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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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: