The point of Cézanne

For the first time since the war London is about to host a comprehensive exhibition of Cézanne's work. Norbert Lynton assesses the painter's place in the pantheon and asks whether he is the grandfather of Damien Hirst
January 20, 1996

It was Cézanne who occasioned Lynton's Second Law. To be more exact, it was the way a student of mine, aspiring art historian and show-off, explained him away in a tutorial. Cézanne was this, did that and his role in art was such and such. The slides he had brought reinforced what he said, but they also contradicted it. Later that day I came up with my law. It has its uses, not only for Cézanne. It states that when you are discussing a work of art with all seriousness and find that whatever you say is no truer than its opposite, you are discussing a great work of art.

In December 1895 Cézanne had his first exhibition, at Vollard's gallery in Paris. It brought him a few new friends and admirers, much younger than himself. In 1903 he was still being denounced for producing "pictorial insanities." In 1906 he died. There had been an important exhibition of his work in 1904; in 1907 there was a show of his watercolours at a Paris gallery and then a general retrospective at the Grand Palais. This is when he became "the father of modern art," according to many avant garde artists and critics. It's a wise child that knows its own father. There were plenty who borrowed from him this or that bit of style. Others looked deeper and found many different Cézannes.

In England Roger Fry was a sudden convert. Like other painters he had sensed Cézanne's sincerity but, at first, been distanced by the clumsiness almost everyone spoke of. In 1910 he published in the Burlington Magazine his translation of a piece by the painter Maurice Denis, establishing Cézanne's classic status. Denis, generally clear-headed, found it difficult to be precise about Cézanne and said so. He too referred to his "persistent gaucherie, his happy na?t?quot;

Later that year Fry organised an exhibition and launched a term which attracted almost universal ridicule. He brought together a large collection of French paintings ranging from Manet to Picasso and Matisse, and called it "Manet and the Post-Impressionists." There were 21 Cézannes in the show, 37 Gauguins, 20 van Goghs. The point was to show Londoners that French art had moved on from Impressionism, rejecting its dependence on visual effects for the sake of greater expressiveness and coherence.

Fry was soon defending Cézanne: "I see no evidence of clumsiness. On the contrary, the quality of his pigment seems to me particularly beautiful." That, written in 1910, still sounds tentative. Fry went on to write and lecture on Cézanne, and in 1927 published one of the most persuasive books on him. Henry Tonks painted a caricature in 1912 of Fry haranguing his audience on "The Unknown God" and, by his side, Clive Bell, shouting "Cezannah Cezannah." Tonks was then drawing master at the Slade School and later its head; he did his best to stop Post-Impressionism being mentioned on the premises. Others, more violent, invoked Max Nordau's best-seller on degeneracy in the arts and hoped to see the works destroyed, if not the artist.

In February the first comprehensive exhibition since 1936 of Cézanne's paintings, watercolours and drawings comes to the Tate from its d?t at the Grand Palais in Paris, before going on to Philadelphia: about 150 works, ranging from art-school life drawings to that marvellous painting of his gardener which now belongs to the Tate. What shall we make of it all? Cézanne is still the painter who began his career uncouthly with sex-and-violence scenes painted in an overheated Romantic idiom and, more constructively, with brusque portraits and occasional still lifes, painted very densely, some of them laid on with a palette knife as though images had to be built like walls. Early in 1872 his son was born and Cézanne spent much of that year working near Paris with his spiritual father, the "humble and colossal" Pissarro, learning, adopting and adapting the ways of Impressionism. Soon, he was back in the Midi, going north occasionally, sometimes visited, but essentially a man working on his own.

"Post-Impressionism" has its uses, but it was never a movement; the term and its implications have not caught on with the public. To most of those who queued for the Grand Palais and who will, no doubt, queue here, Cézanne remains a sort of Impressionist. Impressionism has become the popular yardstick. We are proud of Turner and Constable as precursors of Impressionism; we bless others, including Delacroix, for they herald Impressionism in sketchy private paintings. Impressionism is an art of speed, snapshots done in dashed-on paint by painters who tried to expose their minds only to light and colour. In the 1870s and 1880s the paintings were found illegible and so lacking in ideas as not to be worth struggling to decypher. Today we read them with ease; Impressionism has become our preferred art.

The Tate's press release does its best to bring in the crowds by presenting Cézanne as an Impressionist, indeed as the Impressionist who "today, near the close of the century... emerges as the greatest of the group, the power of his art attracting and absorbing us still." We art pundits do it all the time, this "who is the fairest in the land" game, in our heads and then also over the dinner-table and subsequently perhaps in print. Most of us, helped by the views of Matisse, Picasso, Klee and others, have long thought Cézanne the greatest of his time, thought him precisely what he claimed to be in his last years, the primitive of a new art. The bibliography is vast and often idolatrous. The clumsy, gloomy man of Aix could do no wrong, though just what he did is still an open question.

Might the public get there before us? If the overwhelming popularity of Impressionism, after initial hatred and disdain, is now an established fact of art appreciation and management, perhaps the time has come for "the greatest of the group" to be embraced by the world at large. The German critic Meier-Graefe, Fry's contemporary, well known in Paris and author in 1910 of the first book on Cézanne, told us also that Van Gogh's art would never reach a wide public. Cézanne, he implied, would fare better, thanks to his roots in the Venetians, in Poussin and in that mysteriously old and new, recently rediscovered Byzantine-Venetian-Spanish master, El Greco. Cézanne's intense engagement with the actuality of nature, together with his Baroque sense of movement and colour and his classical, Poussinesque urge to structure, gave his art a fullness none would resist for long.

I have long thought that a real understanding of Cézanne would at long last open the world's eyes to the greatness of modern art-even in England where a lot of it, especially anything called abstract, is still treated with suspicion or at best with the care we accord a wild beast behind bars. The Tate show may be our best chance, and perhaps our last, as borrowing prized works becomes more difficult and expensive. It will not include some fine works shown in Paris (the loss of two early portraits of Uncle Dominique, done with the palette knife, is particularly sad), but it will bring in some new works and will probably be better displayed and lit than in Paris.

Cézanne may be difficult and contradictory but at least he was a painter, painter, painter. The Tate is now a Janus-faced temple, worshipping the Turner prize as much as Turner. Our art world is riven in twain, as one lot of critics and magazines cares only for installation art, videos and clever or would-be clever things called Conceptual and Neo-Conceptual; and the other lot denounces all this stuff and upholds the three Rs of art-painting, sculpture and graphic work-without quite knowing how to convince us of their essential superiority. I'm a painting man myself, but I know also that much painting these days is servile and plain bad, while much of the rest is more ambitious than good. Installation art and other such things can be good too, even brilliant and important. And of course they tend to make better television images and blunter debates than a competition between four kinds of painting.

Is Cézanne the father of Damien Hirst? Hirst would probably have something sharp to say about that, and could surprise us. There was of course a second father of modern art, legitimately born, unlike Cézanne, but regarded by some as a kind of bastard (Gombrich could not bring himself to name him in The Story of Art): Marcel Duchamp. This man was born to destroy art, as Blake said of Reynolds. Duchamp painted subtly and elaborately, then gave up painting in order to undermine our conception of art and artists with his "readymades." He then seemed to give it all up to play serious chess. Cézanne was certainly father to the early Duchamp. If, as I would guess, Hirst would claim to be of the family of Duchamp, Cézanne must be his grandfather.

In any case, prejudice apart, where's the problem with Mother and Child Divided, Hirst's notorious cow and calf work in four sections? I saw it in Venice two years ago, in the crowded young artists' display, the Aperto. I had had my doubts about Hirst from what I had seen and read about him: too clever, too newsy, too shocking. I don't believe in the "shock of the new" as tactic or title. In Venice my defensiveness crumbled, just as 40 years earlier my art-historical defensiveness vis-?vis modern art crumbled in contact with living, working artists and the work they admired. There is a third Lynton Law asking to be born, something like: "when you judge a work of art on the basis of reproductions and rumours you are cheating yourself, and if your judgment is negative you are abusing yourself." The Hirst piece stood out for its professional weight (clear decisions, executed with care and industry) and its epic gravity. Hirst may act frivolous, but this is not frivolous art. Life, the taking of life; maternity, the most intense intimacy; separation, isolation, death. It would take a very great painting indeed to spell that out.

Cézanne touched on these things, especially in his last years, and it is there that we must meet him. (Without rushing.) Those late landscapes, of the Montagne Sainte-Victoire and the garden at Les Lauves, can be beautiful and moving almost beyond endurance, but aren't they also threatening? Like the later Turner, the aged Cézanne sometimes used his paints like watercolours and his canvas like paper, a positive visual element among those delicate touches.

The Grandes Baigneuses are the climax of Cézanne's career; that is how he saw them-and we should too. Our critics in Paris had little to say about them, though this is the first time the National Gallery painting and the Philadelphia one, larger and more frequently reproduced, can be seen together. Ideally the Barnes Collection version should be there too, but it is constitutionally confined to barracks. Two smaller, delicate oils of the same subject and time are also in the exhibition, as well as earlier paintings of male and female bathers. Even during his most Impressionist years in the 1870s, Cézanne could not repress his visionary urge, painting bathers, a Temptation of St Anthony and other fantasies, to the amusement of his Impressionist friends.

It was the painter of the Grandes Baigneuses who made the first marked impact on modern art. Suddenly, during 1906-9, every ambitious young painter in Paris had to paint monumental nudes, singly or in groups. Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon is just one example. Impressionism had been a reaction against that kind of thing, just as Cubism was later on, coming out of Cézanne's landscapes and still lifes. But how could this Proven? recluse think of doing something like the traditional salon large-scale history paintings and claim he was initiating a new art?

I don't know the answer, but the question must be asked. Cézanne used his own earlier life drawings as models, his drawings after Renaissance and Baroque sculpture, and his knowledge of the Louvre. In that sense, the history of art from Michelangelo is rehearsed in these paintings. He did not give them specific titles, but he was an ardent classicist with good Latin, and they quietly acknowledge the myths.

In his last years, Cézanne is being circumspect, as well as much more monumental. In fact, the three Grandes Baigneuses differ from each other quite strikingly. The Barnes version is the most disconcerting with its array of mutually discordant figures on a narrow stage. The London version is the richest in colour and the most harmonious, though (or because) its almost faceless, bulging nudes don't invite thoughts of sex. Think of Renoir's semi-classical bathers of the same years, strokeable popsies all of them. Cézanne's nudes have dignity and presence. Unlike Renoir, unlike Duchamp, they do not invite the voyeur. The Philadelphia painting, larger, paler, painted much more thinly and maybe unfinished, is the most silent. Some say it is the most spiritual, moved by the Gothic architecture of its tall trees.

Throughout the series, and in some measure throughout Cézanne's work from 1880 onwards, there is the same essential ambiguity-or set of ambiguities-holding representation and process in a balance that never quite comes to rest. It varies from picture to picture as our attention shifts from this aspect to that. Where my student saw flatness we find turning forms, whether of apples or of buttocks. Where he saw abstraction we find inalienable presences, bodies, skulls, mountains, even portraits. When Cézanne told his wife to "be an apple," he was not telling her to be geometry but to join that company of rich, rounded and arrangeable things he painted so often and so resonantly. I have no doubt at all that when he was painting apples he was painting all of us and himself too, our presences and absences and also the gaps between us, the need to touch and the danger in being touched.

Somewhere in this area lies Cézanne's point, the "realisation" he was after. It is good that we cannot quite reach it, any more than in music. M?sande's cry "Ne me touchez pas" echoes Cézanne's when a friend, met in the street, put his hand on the painter's sleeve. Cézanne's touch on the canvas, so confident when he was wielding his knife as a young man, became ever more searching as his experience grew and his ambitions focused. He developed systems-parallel strokes, mosaic-like touches with a broader brush, strokes denying roundness but giving it through colour contrasts-only to abandon them again. Colour limited to pairs, said my student, blue-green and yellow-orange; yes, but how rich, how full of over and undertones, and anyway, see those pinks and purples. See what may be his very last painting of his gardener sitting in the sun: in praise of the man who lives and works with nature, in praise also of painting itself as a "construction after nature" pulsating with life because it is left open-ended.

One of the most beautiful exhibitions we are ever likely to see coincides with this Cézanne fest. It is of William Nicholson's still lifes and landscapes. Assembled by and for the Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne, it will be in Cambridge and then Nottingham while the Cézanne is on (February to April), and then (May) in London. Nicholson was an extraordinarily gifted painter in the Manet and Whistler tradition. His society portraits and charming personality earned him his knighthood; his little still lifes and more occasional landscapes kept him sane. The best of them are done with enormous skill of eye and hand, and also with joy. They are perfect. The only ambiguity they offer is the one that powers all good painting: how is it that this arrangement of objects can be so delicious as an image and as smears and touches of paint? Being perfect, they are also finite. They are lovely, but they are not great. n