“Cézanne Drawing,” at the Museum of Modern Art, is a mindblower of a show. More than 250 works on paper, among them dozens of watercolors, reveal Paul Cézanne at his most intimate and intrepid. Whatever he sees—a face, a candlestick, the way a building sits in the landscape—engages him as both fact and enigma. No artist has wrestled more profoundly with the question of how to transform the sights, apprehensions, and emotions that are our common experience into poetic truth. Cézanne, who was sixty-seven when he died in 1906, did more than any other painter of his time to define a modern spirit of critical exploration in the arts.
Visitors may initially find themselves overwhelmed by the range of work that covers the walls of six large rooms and spills over onto tables where dozens of two-sided sketchbook drawings invite close examination. A number of oil paintings, both major and minor, are also included. Some of the most casual pencil drawings are little more than finely shaped glimpses: the artist’s son’s sleeping head, a wash basin and a scent bottle, the torso of a classical statue. Other sheets—especially some of the largest still lifes, in which the brilliance of the watercolor suggests stained glass—are masterworks, adamantine but somehow informal.
Everywhere you see Cézanne’s extraordinary attentiveness. In a group of studies in the exhibition devoted to trees, he’s alert to the particular ways in which trunks line up, bend, crisscross, or are obscured by foliage. He’s a demon when it comes to making distinctions. In one watercolor from the first year or two of the new century, Cézanne is absorbed by the striking juxtaposition of two tree trunks, one straight and the other crooked. Their forms, which suggest different energies and maybe even different personalities, are further complicated by a third element, a stone cistern—a man-made interloper in a naturalistic pas de deux.
This exhibition is simultaneously sensuous and brainy—an austere, clearheaded visual orgy. It cannot have been easy to organize, given the number of public and private lenders involved. Whatever the challenges, Jodi Hauptman and Samantha Friedman, curators in the museum’s Department of Drawings and Prints, have made it possible for us to see Cézanne whole—as the complex and even ambiguous figure he was. At a time when American museums generally seem to regard an exhibition of a major Impressionist or Post-Impressionist painter as an opportunity to market a hot commodity to an increasingly fickle and distracted public, Hauptman and Friedman have refused to make Cézanne look or feel easy. They won’t turn him into a brand. “Cézanne Drawing” is a transcendent museumgoing experience.
Near the beginning of the exhibition catalog, Hauptman writes that Cézanne “produced his most radical work on paper.” She is not wrong to align “Cézanne Drawing” with a search for the new that many have viewed as the Museum of Modern Art’s mandate since its founding in 1929. But Cézanne, as he emerges in this exhibition, has no interest in the polemical gestures we tend to associate with artistic radicalism. I suspect that his antipathy to Gauguin—whose work he said lacked “modeling and modulation; it’s nonsense!”—came from his sense that the artist’s radical style wasn’t grounded in deep thought or feeling. Hauptman complicates what she sees as Cézanne’s radicalism when she cites his observation in a letter that “one does not replace the past, one only adds a new link.” “The conception of art history as an ever-growing chain,” she adds, is “a useful construct in thinking about Cézanne’s approach to drawing.”
It’s true that in some of Cézanne’s watercolors, especially toward the end of his life, he seems to want to represent not naturalistic space but space as an abstraction. He pushes us to experience space not in feet, yards, and miles, but as an idea or ideal of amplitude and expansiveness. At other times, especially in his many studies after Baroque and Rococo sculpture, he reaffirms traditional and even conservative conceptions of form-making. In much of Cézanne’s mature work, the multidimensional graphic attack, with pencil lines and watercolor strokes marshaled to create dramatically angled thrusts and counterthrusts, has a physicality that we associate with the Old Masters. His multiplying contours can recall the quivering, shivering figures in some of the drawings of Michelangelo’s final years. Cézanne’s famous ambition to “revive Poussin in the contact with nature” underscores his sense of the art of different times and places as existing in a timeless present. Speaking of his admiration for Courbet, Cézanne said he was as “great as Michelangelo,” and then added a reservation: “He lacks the elevation!”
“Radical”—and, for that matter, “conservative”—are words that suggest doctrine and polemic. There is nothing doctrinaire or polemical about Cézanne’s art. Much has been written about his methods, beginning with the painter’s own statements, recorded by artists and writers who visited him in Aix-en-Provence, the town in the South of France where he was born, worked for much of his life, and died. Naturally we cherish these aperçus. Nobody can ever forget Cézanne’s declaration that “everything in nature is modeled after the sphere, the cone, and the cylinder.” And when we read his assertion that “there is no line,” we can’t help wondering how he must have felt each time he put pencil to paper. I can’t think of another artist so determined to follow his own instincts. Any effort to define Cézanne’s working methods, let alone his theories, runs the risk of making him seem programmatic. The considerable variety of compositions, moods, and atmospheres that he’s able to summon suggests an absence of premeditation—a rejection of fixed plans or procedures. A series of drawings of an unmade bed, with their juxtapositions of pillow, comforter, headboard, and bedpost, are domestic vignettes, but realized with an improvisational analytical intensity that startles before it charms.
If Cézanne has a method, it’s grounded in a paradox. His attention involves a kind of double vision. There is his attention to his subject. And there is his attention to the touch of pencil or paint on paper or canvas. An imaginative adventure reconciles these two forms of attention. The painter Émile Bernard, who knew Cézanne in his last years, may have put it most succinctly. “This is his method of working,” he wrote in an article published two years before the artist’s death. “First complete submission to his model; carefully establishing his composition; studying the curves and relations of proportions.” But after that the process becomes intuitive. “The more the artist works,” Bernard continued, “the further his work distances itself from the objective.” There is both a “submission to nature by means of a meditative and progressive analysis” and a distancing “from the opacity of the model, which has served as point of departure.” This is a strenuous but open-ended process—an undogmatic dialectic.
More than any other major artist of the past two hundred years, Cézanne stands apart from the partisanship, dogmatism, and ideological turmoil that fueled the avant-garde in Europe and America and still shape artistic experience in our postmodern times. The debates about Classicism and Romanticism that consumed the admirers of Ingres and Delacroix in the mid-nineteenth century are alive today. Manet’s ambivalent and even at times irreverent attitude toward tradition remains a model for many artists. Monet’s transformation of seascapes, wheat fields, cathedral façades, and waterlilies into opalescent dreamworlds is somewhere in the deep background of Disneyland kitsch. Van Gogh’s struggles are all too easily misunderstood as contemporary psychodramas. And the eroticism of artists as different as Renoir, Picasso, and Matisse has always had the potential to stir controversy.
Cézanne has an outsize role in nearly every account of modern art. Writing seventy years ago, Clement Greenberg argued that the purification of pictorial experience in the work of his final years led straight into abstraction. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, in “Cézanne’s Doubt,” a brilliant essay published in 1945, reimagined this nineteenth-century painter as an existentialist hero. But however neatly Cézanne can be fit into the twentieth-century story, he also stands apart from the exigencies of history. That’s certainly how he appears this summer at MoMA. There’s tremendous urgency in his drawings and watercolors, but it’s not the urgency to make some particular point—to say something—that excites us in Van Gogh or Picasso. It’s closer to the urgency of art itself—a freestanding urgency.
How can we define that? In an essay entitled “Realism and Abstraction in Modern Art”—a theme anyone who looks at Cézanne will want to consider—the English critic Herbert Read quoted the German Romantic philosopher Friedrich Schelling, who said that “the secret of true poetry” is “to be drunk and sober not in different moments but at one and the same moment.” That’s the sensation I have when I’m looking at Cézanne’s greatest works at MoMA. Gustave Geffroy, the critic who was the subject of one of his most complex portraits, may have been echoing Schelling when he wrote that Cézanne “experiences an intoxication in the spectacle unfurled before him” and then transfers “this intoxication to the restricted space of his art.” Cézanne is drunk on sensation but always sober enough to pin it down.
In the work of his last quarter-century, Cézanne never lets us forget that content is shaping form and form is reimagining content. But it took him many years to achieve this extraordinary merger of subject matter and formal matters. He had begun in the 1860s as what one might call a subject-matter artist. The opening gallery in “Cézanne Drawing,” in addition to a number of self-portraits and drawings of the artist’s wife, features studies for compositions that include a rape, a murder, an orgy, a scene from the Aeneid, and a plan for an Apotheosis of Delacroix, the nineteenth-century painter Cézanne most admired. These drawings, many of them closely related to oil paintings, wear their hearts on their sleeves. They beg for narrative and allegorical interpretation. They are Cézanne’s perfervid salute to the storytelling tradition in Western art.
Subject matter—even allegorical subject matter—remained a central concern of Cézanne’s. At the end of his life he was working on three large compositions of female bathers, homages to an Arcadian tradition that wound back through Poussin and Titian to the poets and painters of the ancient world. What had changed over the years was Cézanne’s attitude toward subject matter. Ultimately, he wanted meaning to be dispersed, as a kind of energy alive in every part of the composition. He once remarked of nature, “One must not reproduce it, one must interpret it.” But how to interpret it? How to interpret a tree? Or a human figure? It was in the 1870s, under the influence of Pissarro, that Cézanne embarked on a close study of nature. Working directly from life certainly disciplined and chastened him; he began to look for meaning in particulars rather than generalities. But nature doesn’t explain itself.
Time and again, Cézanne’s search for meaning led him to the art of the past, especially Renaissance and Baroque sculpture. He was seeing what artists before him had made of nature. “Cézanne Drawing” includes an entire room devoted to studies of sculpture as well as a good many sketchbook pages. Those who think of Cézanne as a master of austerities may be surprised to see how enthusiastically he responded to the dramatic and even hyperbolic poses devised by Michelangelo in the sixteenth century, Puget in the seventeenth, and Pigalle in the eighteenth. What interested Cézanne in the serpentine lines of Michelangelo’s Slave? A wall label at MoMA may lead museumgoers to imagine that what he saw was “the vision of nature.” But what these earlier works actually gave him was an interpretation of nature. As Cézanne drew and even painted these sculptures of Hercules, Mercury, and Cupid, he grasped how artists of earlier times had used angles, arcs, spirals, and other twisting configurations to convey an impacted narrative of energies, urges, and aspirations—a formalization of feeling, if you will.
Among the remarkable works in “Cézanne Drawing” are four portraits—three watercolors and an oil painting—of Cézanne’s gardener Vallier, completed in the last years of the artist’s life. The gardener is a contained presence, with strong shoulders, folded hands, his right leg resting on his left, and his face somewhat obscured by his hat. He is worlds away from the sculptures of muscular heroes that Cézanne had often studied. But I think the power of these portraits of Vallier—the sense of the physical and physiognomic as psychological, as even telling a story—owes a great deal to Cézanne’s studies of older art. In one watercolor Vallier’s massive arm has a Herculean power—a modest, workingman’s Herculean power. For Cézanne, formal values—the organization of forms on the paper or the canvas, the selection of what to represent and how to represent it—are also narrative and psychological values.
There is a telling passage in the essay “Cézanne” that Clement Greenberg published in 1951. However much Greenberg’s reputation may have faded in the past thirty years, no one has ever argued more passionately for formal values as abstract values. Writing about Cézanne’s later work, he observed:
Once “human interest” had been excluded, every visual sensation produced by the subject became equally important. Both the picture as picture, and space as space, became tighter and tauter.
I’m fascinated by the quotation marks that he put around “human interest.” He may have been trying to dismiss, with a sort of colloquial shrug, what he saw as the messy emotions that museumgoers were all too willing to associate with Cézanne.
Greenberg was cozying up to his readers when he suggested that they were of course too sophisticated to be pulled in by the sort of kitsch that “human interest” suggested. He knew that in order to arrive at “the picture as picture” and “space as space” he had to make a bit of a mockery of the emotional impact of a group of bathers, a beautiful Provençal vista, a sweet or noble face, or a display of apples or oranges on a table. Surely he was also aware that he was oversimplifying. He knew that Cézanne was capable of making anything interesting. That may not be human interest in the mass-marketing sense, but if the interest isn’t human, then what exactly is it? “Human interest” was the stumbling block that Greenberg believed he had to clear away. Once the job was done, he could proceed to explain that in Cézanne’s work
every brushstroke that followed a fictive plane into fictive depth harked back—by reason of its abiding, unequivocal character as a mark made by a brush—to the physical fact of the medium; and the shape and placing of that mark recalled the shape and position of the flat rectangle which was being covered with pigment.
I don’t think that Greenberg was wrong to emphasize the deliberateness—the abstractness—of Cézanne’s paint-handling. Museumgoers will certainly feel that in the watercolors in “Cézanne Drawing.” But for Cézanne abstraction is a way of reclaiming nature—and meaning. The process of shaping and placing each mark continually refreshes and clarifies the emotional tenor of the work. Cézanne is asking himself how exactly he feels about this rock, this cloud, this apple. There is something craftsmanlike in the deliberateness of his stroke, a tempering and disciplining of feeling. At MoMA I was held by a watercolor of flowerpots on a garden wall. In the hands of most artists this would be a beguiling anecdote. But under the pressure of Cézanne’s eye the composition becomes an essay on the confrontation of nature and culture. He renders the shapes of the ordinary ceramic pots with an exactitude to which the airily evoked garden foliage responds with winking playfulness.
“Cézanne Drawing” arrives at a time of dramatic transformations in the way the visual arts are appreciated and discussed. I think this gives the exhibition a particular importance. In the past few years there has been an ever-growing focus in museums and galleries on the centrality of subject matter. Contemporary portraiture, narrative painting, and works that grapple with newsworthy issues and conflicts have been receiving the lion’s share of critical attention. At the same time there has been a general diminishment of interest in the kinds of formal and structural concerns that fifty or sixty years ago sometimes seemed to be all that artists and critics wanted to talk about.
There is no need to feel nostalgic for the third quarter of the twentieth century, when Greenberg, although by no means a universally accepted voice, was celebrating the paintings of Barnett Newman, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, and others who embodied his vision of “the picture as picture” and “space as space.” Much weak work was created and promoted in the name of Greenberg’s high ideals. But formalism, whatever its excesses, doesn’t make antiformalism any more palatable. Today more and more curators, critics, and museumgoers want to focus on subject matter first—the more human interest the better—and may be willing to regard formal matters as a sort of clean-up action. There is a feeling that if the subject is heartfelt, everything else will take care of itself.
In these circumstances, Cézanne’s work has the force of a call to arms. His drawings and watercolors push us to make a distinction between description and what I would call inscription. He shatters the particulars of a mountain, a tree, an apple, and in doing so creates not a loss of concreteness but a dispersal and reimagining of the bare facts. Each mark, however tentative, becomes definitive—as definitive as words inscribed in stone. As he contrasts the skyward thrust of the Cathedral of Aix with the horizontals of the surrounding landscape, he’s celebrating the relationship between city and country and between our architecture and nature’s architecture. In his watercolors of Mont Sainte-Victoire the mountain is a sacred precinct that the artist returns to again and again, as if he were telling and retelling some ancient myth, each time a little differently. Cézanne’s arrangements of fruit, bottles, and pitchers confound the poetry of the everyday. Here domestic objects are beatified—emblazoned on the page. The finite and the infinite meet.