The World Pursues An Elusive Cezanne

Paul Cezanne is "to a greater extent than anyone else in the history of art, a painter's painter." So write two of the contributors to the book-catalog "Czanne" (edited by Franoise Cachin et al., Harry N. Abrams, 600 pp., $75) to accompany (and outlive) the international Czanne show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Cezanne himself once wrote that "Art never addresses itself to more than an extremely small number of individuals." But the popularity of this exhibition of a highly elitist artist goes way beyond the interest of artists only. Immense crowds have been drawn to it wherever it's been - in Paris, London, and now Philadelphia (until Sept. 1). Is there, after all, a popular thirst for high and exclusive art?

The exhibition's appeal cannot be solely the consequence of hype. The artist's undiminishing "importance," according to art-world consensus, would not itself persuade the largely philistine media to give this show the extensive coverage it has received. What has aroused such eager curiosity and adulation? Can it be that Czanne is not a difficult artist at all?

Interestingly, the sold-out show does not claim to be exhaustive, definitive, or a blockbuster. Its attempt is to represent "the painter's development." It is a serious show in spite of all the nonsense of museum-shop bric-a-brac with "Cezanne apples" reproduced on them. It looks at the whole artist - unusual for Czanne exhibitions in recent years - rather than parts of him (his watercolors, his early works, or his debt to Poussin, for example). It does not bring together every last Cezanne masterpiece in a show to end all shows. Yet the record crowds have come.

Ms. Cachin and Joseph Rishel emphasize in their introduction to the catalog that the master from Aix-en-Provence remains, for all the scholarly theses, richly enigmatic. For example, the catalog note for "Bather with Outstretched Arms" (below, left) begins: "This picture [is] ... among the most discussed and least explained of all Cezanne's works." Yet one Czanne specialist has called it particularly "revealing," and others have found it compelling and (although its date is uncertain) even a pivotal moment in the artist's development.

THE question of whether a given work is finished - as with the later picture "The Garden at Les Lauves" (reproduced above) - also asks for fascinating speculations. Yet again, this matter of "unfinish" tells us much about Cezanne's ambitions and frustrations.

His art is one more of question than answer, of quest than arrival, of a need for difficulties to obviate facile solutions. It's an art of exploration rather than formula.

Cezanne evidently wanted to be an enigma. He voiced a fear that people would "get their hooks into him." Art theorists too often believe it their ingenious duty to pin down with analysis an artist's motives, style, achievements, and influences as if he were a rare butterfly in need of labeling and glass-casing. Worst of all are the expertly confident "explanations." Cezanne has been thoroughly subjected to these, even to the point of diagrams imposed on his paintings.

But the many-leveled, elusive artist has proved himself well ahead of such practices. Happily, some of this book's authorities admit willing defeat: Cezanne is all the better for being as inexplicable today as ever.

At London's Tate Gallery, the show seemed to me full of vigorously opinionated visitors discussing individual works. This is not always so; some exhibitions invite simpler enjoyment. Others seem educative. And there are those that demand reaction, but of feeling rather than debate.

Aspects of Cezanne work on these levels, too. But his consistency and unpredictability, his monumental uncertainty and raw confidence, his clumsiness and his sophistication all add up to extreme degrees of self-contradiction and paradox.

So do his almost Baroque buildup of compositions to a climax on one hand and his dry, methodical organization on the other. His classicism and his romanticism. His slow deliberation and his stabbing intuitions. His formalism and his deeply personal vision. Stillness contrasts with restless movement, space with solid, air with structure, the intangible play of light and shadow with sculptural mass and form, and astonishingly resonant color with a concentration on constructed tones.

And if in one way he seems dedicated to the realism of tree or apple or mountain, in another his interest seems to be an independent abstraction of mark, patch, stroke, and direction, much more to do with the painting itself than its subject.

The most inexplicable thing of all is that, for all his apparent self-contradictions, Cezanne's mature work is permeated with a serene balance. The equipoise, certainty, and utter consistency within the boundary edges of each work forcefully suggest that even if he is a fascinating mystery to his growing legion of admirers, Cezanne understood himself perfectly.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to The World Pursues An Elusive Cezanne
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today