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Godfather of the Modern?

Cézanne and Beyond

an exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, February 26–May 17, 2009
Catalog of the exhibition by Joseph J. Rishel, Katherine Sachs, and fifteen others.
Philadelphia Museum of Art/Yale University Press, 585 pp., $65.00

Cézanne und die Moderne

an exhibition at the Fondation Beyeler, Riehen bei Basel, Switzerland, October 10, 1999–January 9, 2000
Catalog of the exhibition by Gottfried Boehm.
Hatje Cantz, 137 pp. (2002)

Cézanne and the Dawn of Modern Art

an exhibition at the Museum Folkwang, Essen, Germany, September 18, 2004–January 16, 2005
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Felix A. Baumann, Walter Feilchenfeldt, and Hubertus Gassner, with essays by Fred Leeman, Pepe Karmel, and Peter Kropmanns.
Museum Folkwang/Hatje Cantz, 240 pp. (2004)
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Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Paul Cézanne: Madame Cézanne in Blue, 1888-1890

Paul Cézanne’s art is a vein of gold that’s been constantly mined but never exhausted. Since the early twentieth century, successive generations of artists have extracted nuggets and reflections from it. Cézanne was not well known until the late 1890s when he was “discovered” by young artists who were rebelling against Impressionism. In the years just before and after his death in 1906, he gained widespread prominence with numerous exhibitions of his work, often organized by the young Parisian avant-garde. Seurat, Van Gogh, and Gauguin were also celebrated by the same artists, but as the decades passed, Cézanne displaced them as the dominant godfather of modernist art. The other three have always been admired, but except for a Seurat boomlet in the early 1920s, their heritage has been widely dispersed.

What has prevailed is the influential view of the Museum of Modern Art’s William Rubin, who wrote that Cézanne was all but a Cubist.1 Because Cézanne’s paintings depended upon his own original translations of nature’s colors, the Cubists (and Rubin) were able to take from him what they wished: monochromatic geometric structures. At the same time, contemporary Fauvists like Matisse also claimed Cézanne’s blessings, not for geometric and hermetic structures but for exuberant decorative and “primitive” forms and colors.

This spring’s exhibition in Philadelphia, “Cézanne and Beyond,” was the latest and most ambitious recapitulation of the master’s patrimony (the show will not travel). At six pounds and 585 pages, its luxurious catalog could not be used in the exhibition; like many museum publications, it was designed to preserve the authors’ critical findings. Both exhibition and catalog were team efforts. Joseph J. Rishel, senior curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, was the guiding spirit, with assistance from the museum’s other curators and its late director, Anne d’Harnoncourt, to whom the catalog is dedicated. Fifty-nine paintings and watercolors by Cézanne anchor the show, followed by 109 works beginning with Matisse, Braque, and Picasso, and leading to Ellsworth Kelly, Jasper Johns, and Brice Marden.

Rishel not only generously invited fifteen colleagues to write essays on the individual artists but also solicited their advice on the works to be shown so as “to demonstrate their observations.” How fortunate were Rishel’s authors! Art historians customarily use reproductions to compare artists, but here they were able to have the originals of their comparisons levitated onto the walls of the Philadelphia Museum. Moreover, Rishel and his colleagues consulted several artists about the show, including Kelly, Marden, and Johns (who lent a Cézanne).

As a consequence of these collaborations, “Cézanne and Beyond” embodied one of the reigning versions of the history of modern art. Two earlier exhibitions had similar, if less copious alignments. Ten years ago in Basel the Fondation Beyeler presented “Cézanne und die Moderne” with fifty-two Cézannes, twenty works by seven artists in the Philadelphia show (Matisse, Braque, Picasso, Léger, Mondrian, Gia- cometti, and Kelly), and one painting each by Klee, Rothko, and de Kooning. Its slender catalog has one essay, a brief historical summary by Gottfried Boehm.

Another exhibition, with a more ambitious catalog, was mounted by the Folkwang Museum in Essen in 2004–2005. “Cézanne and the Dawn of Modern Art” had forty-five Cézannes and seventy works by other artists: Bonnard, Matisse, Picasso, Braque, Derain, Vlaminck, and Léger. This concentration allowed a more comprehensive look than Philadelphia’s at the first generation under Cézanne’s spell, but did not go beyond 1918. Catalog essays on Cubism by Pepe Karmel and on Fauvism by Peter Kropmanns traced Cézanne’s impact, but Fred Leeman’s overview offered more because he sharply distinguished Cézanne from his early disciples and from modernists generally. Leeman showed their lack of concern for Cézanne’s obsessions with his own “apperception” of nature’s colors and for his search for tangible depth rather than for abstraction or flat surfaces. The catalog’s excellent chronology charts for each year the salient elements of cultural, political, and social history, all omitted from Philadelphia’s timeline, which is restricted to art and artists.

By giving important representation to Derain (fourteen paintings), the Essen exhibition calls attention to Phila- delphia’s exclusions. In their introduction, Rishel and Sachs mention artists whom they didn’t include: Derain, because he failed to grow; Bonnard, much desired but unavailable (“our trains missed”); Juan Gris, Kazimir Malevich, and Diego Rivera because their mature art no longed needed Cézanne’s example. Of course vast numbers of artists have claimed Cézanne’s parentage, but Rishel and Sachs frankly state that their selection “deviates little from canonical modernist wisdom.” From this vantage point they left out Cézanne’s early paintings of Romantic fervor, including sexual violence, whose subjects and thick impasto didn’t appeal to modernists, although younger art historians now find these paintings especially interesting.2 Those early works were also omitted from the Beyeler and Folkwang exhibitions, a demonstration of the global reach of the canonical view of Cézanne.

As gestures to recent art and internationalism, the Philadelphia show included four artists born after 1945. Only one, the Canadian Jeff Wall, with three photographic transparencies, is fully discussed in the catalog, in an essay by Jean-François Chevrier. The American Sherrie Levine and the Belgians Luc Tuymans and Francis Alÿs are represented by one work each. The connections of all four with Cézanne are not profound and they could have been omitted without loss.

For the modernist enterprise, “Cézanne and Beyond” gave Europeans and Americans equal space. As expected, Matisse and Picasso loom very large, with eleven and fourteen works respectively. Given four to six works each are Braque and Léger (French), Mondrian (Dutch), Giacometti (Swiss), Beckmann (German), and Morandi (Italian); Liubov Popova represents Russian Constructivism with only one painting. Works by Americans are abundant, led by Kelly with thirteen and Johns with twelve. Charles Demuth has ten watercolors, and Marsden Hartley, Gorky, and Marden have five or six works each. Demuth and Hartley enjoy a lesser international reputation than the others, but Philadelphia has reason to feature American modernism without undue chauvinism.

In the handsome installation of the exhibition, visitors were treated to the show’s premise that modernism’s flat surfaces and geometry should be traced to Cézanne. An extreme example was provided by Sachs, who put Ellsworth Kelly’s untitled bronze relief alongside Cézanne’s Pont de Maincy because it shares the shape of the latter’s under-bridge arch and its watery reflection. This reduces Cézanne’s complex picture to mere flat pattern. Sachs nonetheless reproduces a photograph by Kelly of the Pont Marie in Paris, whose arch was actually the inspiration for his studies leading to the bronze.

Whereas the catalog treats each artist individually, with few comparisons among them, the installation featured groups of works that instantly preached the modernist gospel. One or two Cézannes were placed next to several later paintings with which they shared compositional features. On one wall, the master’s Bibémus Quarry was shown along with paintings by Picasso, Matisse, and Popova that displayed sharply edged geometric planes. An adjacent wall held works by Braque and Gorky whose jumbled planes look back to Cézanne’s Houses in Provence hanging alongside. Other juxtapositions displayed similar kinds of subject matter as well as the echoing geometry, such as a table with prominent drawers that loom forward (Cézanne, Braque, Giacometti, Johns).

Although geometric abstraction dom- inates the exhibition’s narrative, another Cézanne story was told in the museum’s most dazzling ensemble. It was in a rotunda dominated by two of Cézanne’s three late canvases of female bathers, which flanked a smaller one of seminude male bathers. Circling around them were paintings and sculptures that were either close or distant echoes: several each by Matisse, Picasso, and Johns, and a large Marden. Alongside Johns’s Fall, lent by the artist, was an inspirational Cézanne also lent by Johns, and near the Matisse was a Cézanne he once owned. In recent years, Cézanne’s lumbering females, nearly grotesque by conventional standards, have attracted writers on the artist’s biography, psychology, and sexuality. Many of these specialists came to the museum on April 27 for a day-long symposium on the bathers; it adjourned to the nearby Barnes Foundation to study the third of the huge late paintings of nudes.

All the exhibition’s walls and most of the catalog’s essays run the risk of making viewers and readers think that Cézanne shared the concerns of modernists. Analyses based mostly on aspects of formal structure are seductive, but they deny Cézanne’s range and depth. In statements made toward the end of his life to young interviewers, he said that he formed his paintings by interpreting natural color-light with his pigments. Like Monet and Renoir—he was their elder by two years—he abandoned variations in light and dark, that is, traditional chiaroscuro, and replaced them with subtle shifts and juxtapositions of color in separate strokes. He did not believe in neutral perception, but instead worked from “apperception,” in which his emotions (tempérament) and his experience organized what he was looking at. In doing so, he ignored the conventions of verisimilitude and painted “distortions” that have been central to his appeal.

Many of the monographic essays in the catalog have the historical myopia of modernism. Some authors lack the critical distance that could have expanded their reach. Several are unabashed spokespersons for their artists and limit themselves to the formal aspects that link them with Cézanne (Katherine Sachs on Kelly and Marden, Roberta Bernstein on Johns, Jean-François Chevrier on Jeff Walls). True, they were asked to focus on one artist and Cézanne, but too often they ignore other artists whose work cries out at least for mention. Three flat horizontal rectangles constitute Kelly’s Train Landscape, and Marden’s Grove Group V has the same structure. These have a lot more to do with the practice of post-1945 painters than with Cézanne, but this isn’t noted. There’s no mention either of the very similar three horizontal rectangles that form the background of Matisse’s Bathers with a Turtle in the next room.

Other essays in the catalog have greater critical distance (Christopher Green on Léger, Annabelle Kienle on Beckmann, Rishel on Hartley, Michael Taylor on Gorky) but, even so, the connections with Cézanne take on an exclusivity that overlooks other, often more primary relationships. Léger’s Mechanic recalls the Douanier Rousseau and Assyrian sculpture more than Cézanne; Gorky’s postwar paintings have evident debts to early Kandinsky and to André Masson’s Surrealism; Marden’s Red Rocks (1) is far closer to the serpentine bands of Stanley William Hayter’s paintings of the 1960s than to Cézanne’s Bathers. The mere mention of such relationships would open windows into a less circumscribed historical landscape.

Four of the catalog’s essays stand out because they penetrate more deeply and broadly: John Elderfield on Picasso, John Golding on Braque, Jennie Hirsh on Morandi, and Richard Shiff on Cézanne. Elderfield returns to familiar Picasso territory and adds new thoughts, implicitly disagreeing with Rubin’s formulation. He writes that

experience of Picasso’s paintings, as well as the evidence of his few statements on Cézanne, argues very strongly that his understanding and admiration of his “one and only master” is a complex matter, not to be reduced to simple statements of influence as stylistic resemblance.

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Barnes Foundation, Merion, Pennsylvania
Paul Cézanne: Large Bathers, 1895-1906

Elderfield revivifies a number of Picasso’s paintings by looking intently at them. Picasso’s Self-Portrait of 1906 is often likened to Cézanne’s of 1885–1887 but

if the comparison holds, it is for more affective than pictorial reasons; Picasso pastes his own archaically Iberianized mask of a head onto a roughly troweled, flat body and a background reminiscent of the sort of expressionistic painting he was doing back in 1901…and far from exhibiting a classical plenitude of form associable with Cézanne, its surface is as unyielding as a cement wall.

To the ultra-famous Demoiselles d’Avignon he brings nuance:

Picasso’s Demoiselles, we may safely say, thus required the example of Cézanne’s Bathers without being a particularly Cézannist work. Indeed, one of the few parts of it that explicitly recalls Cézanne is, curiously, the area of Picasso’s most brazenly extreme makeover of the faces, in the Africanized figures at the right, which read almost as a parody of Cézanne’s parallel hatched brushstrokes, fast becoming the uniform of the growing brigade of Cézannists in the Paris art world. Simultaneously, Picasso holds the influence of Cézanne at the distance of impersonation, and…makes the contemporaneous works of Braque, Derain, and the other Cézannists seem cautious to the point of timidity.

In further distinction from most of his coauthors, Elderfield characterizes the parallels and contrasts of his two artists’ public and private lives.

John Golding treats Braque from a similarly generous historical view. He grants Cézanne a big role in Braque’s art, but doesn’t overstate it. He compares Braque’s monumental still lifes of the 1930s, which he particularly admires, with Cézanne’s late work without insisting upon the “influence” of the older artist. (He could have said more about the contrast of Braque’s sandy grit and opaque pigments with Cézanne’s liquid surfaces.) Currents of formal structure between the two are acknowledged, but Golding demonstrates that these are not the only ways to consider them. Braque’s concerns about different levels of reality, he writes,

would have been foreign to Cézanne, whose work embodied his personal philosophy of life but was bound up with his increasingly intense concentration on the immediacy of his physical surroundings —and, in the bathers, their transposition into idyllic metaphors for them.

Jennie Hirsh, writing on Morandi, likewise expects her reader to be interested in issues beyond formal comparisons. Despite Morandi’s aestheticism and apparent lack of concern for contemporary subjects—his tremulous still lifes show sympathies with Cézanne’s late work—he was closely involved with Ardengo Soffici’s toscanità, the nativist blending of some features of Cézanne’s art with Giotto and early Italian art. Hirsh does not shove politics under the formalist rug. She analyzes Morandi’s alliance with fascism, and how it was involved with his lessons from Cézanne. By the late 1930s, although a party member, he was attacked from the fascist right as insufficiently attuned to the proper iconography. Others defended him by adopting the formalist point of view that triumphed after World War II and effectively created the still dominant myth of the artist as far removed from political engagement.

Richard Shiff’s essay “Lucky Cézanne (Cézanne Tychique),” despite its precious title, is the catalog’s star turn. Shiff had already published a major monograph on Cézanne in 1984,3 and half a dozen articles on him since then, as well as many essays on recent art and theory. Here he devotes himself to the diverse meanings of Cézanne’s brushstrokes, his painted marks. They are not the same as Monet’s although each interpreted nature with broken tones of color-light. The separateness of Monet’s marks is diminished by the way they change shape and direction with each imagined object; they are subordinated to the illusion. Cézanne’s strokes can seem autonomous. They shift across the surface in patches of parallel touches of paint of different slanting angles that can evoke trees, humans, or sky despite their similar textures. These marks respond not just to nature but also to other marks on Cézanne’s canvases; they establish what Shiff calls “local rhythms.” In places these rhythmic weavings take on a life of their own, defying conventional placement of objects. In Madame Cézanne in Blue (see illustration on page 21),

to inspect the painting mark by mark (the way it came into being) is to see numerous Cézannian motifs emerge—continuities and analogies of form involving adjacent parts of the image. In the portrait, segmented strokes that define the wooden sideboard turn a gentle corner, change color, and become the shoulder of the figure’s dress; elements of the collar connect to a lozenge from the wallpaper. Such effects are to be expected in compositional painting but not to the degree that they confuse the spatial illusion, as they do here. We imagine Cézanne concentrating on the painted surface to such an extent that he could not resist moving with its movement once the basic image had established a few points of compositional reference. He would then follow the rhythmic flow to right or to left…in the direction that living sensation seemed already to be going.

Shiff writes beautifully of how the artist’s brushstrokes embodied feelings of the particular moment; they were an empirical procedure and not a calculated method. In interviews Cézanne gave to young artist-critics toward the end of his life, he complained that “abstractions” resulted from his inability to complete his paintings. He presumably meant the discontinuities or blank spaces that resulted as he sought to record his sensation by concentrated vision alone, unaided by a preestablished mental image or composition.

To deal with Cézanne’s refusal to use traditional ways of painting and his reliance instead on particular moments of vision, Shiff invokes “tychism,” a neologism coined by the philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce in 1892. He also uses the associated neologism “tychic,” his English rendering of Jacques Lacan’s tychique of 1964, to refer to Cézanne’s use of separate marks to encode his sensations. Tyche is the Greek goddess of fortune or chance (Fortuna, for Romans). Shiff emphasizes Peirce’s distinction of spontaneity in human life from regularity and resultant habit. Regularity can be likened to the well-defined practice of traditional painting, and spontaneity to Cézanne’s willingness to accede to chance encounters with vision and feeling. By exploiting the spontaneity of particular moments of seeing, he overturned traditional habits and in doing so established himself as the progenitor of doubt and the innovations that underlay modernism. Tyche smiled on him because he came along at the right time, when younger artists were deserting early Impressionism. His awkwardness was seen, positively, as primitivism: that powerful current at the turn of the twentieth century that encompassed Van Gogh, Gauguin, and African art.

Shiff is himself a modernist critic, and endorses many of the findings of his fellow authors, but when he discusses the exhibition’s artists, he maintains his focus on the complex meanings of Cézanne’s marks and doesn’t reduce the artist’s work to lessons in abstraction, which limits most of his fellow contributors’ essays. When comparing him to later artists, he doesn’t lose sight of the specific qualities of the older artist’s work. Picasso’s hatched marks, he points out, although derived from Cézanne, are arbitrary elements of structure, not the older painter’s “unprocessed vision and touch.” He acknowledges Marden’s debts to Cézanne, but instead of claiming close associations, he writes that Marden’s Grove Group paintings “derive in part from [his] musings over Cézanne, but probably more from the artist’s direct experiences of nature and of the intensely tactile exercise of his own drawing.” He introduces Donald Judd (not in the exhibition) in order to show that Judd’s minimalist geometry is utterly opposed to Cézanne’s complex visual sensations.

Although Shiff stands apart from his fellow critics—he was asked to treat Cézanne and his legacy broadly, whereas they focused on one artist—he is also a modernist intent upon tracing the evolution of the formal elements of painting and how they can be enriched by considerations of phenomenology. He writes movingly of Cézanne’s brushwork (more than earlier or current writers he lets us feel the artist at work) but he is like other modernists who react to Cézanne’s surfaces more than to his illusions of depth and space inhabited by natural forms.

Taken together, Philadelphia’s resplendent exhibition and its fascinating catalog are a monument to the still powerful formulation of Clement Greenberg: vanguard modern art deals with the canvas’s two-dimensionality; in doing so it celebrates the painted surface first, and only subsequently considers the “picture.” Either half of this rich exhibition could have stood on its own. Cézanne’s paintings were a summa of his work that deserves a cum laude, and the array of modernist works was equally impressive. However, Cézanne was not left alone. His gold was extracted, but put into new settings. Currents flow back and forth, and so he seems to share conceptions and practice with the younger artists. The visitors to “Cézanne and Beyond” and the readers of its catalog may be convinced that the master of Aix is no longer a nineteenth-century painter.

  1. 1

    Rubin wrote about Cézanne “that the difference in method between him and the Cubists was as much one of degree as of kind.” See “Cézannisme and the Beginnings of Cubism,” in Cézanne: The Late Work (Museum of Modern Art, 1977), p. 165.

  2. 2

    For example, André Dombrowski, “Modernism and Extremism: The Early Works of Paul Cézanne,” Berkeley Ph.D. dissertation, 2006.

  3. 3

    Cézanne and the End of Impressionism: A Study of the Theory, Technique, and Critical Evaluation of Modern Art (University of Chicago Press, 1984). Personal disclosure: I was Shiff’s dissertation adviser thirty-six years ago, but no one would confuse his approach to art history with mine.

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