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 Hirstby Norbert Lynton / January 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Published in January 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
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.