The Louisiana Museum of Modern Art hosts a milestone exhibition pairing Cézanne with Giacometti. Director Poul Erik Tøjner speaks of his eight-year-long quest to reveal to the public the allied alchemy of their artistic talent.
By Poul Erik Tøjner
It may seem hard to imagine two men more different than Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) and Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966). They lived in different ages; they differed in nationality; were from different social strata; and grew up under different conditions in very different landscapes. And even the circumstances of their childhood and youth were of very different nature.
Whereas Cézanne’s father was an overbearing parent and successful banker who resolutely opposed the idea of his only son becoming an artist, then Giacometti’s father, Giovanni Giacometti, was himself a celebrated painter who encouraged his son to develop his talent. Alberto Giacometti had plenty of close friends: artists, writers, men of the world and petty criminals alike. He would be as forthcoming and familiar with people he had known for ten minutes as those he had known for ten years.
Cézanne, on the other hand, was an introvert; a moody and close-mouthed hermit who would succumb to violent fits of temper and hysteria, which on occasion would suddenly give way to surprisingly amicable declarations of friendship. In short, not only were their backgrounds widely different, their psyches were equally diverse. The surprising – in fact, outright amazing – thing is that there is, nonetheless, a sense of kinship to be found in their artistic endeavour.
Dreaming of Cézanne
When I assumed my current position as director of Louisiana in November 1999, I was asked in a TV interview which artist my dream exhibition at Louisiana would showcase if I were to follow the tradition so excellently nurtured at Louisiana throughout its 50 years of existence of paying regular tribute to individual masters of modernity. I didn’t hesitate for a second. “Cézanne,” was my prompt answer.
I have this thing with Cézanne. Little did I know how difficult it would be to bring my ideas anywhere near fruition – but here it is: the Cézanne exhibition at Louisiana, eight years later.
When I say “Cézanne & Giacometti” people generally react with incredulity, which is understandable. Naturally, Cézanne wasn’t particularly preoccupied with Alberto Giacometti since the latter was only five years old when the French master died, although the contrary was definitely the case. Giacometti showed great enthusiasm for Cézanne throughout his life, and so did many others, such as Picasso, of course. Giacometti copied Cézanne, wrote about him, referred to him, and for periods regarded him as a kind of role model. So on the biographical level, there was close contact.
Hope and reservation
Although they lived in different periods, the affinities between their oeuvres arguably merit a discourse on their extraordinary parallelism. In their youth, until their late 30s, they were both preoccupied with violence, sexuality, destruction and a sense of meaninglessness. Cézanne painted a number of peculiar pictures during those years (and discarded many of them) whereas Giacometti subscribed to Surrealism with all that it entailed of psycho-drama and symbolism. At Louisiana we aren’t that familiar with this aspect of Giacometti’s oeuvre since here he is represented with his later works. Both artists changed direction yet continued to share affinities. They were relentless in their endeavour to depict what they saw and perceived while also falling victim to misgivings, qualms and doubt about their own undertaking. This led them to create repetitive renderings of the same motif and adopt very laborious and intricate methodologies.
Saying it was easy would definitely be wrong. In the early years, I would shoot right and left at anything that began with ‘Cé’. I phoned the organisers of Cézanne exhibitions and wrote to them, and there was one person in particular I kept pursuing, namely the former director of Kunsthaus Zürich in Switzerland, Felix Baumann, who was even familiar with Louisiana. Perhaps that was why his refusals were kinder than those of most others.
As time passed, I almost gave up. Cézanne died in 1906, and anyone with the slightest grasp of the implications that centennial would have on the cultural calendar also knew that Cézanne exhibitions would definitely be on the horizon, thus monopolising the loan market throughout 2006. So conditions were far from favourable.
Then one day in 2005 at Brasserie Lipp in Zürich in the company of a colleague from Louisiana, Anders Kold, and Felix Baumann, who is also the president of the Giacometti Foundation in Zürich, we embarked on a discussion about Alberto Giacometti, whom we – purely as a working hypothesis – had considered pairing with Expressionist painter Chaim Soutine. And as usual I spoke of Cézanne.
Suddenly, our discussion across the table experienced a kind of short circuiting, so to speak. Soutine was knocked off the chair (in real life he had, in fact, been a barfly), and Cézanne appeared in his place. “Giacometti-Cézanne, Cézanne-Giacometti,” we said to each other. And Felix immediately found that this made sense. And I, for my part, said that Louisiana would go along with it, and it was to happen in our 50th anniversary year, complete with celebrations and all: Cézanne as the great classic and Giacometti as the fulcrum of the Louisiana collections, which was now to experience a novel constellation. And Felix thought all this would be just fine and that it made far more sense than we realised. A good idea in itself, but there was more to the correlation.
Art and artist
*Cézanne & Giacometti* is the story of two artists, their life and art, but also a discourse on art as such and on what the creative process entails. On a general level art is tripartite, as is the exhibition itself, which begins with a retrospective of Cézanne – something we have never experienced before in Denmark. With around 30 works sourced from museums and collections around the world, visitors will gain insight into Cézanne’s artistic genres – his portraits, wonderful still lifes with apples, landscapes, and his most cherished motif of all, Mont Sainte-Victoire in Aix-en-Provence. Then follows a retrospective of Giacometti, who as mentioned earlier will be represented only by his late works. And finally – as the third component – a juxtaposition of the two.
Naturally, embracing two such major artists promises to be an overwhelming experience. It also offers the interesting challenge of having to reach out beyond the realm of a single artist. After all, as artists they must have had something in common, namely art. The ambition of the exhibition is, therefore, to encourage the viewer to consider what drives their art, so to speak.
If you think the sun will keep shining from a clear sky just because you’ve hatched a good idea, think again. I believed it would myself at one stage – but not for long. All a good idea does is lend legitimacy to your requests for loans from distinguished collections, such as those of the national galleries in Washington and London, the Metropolitan and MoMA, the Louvre and Musée d’Orsay, the Kunsthaus Zürich and Kunstmuseum Basel in addition to the many other museums and private collections in Europe and the USA.
Many were very accommodating, and even more credited Louisiana for the idea. This is the first exhibition of its kind anywhere and experts on Cézanne and Giacometti eagerly await the result.
The road has been long. We have travelled many kilometres across the globe to speak our cause, sent hundreds of letters and emails and made seemingly endless telephone calls – the correspondence itself fills several binders. And then there are the logistics and the insurance on a level foreign to both Louisiana and the Danish authorities, but I succeeded. *Cézanne & Giacometti* will be an event out of the ordinary. Louisiana is currently experiencing a flow of visitors from all over Europe, especially Scandinavia, since the exhibition will travel no further. The loans are too important to forward to a second destination. In short, it’s here and now: *Cézanne & Giacometti*.