Erotic Nudes, Satyrs Frolic in Philadelphia Exhibit

Paul Gauguin
"Where Do We Come From? What Are We Doing? Where Are We Going?" (1897-98) by Paul Gauguin. To create this mural-sized piece of paradise, Gauguin fled his family and France, going all the way to Polynesia. Source: Philadelphia Museum of Art via Bloomberg

The mythic Greek valley Arcadia, a harmonic realm balancing dignity with desire, is an enduring source for artists and the subject of a pleasurable exhibition, “Gauguin, Cezanne, Matisse: Visions of Arcadia,” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

At the entrance to the show, which opened yesterday, is a long, narrow, light-green hallway that functions like an intimate, shaded glen.

An erotic reverie of poetry and flesh, the passageway is rich with illustrated verse by Stephane Mallarme and Virgil as well as a bounty of small works -- frolicking nudes, gods, goddesses, bathers, nymphs and satyrs.

Here, lovers entwine and tussle, fauns eat grapes and prance, and a Matisse woman’s dangling hair spreads like tentacles. Narcissus listens to the laments of Echo in a 19th-century bronze copy of an ancient Roman original.

In one shimmering painting, Cezanne’s female nudes -- arms flown in abandon -- bathe at a waterfall with animalistic fervor. Sculptor Henry Moore, who once owned the picture, referred to it as “small” yet “monumental” and likened one woman’s strong, broad back to that of a gorilla.

This heated paradise is merely a springtime prelude that opens as if into a heady, summer clearing.

Wild Colors

Hot, ruddy nudes by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, wild-colored Fauvist works by Matisse and Andre Derain, and Seurat’s twinkling bits of light all heighten awareness and excitement.

Maillol’s neoclassical, life-size, standing “Nymphs” (1930-38) and plumb, bronze “Pomona” (1910) -- her rotund breasts and curly locks like ripe apples -- beckon us onward.

During the 19th century, when Western religion and mythology were waning as artistic sources, Corot mythologized trees. His work was so closely linked to Arcadian themes that he was said to have been “nursed on the laps of nymphs.”

His 8-foot-tall pastoral masterpiece “Silenus” (1838) explores Virgil’s sixth “Eclogue” (the “Song of Silenus”). Silenus was the tutor of the wine god, Dionysus. Appropriately drunk, ecstatic and reclining, he is restrained with grapevines by lusty nymphs.

Corot’s works are paired with the serenity and calm of Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. His classical landscapes “Peace” (1867) and “Summer” (1891), in bleached, marble creams and misty blues and greens, look on the well-worn remnants of Antiquity with a reverent eye that reawakens the past without devolving into nostalgia.

Puvis de Chavannes’s tranquil settings and muted palette influenced Picasso, whose Rose-period works are also on view.

Fleshy Tones

Poussin, who is represented by “Le Grand Bacchanal (The Andrians)” (c. 1627), is the show’s cornerstone. He established the neoclassical zenith for landscape and especially Arcadian themes. His glistening blues, reds, oranges and greens, and the various flesh and earth tones, convey a range of emotions.

“Le Grand Bacchanal,” at the heart of the exhibition, shares the grand gallery with Gauguin’s large tropical paradise “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” (1897-98), Cezanne’s monumental “The Large Bathers” (1900-06), Matisse’s “Bathers by a River” (1909-17) and Henri Rousseau’s fantastical “The Dream” (1910), a peaceable kingdom in which a reclining nude cohabitates with lions.

Near these masterpieces is Robert Delaunay’s abstract painting “The City of Paris” (1910-12). It combines Modernism and Antiquity, the Eiffel Tower and the Three Graces, the City of Light and the light of Arcadia. Everything is atomized, merged -- equally present.

These great paintings approach the show’s theme sometimes directly, sometimes loosely. Seeing them together and in conversation is a once-in-a-lifetime event.

In “Visions of Arcadia,” where Modernism feeds on Antiquity, we are reminded that our ancient mythologies continue to be a vital source. Arcadia, as much a state of mind as a subject for art, has never left us.

“Gauguin, Cezanne, Matisse: Visions of Arcadia” is at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through Sept. 3. Information:

(Lance Esplund is U.S. art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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