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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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.