|On Art: The Founder
Cézanne's radiant influence can be felt anew at the Philadelphia
Museum of Art,
The New Republic,
August 5, 1996
At the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Cézanne's work is presented as a peak experience when it really is an essential everyday experience. Once Cézanne ignited the most daring spirits of his day, and now his example is mostly taken to heart in Painting 101. Anybody who begins to paint begins with him, even if his name is barely mentioned, just as when Cézanne was a young man everybody began with Raphael. Cézanne is our Academy. He reclaimed classicism by studying nature, and in so doing invented a new model of artistic continuity. Well before the end of his life, younger artists were anxious to learn all they could about his working methods, and the motifs that he painted, in the Ile de France and in Provence, have exerted a strong fascination right down to our own time.
Pavel Machotka, a painter who teaches at Santa Cruz, has just published Cézanne: Landscape into Art (Yale), in which he documents a decades-long effort to photograph all of Cézanne's surviving sites in color, and see what they can tell us about the artist's powers of transcription and transformation. Machotka, who is glad to credit the pioneering research more than half a century ago by John Rewald and Erle Loran, argues convincingly that we learn much more from photographs of Cézanne's sites than we ever could from photographs of Corot's or Bonnard's. This is because Cézanne's relationship to a motif is built out of so many discrete critical reactions. Machotka's fine color photographs clarify Cézanne's powers of sight, and even when certain motifs that he has rediscovered don't add much to my understanding, I'm caught up in the indefatigable intelligence of this pilgrim. Machotka turns up odd, wonderful facts. "I have learned," he writes of a painting of the forest of Fontainebleau, "that pin sylvestre (Scotch pine) is a relatively recent introduction, and that their straight trunks which replaced the twisted oaks were thought by the Barbizon painters to have ruined the landscape. Cézanne was the first to have taken advantage of their shape."
Machotka is inclined to regard Cézanne's landscapes as more closely based on appearances than certain earlier writers who examined the sites. One of his interesting points is that Rewald's and Loran's black-and-white photographs provoke a proto-Cubist reading more readily than his own lush color ones. But the drift toward abstraction in Cézanne is something that nobody, including Machotka, is going to deny, and nowadays even those painters who take their inspiration from Cézanne's most naturalistic work tend to rely on an abstract armature which he invented.
Most of the artists who make up our informal Cézanne Academy have staked everything on the idea that both abstraction and representation are implicit in the act of painting. This thoroughly Cézannesque conception has for more than thirty years been the driving force behind the New York Studio School, which was founded in 1964 by Mercedes Matter, a painter of subtly faceted still lifes who perhaps not coincidentally hails from Philadelphia, where her father, Arthur B. Caries, was a pioneering abstract artist whose work now hangs in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Over the years almost every contemporary painter who has thought deeply about Cézanne has taught at the Studio School. If artists now reaching middle age know their Cézanne, it's generally because they have studied with somebody or at least heard somebody speak at the Studio School. Those teachers include Wilbur Niewald, who for decades ran the legendary painting program at the Kansas City Art Institute, and Andrew Forge, who recently retired from Yale, and Matter herself. As it happens, both Forge and Matter were exhibiting their work in the weeks when C&eacutzanne opened in Philadelphia, and you could see how intently they had embraced Cézanne's idea that the search can be the subject, and how some of Cézanne's impersonality had become an aspect of their personalities. Here was a lesson in continuity-which is perhaps the most fundamental of Cézanne's values.
Mercedes Matter's show this spring was in two parts, her drawings at the Studio School and her paintings at the Salander-O'Reilly Galleries. Although Matter is most frequently praised as a draftsman-it has always been her preferred subject as a teacher-it is her paintings, often based on elaborately architectural arrangements of fruit and dishes and drapery, that I like the best. She really comes into her own when she is handling strong reds and oranges and violets, so that her light, angled strokes of paint achieve a crystalline richness and the laden table lifts up into a wall of fascinating geological encrustations. It's as if a still life were turning into a landscape right before our eyes.
Andrew Forge's work-seen in a retrospective this summer at Yale's Center for British Art, which marked his retirement from the School of Art-does not make quite so overt a reference to Cézanne. But his pointillist technique does evoke Seurat, that other avatar of late nineteenth-century destabilization, and the most poetically complete paintings in the Yale show, a quartet of canvases on forest themes that hung right at the opening, have some of the piquancy of Cézanne's delicate tree trunks. Forge is interested in examining the tiniest intervals, and the gradualism of his work- which probably owes something to his studies with William Coldstream, an English painter with a fine feeling for modestly faceted Cézannesque forms--puts Cézanne's hesitations under the microscope.
Like Machotka's new book on Cézanne, the paintings of Mercedes Matter and Andrew Forge will be described by some as academic; but to declare oneself a member of the Cézanne Academy is to embrace an absolutely modern experience. Matter and Forge take us by the hand and ask us to see what they have seen. They are inveterate learners. They have spent decades in their studios hovering on the brink of total abstraction. And that bespeaks a conservatism grounded in the confounding radicalism of Cézanne's final phase.
I'm sure that both Matter and Forge would have perceptive things to say about the last gallery of the Cézanne retrospective, the only really inspired room in the show, where dozens of late drawings and watercolors are hung end-to-end. These painters would probably want to point out that even in his later years Cézanne was still starting from scratch. They would emphasize the deliberation that went into each stroke of the graphite and each dab of watercolor, so that with only a handful of angled lines Cézanne could fill a sheet of paper with light and volume and movement. There's a study of a card player in this gallery which barely covers the paper yet conveys a sense of absolute solidity. Elsewhere, with a few shivering strokes of watercolor, Cézanne plots the farthest horizons of Provence. And in what is practically the final image in the entire show, the Still Life with Blue Pot (1900-06), he brings an utterly unexpected, almost strident richness and luminosity to the watercolorist's art.
The entire range of Cézanne's
themes is recapitulated on a couple of walls. For a museumgoer who only
minutes before stood in front of the overwhelming blue-and-gray dream of
the Philadelphia Bathers, this last room can bring to mind Poussin's famous
reply to a disciple who had asked the old artist how he had accomplished
so much: "I have neglected nothing." It is a declaration of almost embarrassing
earnestness and egotism, the sort of thing you'd expect to hear from a
pedant; but coming from the lips of an artist who has brought a new kind
of magic into the world it stays in your mind. Certainly Cézanne
neglected nothing. And we are left awestruck.