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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. New shows: "events;" how to support the online edition: "works."



Paul Cézanne. Rocks Near the Château Noir (Rochers près des grottes au-dessus de Château Noir). 1895-1900. Watercolor on paper. 18 3/16 × 11 15/16″ (46.2 × 30.3 cm). Private collection


The extraordinarily great artist, Paul Cézanne (1839-1905), was somewhat odd in person.   The story goes that he yelled if somebody so much as brushed against him in the street.  He seems to have used drawing in black-and-white as discipline and drawing with color – including watercolor – to convey his joy at the world around him.  Both aspects of his oeuvre are on view at the Museum of Modern Art in "Cézanne Drawing" (through September 25). But with more than 250 works on paper in it, this mammoth show is perhaps best appreciated by skating as rapidly as possible through the rigor -- in order to arrive unfatigued at the pleasure.


The problem can be seen by anybody who consults the 77-page checklist.  As this list shows, the exhibition is hung in seven galleries, and for my money the rigor persists throughout the first five. 


This is not because these five galleries are hung exclusively with black-and-white drawings, for a smattering of colored oils on canvas are included, and even a number of colored works on paper.


However, the subject matter tends to focus on those areas of Cézanne's interest which he could not seem to approach without an inhibition that led to a certain awkwardness and brusqueness.


These areas are 1) male nudes; 2) female nudes; 3) portraits and figure studies of men, 4) portraits of his wife (née Hortense Fiquet, who first came to him as a model); and 5) even himself—the self-portraits here look as rock-hard as any of the artist's other subjects in these galleries.


Hortense seems to have been the only live female who sat for Cézanne.  True, he painted many oils showing groups of female or male nude "bathers" throughout his life, small ones in the early years, heroic toward the end.


When I was in grad school, I took a seminar with Theodore Reff, a renowned authority on Cézanne.  Each member of the class took one aspect of Cézanne's oils, spent the semester looking at examples of this aspect, and then tried to establish a chronology for them (a new catalogue raisonné was in preparation at the time).


My aspect was the bathers (male as well as female). And even though today they aren't my favorite Cézannes, looking at a lot of them sensitized me to Cézanne. This makes them undoubtedly the reason I get such a kick out of Cézanne today, and I remain grateful to Professor Reff even though he and Clement Greenberg were (to put it mildly) no friends.


In the course of studying those bathers, I learned that Cézanne painted not two but three large paintings of them.  In the U.S., most people think there are only two large "Bathers" –the one in the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the one in the Barnes Foundation -- but actually, the National Gallery in London has one, too.


Even in their awkwardness and crudeness, the three large canvases of bathers make arresting compositions, but surely no one would ever think of crushing one of these massive, rock-bound madams to one's breast.


Seems the artist preferred to develop his understanding of female (and male) anatomy by making sketches from depictions of men and women in museums.  This show does include a few studies of male nudes that may be académies from life (Cézanne studied briefly at the Académie Suisse as a young man). 


 But even they share in the dispassion, not to say anger and possibly even resentment that render the work in these first five galleries of the show so remarkable yet so strenuous for, and demanding of, the viewer.


Then – praises be!—we get to the sixth and seventh galleries show (labeled "Gallery 6A" and "Gallery 6B" on the checklist).  Gallery 6A emphasizes still lifes and Gallery 6B emphasizes landscapes.


I had spent so much time moving slowly and carefully through the first five galleries of this monster show that the museum was closing for the day before I could get to the still lifes, but oh my, what a wealth of magnificence awaited me in Gallery 6B!


Here we have rocks, trees, and mountains (especially Mont Sainte-Victoire), plus the occasional bridge and the occasional road– all free and clear of human beings.


The only major traces of Homo sapiens in this gallery (aside from occasional portraits of the gardener Vallier, looking as gnarled and gnome-like as a garden statue) are the quarries at Bibémus, long abandoned and overgrown, and the Château Noir, which though recently built had been designed to look like a Gothic ruin. 


Most of these landscapes are from the artist's later years, and most are watercolors (with or without ink or pencil).  And they are light and airy and totally irresistible, especially the studies of rocks – some of which made me quiver inside just as Cézanne's oil paintings can do (again, particularly the late ones, from the 1890s and the first six years of the twentieth century).


It seems that only when an actual human presence was at a safe distance from this crabbed and curious personality that his most positive emotions – such as love and joy – could surface and find concrete expression.


The Britannica website has a quote from the artist that I find very appropriate: "The landscape," he said, "Becomes human, becomes a thinking, living being within me.  I become one with my picture….we merge in an iridescent chaos."


This suggests to me that Cézanne found in inanimate things the sort of totally loving, giving person that real people never are, and never can be – but hey, it sure makes for great pictures.  So when you go to this show, leave plenty of time for Gallery 6B.








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