Five months before he died, Paul Cézanne attended the unveiling of a bust of Émile Zola, his old soulmate, at the Bibliothèque Méjanes in Aix. Numa Coste, friend to both, addressed the gathering. He reminded the attendees of Zola’s autumnal insistence that “one thinks one has revolutionized the world, and then one finds out, at the end of the road, that one has not revolutionized anything at all.” The elderly painter cried at the words.

John Rewald, preeminent authority on late-19th-century French painting, extended Zola’s regrets to Cézanne himself. Concern with revolution was irrelevant, Rewald wrote in his 1986 biography of the painter. What mattered was that Cézanne had succeeded in adding “a new link in the chain to the past.” Implicit in Rewald’s tribute was recognition that artists build upon antecedents. Great art is as much the harvest of what came before—angles off precedents, bends in common practice—as individual endowment.

It was the concession of a scholar of the old school, for whom the discipline of history preceded the poetics of art appreciation. By contrast, Alex Danchev, self-described “unorthodox Professor of International Relations,” is a jack-of-all-disciplines writing under the dispensations of the cultural studies movement. Traditional history, from Danchev’s perspective, is a gray, unsmiling thing with the smell of the stacks about it; cultural studies, conversely, is blithe and nimble. In a 2009 essay on the presumed intersection of art and politics, Danchev illustrated the difference:

Cézanne is supposed to have said of Poussin that he put reason in the grass and tears in the sky. Reason and tears may be as good an encapsulation of International Relations as any.

Even metaphors obey some kind of logic. This one signals wide interpretive latitude: “Reason and tears” is a gnostic generality for rent; it can be leased to any purpose.

At the nerve center of Cézanne: A Life is a grand pronouncement: Cézanne is “a life-changer,” the sine qua non of modernism. We moderns are the fruit of his prismatic dreams. In character and works, Cézanne is the third person in the trinity of disruptive shapers of the modern world and the modern mind:

His way of seeing radically refashioned our sense of things and our relationship to them. .  .  . The revelations of Cézanne are akin to those of Marx or Freud. The transformational potential is as great. The impact on ourselves and our world is far-reaching.

Audacity is in the air these days. Even so, we might expect a claim this gaudy to submit to customary standards of evidence. Instead, it outfits itself with a battery of literary conceits, belletristic curtsies, and subjective impressions posing as hard fact. No encomium is too hyperbolic, self-serving, or incoherent not to be taken at face value. Biography is simply the carrier for Danchev’s true concern: the aestheticization of politics. Call it politics by another name. Again, from his 2009 essay:

If the way artists see and shape the world is intensely political, this has profound significance for those of us in a field that tries to make sense of the characteristics of that world and to intervene in it [emphasis added]. .  .  . Thinker-poets, thinker-painters .  .  . may help us glimpse unseen possibilities for thinker-politics—and actor-politics.

Our biographer sees himself as an activist: “For us, there must be politics in our observations.” Accordingly, his Cézanne is an artifact of ideology.

The tilt is conspicuous at the start. Danchev prefaces his Life with aggressive disdain for Bouguereau—the man as well as his art. He mocks the reigning academician as one who “did voluptuary by numbers.” Discount his having pioneered the admission of women to the French academies. Dismiss the proximity of Matisse’s later advice for training artists to Bouguereau’s own. Boot the dodo to the attic!

Abandoning scholarly obligation to periods of taste different from his own, Danchev declares allegiance to the dashing Young Turks against the old duffers. It is a telling kickoff. What follows is a stylish—so seductive, the animated prose—oddly nostalgic replay of that aging trope: Ni Dieu, ni maître. Among academics of a certain age, it always was, and forever shall be, 1968.

Cézanne: A Life offers an anecdotal comb-through of the canonical sources: Rewald, Theodore Reff, Joachim Gasquet, the painter’s own correspondence, the recollections of his son Paul, dealer Ambroise Vollard, Pissarro, Émile Bernard, and Matisse, among others. Add to that the wealth of cultivated, self-conscious uses to which Cézanne is put by littérateurs exercising their craft and artists establishing their place-by-association on the art historical timeline. The voluminous record is cherry-picked to amplify the painter into a Nietzschean figure whose works have “colonized our consciousness,” and on whom modernity turns.

The story opens with an engaging reprise of Zola’s accounts of his schoolboy years with the eager, poetically inclined artist-in-waiting. Initially explored by Rewald’s Cézanne et Zola (1936), the friendship remains an instructive window into Cézanne’s early apprenticeship in the idioms of self-romance and its obligatory texts: Baudelaire, Victor Hugo, Balzac, Hippolyte Taine (for his vision of what an artist should be), and—crucially—Delacroix’s journals.

A carefully educated banker’s son, Paul Cézanne was financially secure from his early twenties. A modest allowance freed him to paint without the distractions of earning a living. Practical cares were met by “what I’ve been able to get out of my father.” The elder Cézanne seems to have been a decent benefactor despite disappointment in a son he considered un-employed. During the Franco-Prussian War, Louis-Auguste Cézanne purchased a substitute conscript for his son. (Danchev mentions only “draft-dodging,” a term that evokes Vietnam-era deferments rather than the cold luxury of a cash-poor proxy.) Papa also left Paul an ample inheritance that enabled the painter to have a coachman drive him to his Provençal motifs.

Yes, he was 35 before he sold a painting outside a circle of friends and sympathizers. And yes, he felt the smart of serial rejections from the official Paris Salon. Material and critical success eluded Cézanne for many years. Nevertheless, Danchev admits, he ate well. And he lived as he chose. On the balance sheet of human suffering, his entry was slim. Burnished by schooling, buttressed by connections and dividends on which to depend, Cézanne was hardly a man who “lived on the margins, beyond the pale.” However much he assumed the role of solitary bohemian, he did so by the grace of bourgeois annuities.

Danchev glides on to Cézanne’s afterlife in cultural memory. Steeped in what Walter Sickert dubbed “the cult of Cézanne” some 90 years ago, the narrative widens into a Whitmanesque series of begats through the 19th and into the 20th century. In the courage of present times and all times, Cézanne was the man—he suffered, he was there. (“For Kitaj, Cézanne was the Man.”) He rescued the drifting company, from Allen Ginsberg to Pierre Boulez, Hemingway to Heidegger, Rainer Maria Rilke to Jacques Derrida, Adorno, Beckett, and Merleau-Ponty. Jasper Johns, too—on down to names you might have missed. Danchev, still doing Whitman, even says of Cézanne: “He contains multitudes.”

A daze of documentation blunts attention to the superficiality of the central claim. Marx and Freud were momentous secularizers: Their mythologies of redemption, in concert with Darwin’s positioning of man firmly in the animal kingdom, de-stabilized Western civilization’s Judeo-Christian axis. No artist approaches such consequence. As the age lost its taste for God, it developed a taste for Art instead. Cézanne was a beneficiary, never the agent, of that transfer.

The fragmentations of modernism, reflected in the arts, owe more to Flanders Fields than to any marks on a canvas. Paul Valéry put it best: World War I exposed our civilization as mortal. Distinctions between revelation on that scale and a method of painting will not dissolve in the warm bath of aesthetic sensibility. But in the eye of the professor, art is the universal solvent for turning the past into an endorsement of particular values in the present. He values the painter as a promoter of dissent from established norms. Danchev prizes what is said about Cézanne because the commentary locates reality in subjective responses.

Danchev’s Life gratifies the susceptibilities of the author’s own -generation, one that came of age enamored of the stock motif of radical breaks from the shackles of bourgeois convention. Cézanne skirted the bounds of the traditional proprieties. .  .  . He found the forms and trappings of civilization irksome.” That certifies him as the apotheosis of the artist as a type. He wore his hat as he pleased, indoors or out. He ate with his knife. All creeds and schools in abeyance:

Given his temperament, it was only to be expected that he was not a good impressionist, just as he was not a good Catholic. Denominations were not his style. Impressionism could not contain him; no movement could.

Later, the refrain repeats: “The One True Church (whatever it might be) could not contain him; followership was one of the many things he could never quite believe in.”

John Rewald cites 1891 as the year Cézanne, in his early fifties, embraced his natal tradition and became a devout Roman Catholic. Danchev denies it, yet submits no contradiction beyond the painter’s vague “All my compatriots are arseholes beside me.” Not much to go on, but it would never do to have us thinking of the great insurgent as a reactionary Catholic. Perhaps that explains the text’s reticence about the divide between Zola and Cézanne over the Dreyfus affair. (Zola’s defense of Dreyfus did not sit well with the painter, according to others.)

Quotations accumulate. Danchev’s approach resembles that of Sacred Spring, Robert Whalen’s 2007 study of the birth of modernism in fin-de-siècle Vienna. But while Whalen brought skepticism to a discussion of Wagner-mania, Danchev asks no questions of Cézanne cultists, makes no inquiries, offers no analysis, makes no distinction between rhetoric and substance or between fictional characters modeled on the painter and the man himself.

Clive Bell proclaimed Cézanne “the Columbus of a new continent of forms.” Danchev purrs: “Deep in his selfmost straits, Cézanne discovered a new world.” Picasso, slyly endorsing his own egoism, declared of Cézanne: “It is not what an artist does that counts, but what he is.” Danchev takes him at his word. Roger Fry genuflected like a communicant waiting to be aspersed at High Mass: “The smallest product of his hand arouses the impression of being a revelation of the highest importance.” Danchev leaves him on his knees.

Danchev accepts any flight of devotional writing in order to arrive at the predetermined conclusion that Cézanne (in the words of Peter Handke) is “the teacher of mankind in the here and now.” By the time David Sylvester croons that Cézanne’s work edifies with “a moral grandeur which we cannot find in ourselves,” we know we are out of art history and into Butler’s Lives of the Saints.

Painting is rendered invisible in the glow of so much effulgence. Cézanne represents no seismic break with the past. Far from being isolated, he was intricately tied to the prevailing artistic currents of the 19th century. The hackneyed assertion that Cézanne made us see differently is a pious fiction. We see as our species has always seen; so did Cézanne. His optic nerves worked the same as those of prehistoric draftsmen in Lascaux. Just as yours and mine do. What distinguishes Cézanne is what he did with what he saw—in tandem with what he knew about chromatic dances of color, one touch against another. His discernment was the gleaning of a long, luminous pedigree that stretches past his beloved Delacroix, back to the persistently inventive Constable.

It does not diminish the amplitude of Cézanne’s talent to say that his art would have remained unrecognizable if not for features inherited from predecessors and shared with contemporaries. Begin with Delacroix’s color theories, which developed from Constable’s experiment in juxtaposing unmixed spots of color, leaving them to blend in the eye. Enter Manet and Courbet, to whom Cézanne acknowledged his debt. Add Pissarro, whose painting Cézanne studied by copying. While each studied the other, both were indebted to Daubigny and the Barbizon School, who took their canvases outdoors to paint sur le motif. All gained from the example of Corot, who was schooled in nature and bent on harmonizing invention with truth-to-the-landscape. No chasm separates the forests of Fontainebleau from the pines above Château Noir. None.

Would modernism, as manifested in painting, have occurred without Cézanne? It was already in progress. A more honest question would ask: Could there have been a Cézanne without Courbet, Corot, or the inheritance of Delacroix? Without the varied innovations of that fluid fellowship, Impressionism? Not likely. In the end, what matters to us now is how long a culture’s fidelity to the past can survive flashy theorizing, fashionable improvisation, and mystification.

Maureen Mullarkey is a painter who writes about art and culture.

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