Classic Cool, Impressionist Passion

Scottish show links C'ezanne's `anxious' art to the strictness of Poussin's works of the 1600s

ARTIST and art-theorist Maurice Denis neatly dubbed Paul C'ezanne ``the Poussin of Impressionism.'' It is an ingenious phrase, and it has stuck. It is the basic theme of a major exhibition here. The element of truth in the phrase helps to characterize the art of C'ezanne (1839-1906), the ``father of modern art.'' It makes a link between his transformation of French Impressionism into a thing of classical strictness and solidity, and the classical order expressed - more than two centuries earlier - by the paintings of Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665.)

Other similar phrases were used even in C'ezanne's lifetime. Denis had earlier called him ``the Poussin of still-life and green landscape.'' Charles Camoin, a writer who visited C'ezanne in his old age, recorded that the artist's aim was to ``re-do Poussin over again according to nature.''

The exhibition based on these ideas is ``C'ezanne and Poussin: The Classical Vision of Landscape'' at the National Gallery of Scotland (through Oct. 21). It contains works by both artists, and it is particularly appropriate in the National Gallery of Scotland, because this wonderful collection already includes stunning works by both painters.

No mention of Poussin

This, however, is a show which has gathered its works internationally. It is the brainchild of Richard Verdi.

Professor Verdi, in his thoroughgoing catalog, admits that C'ezanne never once mentioned Poussin in his letters. Also that he copied Poussin far less frequently than he copied other Old Masters. ``All this suggests,'' writes Verdi, ``that if there was a close bond between C'ezanne and Poussin, it did not exist on the level of direct inspiration or influence.''

It does exist, though, on the evidence of the paintings themselves. They certainly feed the art-historical perception - continuing over many years now - of classicism as an integral part of C'ezanne's aim. It is, however, only one aspect of his art.

His dissatisfaction with the fleeting nature of Impressionism, which recorded changing light effects but gave comparatively scant attention to firm composition, is well known. But labeling his desire for permanence and order in painting as a return to traditional values is quite problematical.

Complex influences

Traditionalism is not what the Cubists were later to find inspiring in his work. He was no academic; indeed, he called himself a ``primitive.'' At the same time, he was an Impressionist in his struggle to capture on canvas the light, intense color, and sensation of a landscape. Also, he was consciously modern; he was anti-classical in his doubt. His art has more than once been characterized as ``anxious'': It always admits its uncertainties, its inconclusiveness and tentative inability to fully grasp the sense-perceptions it tries to describe.

Yet, paradoxically, the ferocious lengths C'ezanne went to in order to bring a sculptural quality into his painting of ever-changing nature was obsessive if not positively heroic. In this respect, he might well have echoed something Poussin wrote in a letter in 1642: ``My nature compels me to seek and love things that are well-ordered, fleeing confusion, which is as contrary and inimical to me as is day to the deepest night.''

So if the premise of this show is rather subtle, the parallels it points to between the two painters are nevertheless fascinating and revelatory. Making them rub shoulders in this way produces thought-provoking static, and it marvelously restimulates one's vision of both artists - just in case that vision had staled a little through familiarity.

Both of them started out as brooding, impulsive romantics, and both proceeded to tame and control their spontaneity by severe formal disciplines. This means that often their pictures are like pressure chambers: Line and form hold them in strict check; atmospheric indefiniteness seems ruled out by definition; the distant hill seems as delineated as the nearest object; and a vivid respect for the masses of earth, rock, building, and even cloud and sky is paramount.

Yet penetrate below this rigorous order, and there is throbbing feeling ready to burst. In the work of neither artist is the viewer met with the dead-fish, cool exactness too frequently thought to be typically classical. Also, as Verdi points out, in their last years both painters had come through their most classical phases to a richer and more human or troubled sensibility. At this point in their developments, they have little or nothing in common, unless it is old age.

Varied approaches

Poussin's sense of landscape, of nature, is taken into his imagination - a studio-vision profoundly rooted in an essentially arcadian dream-past. C'ezanne is alone, starkly alone, but outside in the landscape, directly confronting mountain, tree, valley, rock - searching exhaustively for some structure in the evanescence surrounding him. The past doesn't enter his head.

On more specific levels it is intriguing to observe the way both of these painstakingly slow painters logically construct their landscapes. Surprisingly it is Poussin who seems to bring the solid earth of his foregrounds into the viewer's realm: He makes you feel you could step into his landscapes from the place you are standing. He does this partly by presenting his compositions like stage scenery and putting his principal ``actors'' (often performing some ancient myth or Biblical narrative) at the very foot of the canvas. C'ezanne, by contrast, generally takes a high viewpoint and the nearest part of his image is still out of reach, slipping down below the canvas's lower confines.

Search for enduring facets

An interplay of the space in their pictures with the arrangement across the surface is, as Verdi points out, common to the two painters. In their choice of subject, both select the ``enduring facets'' of nature. (Both sought out the cylinder, the sphere, and the cone as fundamental forms.) But so persuaded is Verdi of C'ezanne's overriding classicism that sometimes he goes over the top - as when he describes both artists as finally achieving ``an equanimity before nature which make it possible for them to confront it without desire.''

This is terrible bunkum and is exploded by any one of C'ezanne's paintings in the show.

It is especially visible in the rarely exhibited or reproduced ``La Montagne Sainte Victoire,'' on loan from Ford House in Michigan. This was painted in the last decade of C'ezanne's career, and, though majestic, it crackles with a brittle, fierce energy like breaking ice. It would be hard to imagine something further from ``equanimity'' or a lack of ``desire.''

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