Cézanne, Now

A stylized photo of Paul Cezanne

Our first reaction after pulling back the curtain at the edge of the painting is one of delight. It is as though we have stumbled on the ultimate refinement of art; everything in front of us is suddenly true and clear. We have the feeling of invading a private moment as we enter Vermeer’s painting, but soon the sense of penetrating detail, the sense of a tapestry unravelling in our hands, suggests that this private moment is merely everyone’s accommodation to passing time, and that in the end we are not the observers but simply victims whom Vermeer has trapped. He is, after all, standing behind us, watching us watch art.

– Frank Stella on Vermeer’s ‘Allegory of Painting’, Working Space, 1886

Paul Cezanna's "A Modern Olympia" (1873)
Paul Cézanne, “A Modern Olympia” (1873-74)

Even for the gods, backlash is an inevitability. At one time considered the cutting edge, Paul Cézanne is often now conflated with artistic conservatism and the ‘rappel à l’ordre’. Bring up his name among any of the various plutocrats and brainless artists-in-residence striving to keep up the pretence of modernistic radicalism and you’ll see what I mean. It’s like brandishing a crucifix in a vampire’s face. Surely, nothing could be more unfashionable or un-hip as to talk about Cézanne in the year 2022.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, various ‘litterateurs’ who claim to admire Cézanne’s work can often be doubly guilty of superficiality; adopting a pose of soi disant aestheticism whilst simultaneously accepting all the ludicrous things produced by broadsheet art critics and authors writing history books on holiday. Sentiment, clerisy and derogation-as-vice continue to exasperate Cézanne’s reputational stability. Appropriated and excommunicated in equal turn, he is again and again subjected to the same rotary of clichés and tabloid mythology. A primitive, a prig, a homely gentleman. All middling attempts to make sense of Cézanne’s work in a self-reflecting art world where consensus has vanished and ignorance reigns supreme.

An old-fashioned (but mostly true) observation is that Cézanne’s paintings represent a shift from what art represents to how it is made. But even this is not entirely straightforward. Many, as in the case of Merleau-Ponty, have strenuously attempted to characterise Cézanne as a kind of stereoscopic, ‘optical’ painter (the interminable fallacy of modernism is that it has come to stand for the cult of scientism). As such, Cézanne’s technique here becomes an argument of putative translation from the object to the construct. On the surface this seems logical enough, but dig deeper and you find a reformed version of the meme of Cézanne as poet manqué. We are led to assume that his colours and compositions must be the result of some technical inability or else partial blindness; that he was constantly frustrated and brought up short by physical or artistic deficiencies. All of this is to conveniently satisfy our difficulty in making sense of his conflicting requirements, his use of spacial elision, projection, distortion, colour, and so on.

Bouguereau’s ‘Bathers’ (1885) and Cézanne’s ‘Bathers outside a Tent’ (1885)
Bouguereau’s ‘Bathers’ (1885) and Cézanne’s ‘Bathers outside a Tent’ (1885)

Connoisseurish caprice continues to vex the propinquity between intentional competence and unintentional incompetence, the history of art as a triumph of wills where Cézanne tried, failed, and then succeeded through his failure. Was he attempting (and failing) to paint in the prevailing manner à la Bouguereau, or trying to overthrow it? Rather we should imagine a world where the criteria of competence never changed and Cézanne’s work remained unauthenticated, unregarded and dilettantish by prevailing standards. Notions of competence are always contingent, and to some degree, unreachable past the hieratic predicates of the curatorial sensitive. It then falls to us to consider what it would be like for a painter to INTEND for a painting to fail and how this might be logically distinguished from one who actually refused the established codes. Is it unthinkable then to stipulate that for Cézanne the ‘artistic’ representation of those very conditions of failure and defeat was the very effect for which he was striving? What would success even look like under those conditions? Where do you stop? When is it finished? It is possible, after all, to make a kind of painting where it is required of the viewer to see what she is not ‘supposed’ to see. To think: ‘that’s not the work; that’s not the art’ even though it categorically is.

Popular notions of truth and Piercian realism such as those that abound in American criticism today are simply too crude, too domestic, to account for Cézanne’s representational methods. It is difficult to say just how much he actually departs from the cult of naturalism at all, as his use of cultural landscape is rather oblique. Cubist principles would be more appropriate means to appraise Cézanne’s paintings with their broiling, epiplanar surfaces and eccentric compositions. But even the pragmatics of cubist aesthetics have a certain speed limit, ultimately terminating at a kind of ‘order out of chaos’ theory of compositional climax. At the very least, this rhetoric can provide a solid enough foundation by which we can attempt to delineate Cezanne’s qualities. The original cubist painters attempted to make paintings that could evince some outlines as to what visual art is, whilst simultaneously being held out as a works of visual art. Similarly, Cezanne, seems to be questioning the conditions that govern the form of visual art, albeit with greater cunning and punctiliousness. It’s no wonder then that the cubists often claimed Cézanne as their antecedent.

In painting, compositions take place in accordance with the relations of two dimensions and then those of three (awareness of place). Cézanne pays lip service to the various problematics of this infrastructure without searching for a non-problematic which would render all pointless. The difficulty of the painting is not hidden but rather displayed, dramatised, and given an especially weird distance by this ambivalence towards the resolution of literal surface and illusion of depth.  His subjects are believable, and easily identifiable with art, yet recovering detail in his paintings is very rarely a matter of one singly appropriate methodology; informed or uniformed. Pushed beyond a certain established periodization most of these delineations end up appearing trivial and irrelevant.  To speak personally, a work by Cezanne doesn’t call for me to ask ‘what is happening in this picture?’, or ‘how was this painting made?’ but rather: ‘what has happened to this painting?’ Cézanne seems to fly in the face of the usual concepts of authorship and wilfulness. His paintings would understand they are hostages of art, just as much as its representatives. They are paintings made of the ghosts of paintings.

In using this rhetoric, a certain sense of comedy does not escape me. How can it not? I am well aware of the pretentions, the almost emptied-out metaphysical presumptions upon which this discourse is structured. Painting has become an embarrassing technical category, incapable of sustaining its historical potential under contemporary conditions. To defend its merits is to defend the culture of the comprador by parasol (re-investment of the categories of high-bourgeois consumerism). Yet to announce its demise, is to indulge in the worn-out futurist cliches about ‘art at the end of history’. That painting might one day reclaim its meaning, its historical motifs, is not without precedent, although the task then falls to artists and critics to tough out and unravel the accumulated conventions and dogmas of the art world from without and within. The value of painting as an art, as a historical practice cannot be earned without a certain necessary degree of ironic aspiration, as valid criticism that probes the purpose and place of art and artists simply cannot exist without self-criticism and some fear of mutual embarrassment. When looking at a Cézanne painting, one is presented with a challenge. Not: ‘is this painting good or bad?’, ‘is it true to life?’, and ‘do I like it or not?’.  This would be sheer ignorance. Rather, we must ask ourselves what self-critical activity in art can be like NOW; of how and by what mechanisms an artist such as Cézanne is generated and sustained.

All of this is to say that my predications about Cézanne’s greatness have a fair amount of ‘white irony’ about them. The usefulness of the kind of art that he represents has all but dropped away, and those left to defend him have little to offer other than crypto-entrepreneurial lectures about mark-making and ‘taste’ (my own hands have been much dirtier in this regard). Just look at the any number of the essays that abound online, rhapsodizing over Cezanne’s ‘sophisticated amateurism’ or ‘purposeful purposelessness’. Writing of this kind about Cezanne’s paintings is practically an institution in-of-itself. And yet it is precisely this desultory, homeless quality that makes Cézanne so daunting and irresistible to myself as artist-critic. As the poet Auden once said, ‘Art makes nothing happen. It survives in the valley of its own making’. Exploring the internality and attendant contradictions within the practice of a painter such as he, and doing it without arbitrary or analogous means can be salutary. Is there another, more exotic logic to encapsulate Cezanne, other than just a mere ‘colour painter’? This is a frightening question to consider for one who ‘loves’ painting.

Cézanne’s eccentric procedures are relevant to today’s painters in a fairly modest but powerful sense. I would stipulate that if we are to entertain the validity of a contemporary painterly practice, then we cannot neglect to take note of painting’s precise structure, its underlying logic of construction, principally the logic of its figure-ground circumstances. This is the very least trivial aspect of painting’s notional claim to glory, and the change that Cézanne brought about in the relationships between figure and ground is what gives his work historical animation. He was not the first to utilise a broken surface (see Pissarro, Courbet, Corot, Manet or Constable, for instance) but his combined impurity of oeuvre, awkwardness of integration, and strangeness of effect, is what sets him apart and presents a challenge to inquiry. We are returned to the problem of intentionality and competence. The total architectural scheme of a Cézanne picture is always one of unity but a dislocated, homeless unity. Certain elements seem to refuse one another, to go on arguing and diverging, detaching from a consistent technical vocabulary but somehow without sacrificing traditional formal success. This is reminiscent of the aforementioned cubist aesthetic but without any of the iconoclastic posturing. Cezanne uses all sorts of interesting factive procedures in order to get a satisfying, unified effect. But he cannot be categorised as an ‘all-over painter’ in the same technical category as the purists of Abstract Expressionism, who would push the idea of autonomy and surface-treatment-as-composition to its logical limit.

The idea behind a painting is just as much of an object as the painting itself, and can be similarly flexible. What are the discussions then that lurk behind a work by Cézanne? There is principally the romantic image of an artist labouring in his studio, in his own private world. Then there is the cult of nature, with its associations of pictorial ‘atmosphere’, the cult of neoclassicism and its themes of a ‘grand’ antique past, and the syntax of impressionism with its aesthetic of light/colour and puffy brushstrokes. These conversations represent a continuity of course, a dialogue with the external and internal conditions of painting, and a drive to internalise them. However, that dialogue is unstable and insecure. A Cézanne painting is untidy, and there is little to inform of critical virtue in all the mess. Someone would have to tell us, to engage us after the fact, in order to give us a hint as to what Cézanne really intended, and even then, we would be bad faith actors to take their statements as transparent expressions of what the work really IS.

Artists are all differently corrupted in one way or another and the reality, so to speak, of what an artist is doing can differ greatly from their own self-conceptualisations. Art itself is an unstable social fiction and Cézanne’s stratagem was to flirt with the fiction of himself as an artist and as a painter, just as much as it was to flirt with the similarly corrupted object of painting. Who’s to say he is any less of a conceptual artist than a decorative one? On the contrary, I would argue that the philosophical nature of his work is key to its visual impact. Even his use of nature as model has a powerful degree of ostranenie, approaching his subjects, as Rilke put it, only by ‘very complicated detours’, ‘all the while exacerbating the difficulty of his work, in the most wilful of manners’. This free-play of signs and structures, of making the work strange seems an aesthetic goal in itself, perhaps to delay our sense of perception, in order to make the objects and their relations freshly ‘visible’. We are called upon to consider the act of seeing within the act itself.

Cézanne’s ‘Group of Bathers’ (1892)
Cézanne’s ‘Group of Bathers’ (1892)

In Cézanne’s ‘Group of Bathers’ (1892), for instance, the intentional and the accidental are immutable. There remains a strange aporesis regarding whether the work is actually even finished or not. Passages of difficulty are marked out with techniques of concealment, contusion, and erasure. The expressive surface and the figurative depth of the painting, the planar and spherical geometry of the drawing, are to a degree, incongruous, and yet neither are given autonomy by some special prioritization. Very often, especially with the late works we are initially unsure as to what we are even really looking at, as these painterly disturbances acquire their own powerful figural properties within the overall figurative scheme. Attempting to describe a painting such as this would be a pointless exercise. It looks good; an overall success but a success of the hard-to-settle. Weirder still is the slightly perverse, leering quality of the subject matter, as if we are peering from behind a bush like some dirty old man. Its almost autistic approach to the erotic puts the viewer in a place of perfidious rather than wishful voyeurism. Modern art’s tendencies to foreground the psychological and the sexual are usually interpreted as the outcome of individual passions, the artist’s need to express. But paintings live in the margins of lies. In reality, Cézanne would not permit naked models in his studio, and instead pilfered his nudes from sculptures and the works of other painters. In short, Cézanne is himself, acting the part of voyeur, for the painting and for the audience.

But I will speak more to this issue of figure/ground. The surface of a Cézanne painting is composed or mutually rebarbative textures, both alienated and romantic (a lizard-skin patchwork that was of particular significance to the ‘belle peinture’ generation of Georges Braque). A literal surface comes into conflict with its illusionistic depths, although both will tend to approach a certain condition of theatre. Elements such as, but not limited to, those sketchy figures of the bathers are neither intrinsically in the picture or on the ground, residing instead in some enigmatic pictorial hinterland of a different order for which the conventions of art criticism are unable to readily explain (although many have attempted). It is neither a successful figurative painting nor a successful impressionist painting, further problematised by the figures’ impenetrability to consciousnesses searching for empathy. The strategy seems to be to describe and then redescribe the intellectual scaffolding of painting, which is both unstable and without need of justification. No one thing stage-manages the other in this collision of painterly ‘incidents’, as dialectical features of one integrated picture, as virtual alternative and clashing identities for the image as a whole.

It would have been easy to allow this essay to degenerate into some excited, breathless commentary on Cézanne’s use of colour, tone, form, drawing, and so on. Basically, to be satisfied with cubist axioms about short-circuiting the détente between trompe-l’oueil and modernistic flatness, or of how to preserve the work’s iconic (pictorial) integrity. One feels the most urgently important thing to draw attention to, that all these things are at the very least partially dependent upon, is his heterodoxy and heterogeneity. Cézanne’s facility for his chosen form; the probing, enquiring, dialectical character of his practice would appear to be launched out of an irresistible doubt as to what the rules and conditions for making art, specifically painting, actually were as they existed in his time. Making the work was the only practical way of ‘finding out’; of trying to answer the question as Baudelaire had phrased it as to what ‘the painting of modern life’ would actually look like. This aspect of ekphrasis, of art about art mise en abyme, in an effort to expand art’s meaning, is the most aggressively powerful and critically neglected aspect of Cézanne’s practice. Very few artists of his time and indeed of our own moment are as intensely invested in the investigation and articulation of the certain conditions whereby something might be said to be or not be art, rather than just nominating someone else’s ideas about what art is, and attributing a degree of art-ness to it.

Admittedly, I am attempting here to avoid a lapse into the conservative technical prescriptions of Greenbergian modernism. Cézanne’s merits are ‘in the paint’ so to speak, but his painterly structures do not exist outside of history. How else are we to read the surface of a ‘pure’ abstract painting, such as those produced in the 1950s, other than as a structured system of symbols of some kind (usually for some kind of ‘expressionistic’, emotive set of distortions and accidents)? In Cézanne, however, any technical ‘drama’ of the work is given bathos, a second-order ironic distance by painterly elision of its referents, enlisting and dislocating the conventional claims of the studio genre. In ‘Five Bathers’ for example, Cézanne seems to give more attention to buttocks than he does to faces. What is this to ‘express’, other than a sort of travesty or scandal of the bathers that we are accustomed to seeing in the works of mannerists such as Bouguereau which are much more literally integrated, and smoothly consistent in accordance with the conventions of the academe finis. Again, the oblique nature of Cézanne’s paintings makes his intentions impossible to recover by the assiduous, sensitive critic, but it is not unthinkable, that in trying to circumvent the standard culture of painting, that a painting might take on satirical, ironical qualities.

The 17th century neoclassical painter Nicolas Poussin helped to popularise an entire genre of painting about dance. His paintings depict orgiastic yet highly choreographed scenes of mythical figures frolicking like something out of an Arcadian frieze. Why do I mention him? Because to render one form of art within another, to make a painting about dance, is essentially to make art about art, where artifice itself is the theme and the subject of the work. In a similar manner I would say that Cézanne is making art about paintings about art. Poussin was one of his favourite artists. He haunted the Louvre and his paintings are, in turn, haunted by references, memories, glimpses and fragments of classicism, re-commensurate to his own inscrutable needs. Or perhaps it is not even a question of needs and wills, as this language feels too religious, too animistic to be deployed with any kind of critical perlocutionary force. Rather the art is locked into some kind of feedback loop, self-amplifying art, as idea, as thing.

Nicolas Poussin, ‘Bacchanal Before a Statue of Pan’ (1633)
Nicolas Poussin, ‘Bacchanal Before a Statue of Pan’ (1633)

Painting as it features in the narratives of modernist theory, must divest itself of the ‘inessentials’. This all the better to entrench painting within the domain of its own competence. One should ask then how modern painting can feasibly retain its engagement with the social, the cultural and the moral? In short, how can painting keep itself in kilter with modern life if it fails to carry forward its historical genres, its pre-modern narratives of the epic, the tragic and the ‘real’. Still today, Cézanne provides us with a viable roadmap, perhaps the only viable roadmap.

One cannot help but feel that Cézanne worked with a slightly dubious conscience. He had famously few friends, and the ones he did have such as Emil Bernhard he would ruthlessly slag off in private. ‘All my compatriots are assholes’, he would say. As a younger man, he would dress up like a tramp and pretend to scratch himself for fleas, simply to disturb his bohemian peers and their girlfriends and upon meeting his hero the impressionist Édouard Manet, instead of shaking hands he made a deadpan joke about not having had a bath in months. In today’s parlance he was something of a troll, comfortable to play the part of a brute when in reality he was extraordinarily well-off and well-educated, perhaps more so than any living painter.

Cézanne is a conventional artist, to a certain degree. He painted in genres. But genre, as it appears within his work, is deagglomerated and re-commensurate from a set of gestures to set of fragments; open-ended signs crying out for completion by the viewer. To my mind, this is what makes him a painter of abstract values. Here ‘abstract’ simply means that the task of retrieving content, or detail in his work is somewhat inimical to the conventional desires of the semiotic manager. Or rather he obeys the familiar modernist precepts of internal detail and inflected surface while seeming to disobey them in spirit. In this way the viewer is more or less trapped by and within their own regard. He engenders a curious interlocking or castellation of different modes of representation, whilst simultaneously denying their effect, locking the broken surface down into very structural content of the picture itself so that these elements become glitched indivisible, and concretely visual. Often credited as the father of modernism, he is also perhaps the father of its nervous breakdown.

Cézanne was far less at home in his own time than he is perhaps in ours. This ‘homeless’, spectral quality of Cezanne’s work, his abstractness, that I have tried (and possibly failed) to outline in this essay is what makes him so historically powerful and, even now, so vitally new. As much as he is a craftsman of traditional, quasi-domestic objects, there is much about his work that seems to live with a question mark over its head. Perhaps we still don’t really understand what painting truly IS, and that these paintings, for all their visual properties, remain hidden from our sight.

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