The Magazine

Postmodern Cézanne

This is what happens when politics distorts art.

Dec 17, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 14 • By MAUREEN MULLARKEY
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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.