Clues from C'ezanne's pencil. Drawings indicate why the great French artist painted as he did

It really must be said right up front: Important and revealing as the current exhibition of C'ezanne's drawings at the Museum of Modern Art here may be, it's unlikely that the public at large will be moved or excited by it. There are too many rough, tentative sketches, for one thing, and not enough finished pieces with interesting subject matter, for another. And then there's his ``clumsy'' draftsmanship, limited knowledge of anatomy, and scratchy, amateurish technique.

Sophisticated art lovers might prefer to deny it, but that's the way C'ezanne's drawings strike most viewers at first glance - and how, if they're honest, they continue to appear even after their other very real qualities have come to the fore.

That general observation was reinforced recently while walking around ``A C'ezanne Treasure: The Basel Sketchbooks'' at the Modern. Everyone seemed impressed, even awed, by the fact that the small, sketchy drawings they were looking at were by the great C'ezanne. But very few, I noticed, paid more than a passing glance to most of the drawings. Now, that's a pity, for these quickly rendered, generally insignificant-looking works on paper present us with some of the best clues we have as to that great French artist's initial thoughts and feelings about how and why he painted as he did.

One hundred fourteen of these ``clues,'' spanning most of C'ezanne's career from the 1860s to about 1900, have been assembled by Bernice Rose from the 152 sheets excerpted originally from five sketchbooks in the possession of the Kunstmuseum in Basel, Switzerland. All his major themes are represented: landscape, still life, portrait, and figure compositions, including bathers and copies from Renaissance and neoclassical sculpture. Very few studies for specific paintings can be found among them, however, leading one to the conclusion that they were C'ezanne's private rehearsals for the act of making pictures, and constituted some of his first tentative steps toward the creation of what was to become a new order and structure for art.

It is primarily for the insights they provide into C'ezanne's conceptual approach and working methods that these studies are considered so important - although a surprisingly large number of them are also beautiful in and of themselves, and a few, particularly ``Head of Achille Emperaire'' (1867-70), ``Studies for `Mardi Gras''' (ca. 1888), and ``Self-Portrait'' (ca. 1880), are generally conceded to be among the finest drawings of the Post-Impressionist era.

Precise dating of individual works is often difficult, since C'ezanne seems to have filled his sketchbooks almost at random. What has come down to us, as a result, is a mixed grab bag of assorted and generally unrelated images and stylistic approaches. Even his technique varies - which is not surprising, since the earliest drawings date to when he was not yet 20, and the last, to a few years before his death.

The most dramatic stylistic changes occurred in the 1880s, when he moved away from a modified Impressionism toward a more classically symmetrical and balanced form of construction. This move was inspired, in part, by the paintings of Nicolas Poussin, the 17th-century French painter C'ezanne particularly admired for his classical landscapes and figure compositions. Using his own statement ``Art is a harmony parallel with nature'' as his motto, C'ezanne set about establishing a pictorial system of balanced and harmonious relationships that anticipated the later geometrically abstract work of Picasso, Braque, Mondrian, and numerous others.

It was also at this time that his analysis of volume became more pronounced. Having declared that ``line and modeling do not exist,'' and that ``drawing is a relationship of contrasts or simply the relationship between two tones, black and white,'' he set about dissolving boundary or definitive contour lines and substituted, in their place, a series of nervous, loosely connected parallel strokes that round off and subtly articulate the forms depicted.

Unlike such artists as D"urer and Picasso, for whom drawing was an act of control, almost of possession, C'ezanne saw it as an act of unlocking and release. Rather than defining precisely the contours of his forms, he ``surrounds'' these forms with loosely drawn lines that gently and gradually ``nudge'' them into relief.

It is this approach which makes so many of his mature drawings appear imprecise and unfinished but which also makes the best of them so artful and impressive. Knowing this might not make them any easier to like, but it should, hopefully, make them a bit easier to appreciate. At the Museum of Modern Art through June 5.

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