Cézanne and the Modern, Ashmolean Museum, review

One January morning in 1945, a few months short of his 50th birthday, an American businessman called Henry Pearlman walked into an auction house in New York and bid successfully on a painting. The picture he had bought was View of Céret, a wild landscape by the Expressionist painter Chaïm Soutine.

With its “blue, yellow and golden colours slashed on as if by a trowel”, as Pearlman later described it, this canvas would have been a bold acquisition for any collector, let alone a self-made cold-storage insulation salesman and baseball fan who was the son of Russian immigrants and had received no training in art history.

Yet the moment he saw that Soutine, Pearlman decided to devote himself to modern art. Over the next three decades, until his death in 1974, he amassed a remarkable collection of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and modern paintings and sculptures, including the 50 works of art in a new exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

Like most collectors, Pearlman had idiosyncrasies. He was not interested in the art of his American contemporaries. He had no truck with abstract painting or Cubism. He bought Matisse’s sombre yet magnificent Bathers by a River, which was finished during the First World War, but decided to get rid of it as soon as it was loaded onto the dock upon its arrival in America because it was almost 13 feet wide and, as he said later, “I couldn’t possibly hang it anywhere”. Surely his response should have been: it’s time to buy a bigger house.

Pearlman did not mind relinquishing Bathers by a River, which he swapped for a Toulouse-Lautrec with the Art Institute of Chicago, which still owns Matisse’s vast masterpiece, but he should have done: reproduced in the catalogue, it haunts the exhibition at the Ashmolean like a phantom limb.

Instead of Matisse, Pearlman worshipped principally at the altar of Cézanne. The core of his collection was an enviable group of 16 watercolours by the French Post-Impressionist that are presented in the first gallery at the Ashmolean. These are subtle, glittering works of art, suffused with unexpectedly large areas of cream and off-white, where the paper is allowed to shine through from the background, contributing to a general atmosphere of freshness and brightness.

Using this technique, Cézanne could skilfully summon the lustrous skin of a pear, sunlight irradiating the façade of a house in Provence, or the bleached, luminous cranium of a skull. To accent the graphite design of his underdrawing, Cézanne applied tiny patches and strips of translucent colour, like silk scarves shimmering in a summery breeze. These pictures have the evanescent, sparkling beauty of a dragonfly swooping before your eyes.

The second gallery is devoted to Pearlman’s show-stopping oil paintings, including two by Cézanne: a splendid, characteristic view of Mont Sainte-Victoire, and Cistern in the Park of Chateau Noir, a shadowy, speckled forest interior in which rich dabs of blue and green complement russets and oranges.

Elsewhere, as well as the Toulouse-Lautrec for which Pearlman exchanged Bathers by a River, we find an ambiguous portrait by Manet, in which a decidedly masculine woman with heavyset features and a shadow resembling a sideburn nestling beside her ear appears incongruously decked out in delicate, fashionable finery.

There is also Van Gogh’s Tarascon Stagecoach, in which the vehicle’s eye-catching, primrose-yellow wheels seem to be mired in impasto splodges of grey paint representing sand covering the courtyard of an inn. These marks are so thick that they appear almost edible, like cream cheese smeared on toast.

Despite a veneer of respectability, Pearlman occasionally demonstrated a penchant for sauce. Degas’s After the Bath, Woman Drying Herself is an openly erotic painting, in which a woman on her knees bends forwards so that her buttocks occupy the centre of the composition. A startling line of vermilion cascades along the contours of her left arm, shoulders and neck, like a jolt of sexual electricity.

Near this picture is a wooden relief carved and painted by Gauguin and featuring a crouching, green-skinned prostitute with a rubbery red nipple and four strangely sensual red spots running down her back. In a prudish gesture, Pearlman got somebody to paint green tempera over the prostitute’s exposed genitals, which were coloured a dark red, in order “to make it palatable to the American public”. It was only when the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz suggested that the composition was unbalanced that Pearlman had the tempera removed.

The final gallery contains several landscapes by Soutine, including the one that turned Pearlman on to modern art in the first place, as well as a couple of portraits by Modigliani. The latter’s powerful image of Jean Cocteau presents the avant-garde Frenchman as the very picture of vanity, with his prissy, erect pose, elegant yet fastidious clothes and effete cupid’s-bow lip. A prominent kink in his nose, as well as one sunken black eye, hints at the ugly self-regard beneath his manicured façade.