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Sunday, December 17, 2017

On Display: ‘Cézanne’s Card Players’ at the Met

One of the many enjoyable things about some of Paul Cézanne's paintings is that they seem unfinished. They are manifestly slowly made, yet patches of bare canvas show through oil paint; the painted backgrounds don't quite meet the edge of the frame. Two series, the card players and the smokers, are the focus of a new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that echoes some of the diligent and determined yet unconcernedly incomplete attributes of a good Cézanne.

In the first of three rooms are several dozen etchings, engravings and paintings from the museum's prints and drawings and European paintings collections. While we may think of modern card players as gamblers-aleatory and ludic, rowdy or drunken-and smokers as just plain unhealthy, these compositions present smoking and card playing as philosophic activities. The curators display images of 17th-century Dutch and Flemish card players, and their 18th- and 19th-century French associates, as prototypes of a genre that focuses on the introspective nature of these pursuits. Perhaps the closest to Cézanne in tone are Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin's solitary card players.

In the second room are 15 Cézanne paintings and drawings of card players, single figures and groups of two and four. What is notable is what is not present. The large Barnes Collection Card Players (1890-92) is not on display. Neither is Cézanne's largest two-person card-player painting. (Life-size black-and-white photographs stand in for these.) Instead, seven paintings and oil studies and several drawings, which the scholarship behind this exhibition has established were made prior to the absent largest compositions, are on view. Because the payoff of the final composition is missing, the show becomes about the process.

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