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Paul Cezanne: Mentors, Momentum, and the Modern Mentality

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Note: My birthday appreciation applies to Washington, DC, in only the broadest sense. The National Gallery is a repository of early and mid-career Cezanne’s, but that also might be said of its Degas collection, whose range and depth is, in truth, superior. Cezanne milestones are a kind of worldwide phenomenon. As such, they are as applicable to a DC audience as they might be anywhere Western painting is admired and celebrated.

Today is the birthday of Paul Cezanne, painter and reluctant revolutionary; father of modernism; and grumpy old man extraordinaire. He came of age in a provincial city, which he found suffocating, and retreated to a mountain pass from which he painted views and perspectives that rocked an art world that was not ready for him. And may not be today.

He was not a particularly bright student – the sort who doodled in the margins of his books and fell asleep as sums were being divided, quantified, and whatever else can be with them. His classmate, Emile Zola, was attracted to social issues and wrote movingly about the peasants that would crop up less in Cezanne’s paintings than they would in Millet’s. Both men – Millet and Zola, that is – were taken to task for socialist tendencies – and with some justice. Later in life, Zola would get himself into a lot of trouble with the military when he sided with a hapless lieutenant named Dreyfuss, who had not only been drummed out of its ranks, but put into prison. “J’Accuse!” – Zola’s challenge to cronyism and corruption – may well be the most famous utterance of the late-19th century. Yet as Zola danced about the podium, Cezanne was climbing the foothills of Aix-en-Provence with his paint-box and easel. He was happily absorbed in nature’s geometries, which constituted the backbone of every tree-trunk, rock-face, and clump of grass . He wanted to codify visual phenomena into the fundamental shapes and forms that characterize all living things: cubes, cones, cylinders, rectangles, and squares. He saw nature as a series of interlocking planes, which he did not wish to soften, as the Impressionist did, with swatches of natural light. Cezanne’s aesthetic was austerely personal and depended upon a strict and somewhat humorless observance, not of nature’s grandeur, but of its underlying principles. He famously pronounced that he wanted to re-do Poussin – a rather tall order for a painter who had skipped his history lessons and could care less about the conventions of classical realism. He constantly worried about whether his work would be timeless enough for “the museums” – the kinds of holy places for which artistic pilgrims must suit themselves as they stumble first and learn to stand as they go.

A tall order indeed.

His first painting was a parody of Manet, which he called, after Manet, A Modern Olympia. Whereas Manet’s picture is, on the surface, well-bred – though it was not regarded as such when it was hung at the Salon – Cezanne’s is as sketchy as an afterthought and revels in its anti-bourgeois sexuality, which is crudely voyeuristic. (Manet allows us to contemplate his siren as we would a still-life. Cezanne gives us an opportunity, along with his voyeur-in-chief, who contemplates his Olympia as a brothel-client, to experience the good lady as a potential conquest.) It is painted hurriedly – and not as a reputable artist would, but as an act of rebellion against prevailing standards and practices. Here is Cezanne firing his first shot across the bow: I’m not here, he tells us, to please anybody. No, not even myself!

Soon after he gets rebellion-for-rebellion’s-sake out of his system, Cezanne meets an older artist who is serenely committed to capturing momentary effects and fleeting sensations. This older artist is a good fellow who believes in the character-building qualities of art; who has struggled mightily, but it not yet embittered; whose family isn’t a yoke, but a support system that allows him to go, as a peasant would, into the fields, do a spot of honest labor, and come home to a steaming bouillabaise. His name is Camille Pissarro and no single artist will influence Cezanne more profoundly. Yet no other artist could have been more temperamentally different. Pissarro’s humanity is his strength; Cezanne’s could have used a bit of tweaking. Pissarro was gentle to a fault. Cezanne was gruff and bearish. Pissarro forgave readily. Cezanne internalized every criticism and let it burn away his sense of proportion. Whereas Pissarro was a man who painted; Cezanne was a painter who wasn’t, one senses, comfortable with his humanity. For him, art was the be-all and end-all of human activity. For Pissarro, it was absorbing so far as it went. But human nature – and his own in particular – which wanted to become that four-sided thing one wants to see in a painting, needs other influences to grow and thrive. No serious artist would deny that, in a painting, much is almost always at stake. But no human being would argue with the notion that there are other things besides art that make life worth living. Cezanne could not muster enough evidence in his own psyche to believe that and put all of his marbles, as it were, in art.

No artist was ever blessed with a kindlier tutor than Pissarro – and got more enduring results. Under the influence of Pissarro, Cezanne painted his best picture to date: The Hanged Man’s House. It is as four-sided a painting as Cezanne would ever do. And while nobody knows exactly what transpired when Cezanne chose the subject and, possibly with Pissarro looking on, created his first creditable image, we can see that significant progress has been made between this painting and A Modern Olympia. Its busy texture yet down-to-earth simplicity hearkens after Pissarro himself, but we can clearly discern master from pupil here. Whenever such a separation occurs, we are in the midst of a Historic Moment, with many others to come.

Cezanne’s clumsiness as a draughtsman was never a handicap – except to Cezanne himself. After leaving the fold, as represented by his mentor, Cezanne’s single-minded pursuit of an elemental landscape no museum would ever see while he lived was interrupted a physical decline that would lead, on occasion, to still life or the human figure. Cezanne’s genius was small, but it was genuine. Only Cezanne could produce still life paintings that were in perfect synch with his attempts at figuration. Mealy porcelain found its echo in the human face; a soiled tablecloth in a rumpled tunic; folded hands on the surface of a discolored apple.

Cezanne lives most fully in his landscapes, which are demonstrations of a strong will colliding with an intransigent vision. No man in history has ever been more sincere about his mission. *Yet few major-seeming artists have failed to the degree Cezanne has. Yet no matter what the result, Cezanne’s convictions about nature’s building blocks, as well as his war on museums, never faltered. For over thirty years Cezanne burst out of his tile-covered house, painted all day in the sun, and came back to ponder his cubes, his spheres, his rectangles, and his parallelograms. Cezanne’s gift to modern art, aside from its somewhat radical appearance, was his obsessive nature, which bohemians of his era and the years that preceded WWI, considered romantic. So what if people didn’t care about what he did? So what if the dichotomy between his work and public understanding was as wide as a continent? So what if he slaved away at his canvases in solitude – only to have them laughed at when they saw the light of day?

By the time he was an old man, Pissarro was given his due. He could afford, in his twilight years, to rent hotel rooms, which protected him from exposure – in this case, to nosy people as much as insects, wildlife, and a blistering sun. His paintings sold for the modest sums that pleased him. And he was a patriarch to reckon with. One of his sons became a painter and, when he, the old man, died, the prices for his work organically appreciated and kept his widow supplied with vegetables she could pull right out of the ground.

Cezanne, who painted into old age himself, became increasingly isolated – both by geography and by preference. His sense of being a colleague among colleagues – never his strong suit – had deteriorated over the years. His dedicated pursuit of essential premises had not been crowned with the success Monet was able, through perseverance and late-in-life activity, to attract. Zola appreciated Cezanne in spite of – perhaps even because of – his gruff nature and unyielding enthusiasm for painting above all things. It was Zola who attempted to ignite his friend’s humanity, though with indifferent success. For better or worse, Cezanne was far enough ahead of his time that the success that would have moderated his temper never came. Yet within ten years, Picasso proclaimed him The Founding Father of an art that was even more dangerously radical than his own. Its subject was no a bowl of fruit or a mountain, but Art itself. Though he would not live to see it, Cezanne was responsible for the wholesale implosion that occurred on the Rue Boetie and, with a speed and tenacity denied movements of the past, conquered most of Europe and spread to the United States, where its roots were shallower, but no less strong. Even more than Van Gogh, whose febrile energies startled and, very often, alienated potential customers, Cezanne’s work was more easily adapted to modernist principles, which were intellectual in origin and attempted, not to draw people in, but create a distance between object and viewer. For this rather esoteric conquest, Van Gogh’s work was as inappropriate as a temper tantrum. It was Cezanne’s more structure-oriented approach that had seduced Picasso and made him a world figure. Van Gogh’s personality could not be replicated – but Cezanne’s coolly graduated color-shifts could. In Picasso’s hands, they turned theatre programs and other ephemera inside-out. They added surface tension to his wandering players. And they provided a soft exclamation point to a century that was more politically than artistically tumultuous. Yet, when Picasso figured out the mechanics of modernism, only WWI could have a more devastating effect on traditions that had lasted for centuries. It was Picasso’s re-figuring of Cezanne that started everything we equate with an iconoclasm that that dedicated to destroying the past while erecting its own hard-surfaced structures – which have stood more or less ever since.

To my mind, Cezanne is a transitional figure who helped propel something that had been in the air for some time, but could not emerge until he was gone. Yet without him, art history as we know it would be unthinkable. Or perhaps just a little less oriented to the intellectual than the spiritual; not as hungry for The Next Big Thing; and most certainly not as emphatically individualistic.

*An appraisal that is not widely shared.

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