, Malevich moved to Kursk in 1896. By the age of 27 this talented young man was living in the dynamic city of Moscow where successful merchants were collecting works by Cézanne, Gauguin, Matisse and Picasso. Malevich was to find himself – like Russia – balancing on the cultural fault line between Eastern and Western Europe. Should artists look back to traditional icon painting to create an authentic national art form or to the new movements coming from France?

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