Cézanne Drawing - MoMA - June 6 - September 25, 2021


"But it must always be kept in mind that such analysis halts before the ultimate concrete reality of the work of art, and perhaps in proportion to the greatness of the work it must leave untouched a greater part of its objective. For Cézanne, this inadequacy is particularly sensible and in the last resort we cannot in the least explain why the smallest product of his hand arouses the impression of being a revelation of the highest importance, or what exactly it is that gives it its grave authority." - Roger Fry, Cézanne: A Study of his Development, Chicago, 1989, pp. 83-84.

Well said, but let's see what we can do anyways. The above quote is from a book I haven't read which I found in another book I've barely started, Pavel Machotka's Cézanne: Landscape Into Art, a collection of his landscape paintings paired with photographs that as nearly as possible capture the position from which Cézanne painted his motifs. Regardless of how little I've read, the first page of Machotka's preface provides a useful avenue to begin investigating Cézanne's "grave authority" when he notes that relatively few photographs of landscape paintings illuminate our understanding of a painter. The likes of Corot or Hopper are so literal that a photograph only serves as proof of the location, whereas a Vlaminck or a Bonnard take such liberties that their paintings stand apart from the scene as separate objects instead of as documents of a real space. A photograph of a Cézanne landscape, on the other hand, proves his fidelity to his subjects to the point that one can determine the exact time at which he painted because of his precise attention to light and shadow. Crucially, this fidelity is not pictorial, as with Corot, but painterly, inasmuch that his concern is not for an accurate image but an image that conveys the perceptions of his eye, an apprehension of the actual qualities of the real object being painted, such as weight, space, color, posture, and so on. The photographs function as evidence of this painterly fidelity and reorganize our understanding of his process as one that is unusually concerned with things in themselves, as opposed to the creation of images.

It certainly is, in most cases, difficult to keep this in mind, but such an aspiration to truly capture something of a real object on a two-dimensional plane is the epitome of abstraction, an idea that approaches madness or at least the quixotic. Because how can graphite or paint convey weight? How can shading articulate the imposing solidity of bodies? How in the world is it possible that Cézanne's apples should attain the heaviness of cannonballs? This is, of course, the aforementioned point where analysis halts, the mystery of representation. But if we take a single step backwards from the opacity of how the artist is able to convey the weight of stone in a brushstroke, we can identify that the primary link in the system connecting the representing subject to the represented object is not in this case the hand, which is to say technique, but rather the eye, his devotion first of all to showing what he sees. It's interesting to consider in this exhibition, amongst the fragmentary sketches from life hastily scrawled upside down from one use to the other or done directly on top of each other, his earlier works that contain a "weight" of a different, narrative character: rapes, murders, orgies, tributes to the eternal feminine, etc., in other words the energetic, distraught passions of an intemperate young man that he would spend the rest of his life struggling against. With the exception of the ongoing imaginary subjects of his bathers, his passions reoriented to the intensity of his sight, the shift to still lives, portraits, and landscapes that are in themselves more placid but for the painter no less tormented thanks to his unswerving, impossible desire to represent in full what lay in front of him.

But the impossibility of this desire is not doomed, or a mistake. Rather, it embodies the truth of desire itself, that the fullness of our dreams and perceptions are impossible to realize. The yearning to represent, in Cézanne's sense, amounts to an attempt to ensnare the fecundity of the present moment in an image, which is to say to preserve a past image of a present moment for the sake of the future. And this is impossible, because it is impossible to paint a tree. One can, at best, capture a single view of a tree at a single moment to the exclusion of every other view and moment of the tree's existence. However, as D.H. Lawrence noted, "After a fight tooth-and-nail for forty years, he did succeed in knowing an apple, fully; and, not quite as fully, a jug or two. That was all he achieved." One can be forgiven for reading this as pessimistic, but that knowing of an apple is precisely the satisfaction of that impossibility, an accomplishment that defies sense. In fact, the slightness of his achievement is in a way the finest realization of his desire, because what he desired to capture remains uncaptured and therefore unsullied. The plenitude of the Real remains infinite, as it always will. That art is this attempt to catch what cannot be caught is the last refuge of romanticism, the urge to preserve the fullness of our desires and perhaps in exceptional circumstances realize some small sliver of their depths. As such, one could argue that art may serve less to generate the ends of a produced artwork and more to perpetuate the artist's experience of this plenitude of the possibilities of representation. To be a painter of still lives is not first and foremost to paint, but rather the drive to look at objects on a table without exhausting one's vision, to be continually immersed in seeing in a way that one couldn't otherwise justify if one did not paint. But it is still also to be immersed in painting, in the abstract process that is representation. For what could be more abstract than the reality of a tree, or the shadow of a mountain, or the discrete details that distinguish one individual from another? This ambiguity of Cézanne's eye that ushered in the 20th century remains irreducible because it stands at the truest point of what it is to paint, that to represent is not to recreate or even to show but to produce qualities through the usage of color and line. Another truth that he realized, perhaps more than anyone, which distinguishes him as one of the greatest, most generously productive painters, is that he knew what far too few artists know now: that nature is a million times more creative than the most creative artist.