It's rare to get a glimpse into an artist's sketchbook and even rarer to see the practice that goes into a masterpiece.
The Museum of Modern Art is laying out more than 250 works on paper—sketches and rarely-seen watercolors—by French Post-Impressionist master Paul Cézanne for all to see in its newest exhibit, "Cézanne Drawing."
This is the first major effort in the U.S. to gather drawings from across Cézanne's career to mark the development of his working methods, from practice on paper to watercolors to oil paintings. It is akin to seeing behind the veil of this master by literally looking into his sketchbook and seeing the repetition, contemplation and reworking he did behind the scenes.
The show officially opens on June 6, but we got a sneak peek at MoMA's incredible exhibit on Thursday. Here, curators gave us a few pointers about why this exhibit is worth spending time looking at closely.
The more than 250 works of art on paper were gathered from public and private collections from around the world (from over 100 lenders with representation from 15 countries), which means most of these works haven't been seen by most museumgoers.
"Because these works are coming from all over the world and these are works usually kept in study rooms or private rooms, we can't emphasize enough that this is a unique, once-in-a-generation opportunity to see these things," said Jodi Hauptman, the senior curator in MoMA's Department of Drawings and Prints.
Cézanne's oil paintings have largely been the subject of exhibits across the world, and while these are incredible in their own right and some are even on view in this showing, his works on paper are considered to be some of his most radical work, the curators say. Cézanne drew every day in sketchbooks and on sheets with pencil and watercolor and sometimes in ink. By the end of his life, he created about 2,000 works on paper, curators say.
Over and over again, the artist practiced perfecting objects and shapes, from bathers and other portraits like of his wife and son to everyday objects and landscapes. These figures show up again and again across his practice.
"You see his search," says Samantha Friedman, the associate curator in MoMA's Department of Drawings and Prints. "We are humbled and floored over the things that are here—there's uncertainty and doubt in these works and you can see his struggle in his process...and these feelings are familiar to us in this moment in time."
The exhibit showcases wall-mounted works on paper but also double-sided paper sheets that he sketched on and full sketchbooks, where it's not about a finished product but all about him working toward getting it right. It's a rare opportunity to see through Cézanne's eyes and the intimate process of drawing.
"It's almost like a little cue to find this exhibit like a treasure hunt, where you see these motifs again and again and it's a reward for the close looker," Friedman says.
You can follow certain objects and figures across mediums, from pencil to watercolor and then to oil, like below.
It really demands that the viewer looks closely at the works to fully witness Cézanne's process and see how he solved problems on paper. It's something special to see imperfection and striving on paper through repetitive lines that he didn't erase.
One of the coolest moments in the exhibit is the pairing of two still life works of a milk pot, melon and sugar bowl. They were both drawn with pencil and watercolor but they haven't been shown together since 1933—until now, curators say. One comes from a private collection in Europe (courtesy of Christie's) and the other is on loan from the J. Paul Getty Museum in L.A.
The last gallery in the exhibit shows incredible "kaleidoscopic" French landscape works that Cézanne did in the last decade of his life. The watercolors look like they have a transparent glow with "veils of colors," curators say. It's a gorgeous grouping that shows off his process, which got more masterful as the years went on, which you can see first hand.
"Cézanne Drawing" will be on view at MoMA at 11 W. 53rd St. from June 6 through September 25, 2021.