C'EZANNE WATERCOLORS. Exercise in understatement

C'ezanne's watercolors are the most subtle and elusive of all his creations. Even the most complex strike many as unfinished. And yet, delicate and fragile though they may be, they rank high among the most significant works on paper produced during the past 100 years. Consider this: When C'ezanne's smallish watercolor ``Three Pears'' was exhibited in Vollard's Paris gallery in 1895, both Degas and Renoir wanted it. Since neither would defer to the other, they drew straws. Degas won, and he kept the little picture as a valued treasure until his death.

Anyone who knows this painting, or has seen it attractively framed and royally treated, as I just have at a special exhibition of C'ezanne's works on paper at the Metropolitan Museum of Art here, may well wonder why two such important artists coveted something so ordinary-looking. Or why the Metropolitan saw fit to exhibit it and 29 other modest and initially unprepossessing watercolors and drawings by that artist at this time.

Since Vollard's 1895 show included several other works by C'ezanne, one can only assume that Degas and Renoir wanted ``Three Pears'' for reasons that were partly sentimental. The Metropolitan's reason for mounting this exhibition, on the other hand, was as practical as it was timely and aesthetically motivated.

Watercolors, especially those with tints and washes as delicate as C'ezanne's, are extremely light-sensitive and cannot be shown on a regular basis. Museums must wait for special occasions when several can be shown together, and in subdued light, for a few months at most. Or when considerable time has passed since they were last put on public display.

This exhibition - which traces C'ezanne's works on paper from 1870 to 1906 and includes landscapes, still lifes, and figure and nature studies - is such an occasion.

It's a welcome and relatively rare opportunity to see a number of C'ezanne's finest studies that are usually kept in the dark and under lock and key. A few are truly major. ``Cistern in the Park at Ch^ateau Noir,'' so sturdy in composition and so sensitive in execution, stands out. So do ``Roads, Trees, and Walls'' (which illustrates beautifully why the Cubists held C'ezanne in such high esteem) and ``Mont Sainte-Victoire Seen From Les Lauves, Winter.''

My personal favorite, however, isn't a watercolor but a pencil ``Self-Portrait'' drawn about 1880. Small, loosely rendered, and totally devoid of virtuoso draftsmanship, it gradually reveals itself as both a classic demonstration of how volume and character can be indicated by simple linear and tonal devices, and one of the finest portrait studies of the late 19th century.

Still, it is the watercolors that dominate the show. Situated in two medium-size rooms next to the Andre Meyer Galleries, they draw fewer viewers than do the more colorful canvases by the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists hanging a few yards away. And even among those visitors who do wander in, relatively few do more than glance at three or four of the watercolors before passing on to the more impressive-looking pictures in the galleries beyond.

Those who do linger, however, appear amply rewarded - as indeed they should, considering the quality of these understated and probing works. Most are monumental, in the simplest and truest sense, for they not only present nature at its most orderly and grand, but inform us precisely of what C'ezanne felt was essential and of enduring significance in his subjects.

His art represented a perception of life and of the world that was as holistic as it was thoughtfully structured. His premise and priorities demanded that every stroke or wash of paint be intimately related to every other stroke or wash and to every other element in the composition. Nothing was accidental. Everything was part of the whole, and yet the whole always had to be greater than the sum of its parts.

That it generally was is proof of C'ezanne's greatness as an artist. His oils testify to that in ways that continue to move and impress. But it is in his watercolors and drawings that we see the actual process at work, see his mind and sensibility seeking out new ways to distill complex forms into a handful of lines and washes. It is in them that we can most clearly follow the manner in which such things as forests and fields are transformed into compact, semi-abstract images that stress the grandeur and formal order of his subjects without the loss of authenticity or character. And it is in them that we learn to understand that, in the hands of a master, apples and pears can convey significance as readily as mountains and complex human dramas.

At the Metropolitan Museum through Nov. 6.

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