The friendship that changed painting

Their friendship predated Impressionism, and for 20 years in the 19th-century, Paul Cezanne and Camille Pissarro worked together - learning from and expanding on each other's work as they laid the foundations for Modernism. An exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art is currently exploring the parallel development of these two artists, and the online companion site offers a rare opportunity to follow both paths simultaneously, and compare matched works side by side. Pioneering Modern Painting: Cezanne and Pissarro 1865-1885 brings the painters' works closer together than they have ever been before.

While paired retrospectives are hardly a new idea, Cezanne and Pissarro constitute a match especially conducive to the exercise. Working in close collaboration over a period of decades, and commonly painting the same subjects, the two artists still viewed the scenes in their own ways and used their own methods to record them. Because of this cooperative but independent relationship, visitors are able to compare images that have contrasts as clear as their connections.

After a brief Splash Page introduction (and a warning about file sizes), the Flash-based exhibition opens into a new window - with a rotating handful of paired paintings and an introduction to the site by Joachim Pissarro. (Curator of the exhibit and great-grandson of Camille.) Compared to the roughly 80 paintings in the physical exhibit, the website makes 48 "selected works" available for online perusal, accessible through three interactive -and interwoven- interfaces.

Given the purpose of the exhibit, the design of those interfaces is much more significant than a simple question of aesthetics. The first method of accessing the works is basic 'compare and contrast,' breaking the online collection into 24 Paired Paintings. Using a scrolling index, sets of canvases are presented side by side, accompanied by details about their creation and links to a chronological timeline and information about technique. And while each pair is initially displayed in a 'full screen' mode, the viewer can also examine the paintings in Relative Scale to each other, or as magnified Detail Views of specific areas of the canvas. Clicking on either image of the pair brings it front and center, filling the available screen space and displaying information about the work's dimensions and ownership.

(Detail Views can either be displayed side-by-side or in an Overlay format that actually dissolves one canvas into the other - try doing that in a museum. Naturally, the effect has the greatest impact when the selected paintings share the same subject and perspective. )

Themes arranges the exhibit along a vertical timeline, placing the two artists' works on opposite sides of the page and coloring in relevant placeholder icons when any of the nine themes, from "1860s: The Beginning" to "Final Interaction", are chosen. (Mouseover an icon on either side of the timeline and the paired images from both sides appear). An Introduction to each Theme is also available at the bottom of the page, providing curatorial notes and interactive pairings related to the essay.

Finally, choosing one of four Techniques (ranging from Impasto to Painting in Reserve) affects the timeline icons in the same manner as Themes, but compares the artists' methods rather than output. Definitions of each Technique open in a pop-in window upon request. (While only theme/technique appropriate icons are highlighted in the two timeline interfaces, all the icons are always active, so you might want to be careful with your aim.)

Movement between the three interfaces is so seamless that you might be taken by surprise the first time the site jumps from one to the other. For example, clicking on a thumbnail in the Timeline sections will automatically take you to the matching full-screen, Paired Paintings. But even if you find yourself there accidentally, you can move directly back to the same Timeline set either from the bottom of the page or the navigational bar along the top.

While Paired Paintings might seem the most logical place to begin exploring the exhibition, if you're interested in doing more than just looking at some pictures, you might be better off starting with the Introductions in the Themes section. Here you can learn about the evolving relationship between the two friends and their place in the artistic community, and get specifics about techniques and why certain pairings were chosen. After reading the paragraph or two of background information, clicking on an image will take you to that Paired Paintings set - where you can examine what you've learned in greater detail.

The layout of the presentation is clean and spartan, with Navigation tools that appear and disappear as the mouse pointer moves over the appropriate spaces. The Flash-powered interactivity does slow things down though, and the Splash Page's warning about file sizes would appear to have more to do with the animations than the images themselves.

Whether you're interested in 'ranking' the two greats on the basis of these works, learning how artists can use the same methods to different ends, tracking the evolution of artistic styles, or simply comparing each pair of paintings independent of context or the rest of the collection, Pioneering Modern Painting can accommodate your wishes. And in the best traditions of 'edutainment,' you might end up learning something without even trying.

Pioneering Modern Painting: Cezanne and Pissarro 1865-1885 can be found at http://www.moma.org/exhibitions/2005/cezannepissarro/index.html.

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