Ashmolean’s special exhibition rivals any in London, writes Theresa Thompson

Rhythm, colour, boldness, passion — these words were circling my mind as I left the Cézanne and the Modern exhibition at the Ashmol-ean. Those words could equally describe the hang of this exciting show and the works within it, for it is a beautifully, boldly arranged exhibition: blocks of int-ense colour on the gallery walls echoing and complementing gorgeous artworks.

Never has the expression ‘special exhibition’ seemed more apt. This is a show to rival any in London. And it’s special not only because of the array of masterpieces — 50 works by 19 artists, including 24 by Cézanne, two thirds of which are watercolours and one of the world’s finest and best-preserved groups of Cézanne watercolours at that — and other ‘moderns’ such as Degas, Gauguin, Modigliani, Soutine, Van Gogh — but also because this is the first stop on the first European tour of this most individual world-renowned collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art.

“It’s a very personal collection,” said exhibition curator Colin Harrison, Senior Curator of European Art at the Ashmolean. Key to the collection is Henry Pearlman’s own tastes. He collected pictures and sculptures that he liked, said Harrison, and his thrill at discovering unknown masterpieces is evident throughout.

New York businessman Pearlman (1895 –1974) started collecting European avant-garde art in 1945, buying a landscape by Chaïm Soutine (Village Square, Céret, in the third gallery). We don’t see much of Soutine in this country, but here there are seven, counting landscapes that in the Expressionist painter’s hands become vibrant virtual abstracts, and a Portrait of a Woman, whose sad eyes and wrought hands, conspicuous against the dark canvas, suggest some unknown passion.

Passion as well as uncertainty is palpable in the works of Cézanne. It’s there to see in the subtle watercolours here — exquisite examples of a medium he did not value much — as well as his oil paintings. We see Cézanne wrestling with the perception of objects, how he sketched or painted in double or multiple lines to convey that what we see is not fixed. Take, for example, the repeated contours in his large watercolour Still Life with Carafe, Bottle, and Fruit, made shortly before his death in 1906; and the somewhat hazy outlines of the fruit in Three Pears, a lovely late watercolour from the 1880s in which tablecloth arabesques mirror the curves of the fruit. “We can see that Cézanne is already playing with the shapes here,” said Harrison. “We can also see that it is in astoundingly good condition.”

Three Pears is supremely rhythmical. As too is the delicate sparely painted sketch of a tangle of Undergrowth; and Route to Le Tholonet (1900-4), which drew me to it from the far wall of the first gallery. One of six oils by Cézanne in the exhibition, it looks unfinished, but it works as a harmonious whole, bold horizontal and near vertical lines flowing across the canvas, taking the eye from empty foreground spaces up towards the mottled foothills and shimmering sky so typical of Cézanne.

A view of Cézanne’s beloved Mont Sainte-Victoire takes pride of place. Here, unabashedly seizing attention, Van Gogh’s Tarascon Diligence stands boldly ready to go, colours flashing, impasto paint almost ladled on. Opposite, a decep-tively simple still life by Camille Pissarro pleasingly complements Cézanne’s warm oranges and cool greens and blues.

In the final room, three works by Ame-deo Modigliani stand out: his celebrated portrait of an erect angular Jean Cocteau (1916–17); a similarly chiselled Leon Indenbaum; and a wonderful head carved from a rough old building block. This has the elongated head and tiny pursed mouth emblematic of Modigliani, but also compelling echoes of African masks or Cycladic figures. I learn from an essay in the gorgeous exhibition catalogue that it was carved around 1910-11, at a time Modigliani was ‘crazy about Egypt’.

Perhaps we’ll be crazy too about Cézanne and the ‘moderns’ after seeing this stunning show.

Cézanne and the Modern
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Until June 22