Paul Cezanne's Late Paintings, Museum of Modern Art (1979)



 It can be said that 20th Century artists and critics (particularly the Cubists) -- strongly influenced by Paul Cezanne's painting -- have misinterpreted, or too narrowly defined, the artist's intentions, emphasizing but one aspect of the externals of his structural aesthetics. They latched onto the surface appearance of the paintings -- the faceted brushstrokes and planar approach to form -- at the expense of Cezanne's actual achievement, the artist's own motivations and inspiration, the intrinsic meaning of his work.


 Where Cezanne sought to create a sense of substance and solid form based on nature and expressive of his desire for a timeless durability, stability and order (forms and values that endure beyond the moment), the Cubists fragmented and destroyed nature and that sense of lasting, elemental form. Where Cezanne's figures are solid and three-dimensional and express the continuing power and worth of humanity, the Cubists -- prophets of 20th Century dehumanization -- see mankind as distorted and mechanized, both victim and appropriate functionary in a dehumanized, technological society.


 In the final twist of this misinterpretation of Cezanne's intentions, we, the present mechanized generation -- subjects and exploiters of our own technological creation -- have come to extol these impersonal values in both our aesthetics and our society. Like Dr. Strangelove, we have come to love the very forces that warp and may destroy us.


 Yet, the question can be asked, "If Paul Cezanne had lived another twenty years, would he have ended up an abstractionist?" The evidence in the exhibition of his late paintings at the Museum of Modern Art says "no." There is no indication of a slackening of his life-long use of the form and substance of reality to express his view of humanity and the world.


 The rocks in the "Bibemus Quarry" series are hard and solid, though they often slide and tumble as in the after-shock of a great quake. His fruit and the dark, massive cloths upon which they rest have a completely convincing density of form. His portraits are closely observed, three-dimensionally realized, moody depictions of human personality. And of great significance in light of past and present artists' tendencies to see Cezanne nearly entirely in terms of structural aspects, is the powerfully expressive emotionalism in all the late works that is at least as significant and contributory to their extraordinary artistic worth as his uniquely solid sense of form and compositional structure.


 If there are any paintings that might suggest a move toward abstraction, they are the late watercolors. There is a fragile solidity about the works and a tendency in some to reduce form to its basic essence. But rather than indicating a progression toward abstraction, the watercolors -- really studies of segments of nature -- are like the diary jottings of a great sensibility as it nears the end of its existence. They are notes, a final shorthand penetration into, and summing up of, the basic nature of the universe. In this respect, there is a certain similarity to the late cataclysmic drawings of whirling waters and upheaving earth of Leonardo Da Vinci, but without quite the upheaval.


 The forms quiver under the repeated touches of an other-worldly color combination of yellow, rose and blue, suggesting a degree of spiritual dematerialization that was not there in his earlier, more earthy, more realistically constructed watercolors. But it is obvious that the late watercolors are also painted from nature.


 It is the oils, however, perhaps partially due to the intrinsic substantiality of the medium, but also because they are Cezanne's major works -- the arena in which the widest, most profound range of his thought and emotion is played out -- that retain the sense of enduring form, though they, too, become spiritualized as they enter a new realm of expression. The resurgence of a strong emotionalism and a heightened symbolic intensity are most obviously stated in the repeated versions of Mt. Ste. Victoire, but also the plaster cupids, fruit compotes, sugar bowls and fruit on plates that, in their location, isolation and altitude within the pictures, surrounded by heavy, almost threatening, dark folds of expressively patterned cloth, become symbols of quest, safety or attainment as apparent and convincing as the single peak of the mountain Cezanne turned to so many times.


 We may say that Cezanne indentified psychologically with Mt. Ste. Victoire as he identified with his bowls of fruit or with particular units of fruit in pictures where there is a profusion of apples and oranges. The piles of fruit and massively heaped, sculptural cloths become, in fact, miniature mountains, the studio still-life versions of Mt. Ste. Victoire. Expressing, as mountains do, strength and durability, as well as religious significance as the mythical dwelling places of the gods, Cezanne saw in Mt. Ste. Victoire a symbol of his desire for meaning, purpose and order in life. Whatever he painted, Cezanne was after the same expressive goals.


 In much the same way, the means of Cezanne's quest found expression in many paintings, particularly landscapes, where the focus of the picture is not the objects themselves, but a vista or opening in the trees, often in the center of the picture, through which Cezanne leads us to the object of his search. This goal may be Mt. Ste. Victoire or the contemplation of nothingness, empty space, as if we await the appearance of that which is desired. Cezanne's paths in the forest and mid-to-late period bathers express this very clearly.


 Not so strangely, considering the intensity and persistence of his quest and his explicit desire for order and emotional fulfillment, there are many pictures (throughout his life; not just the late paintings) which contain, as mentioned, a sense of threat or unease. It is easy to see these troubled works as the other side of the coin, the reason for his life-long pursuit of solidity and dependability of form and composition, and the reason for the existence of vista, quest or escape pictures.


 The "Bibemus Quarry" paintings, the frightening vision of the skull-like "Chateau Noir," nearly overwhelmed by a miasma of dark trees, as well as "Blue Landscape" and some of his still-lifes, are examples of this persistent theme of threat and unease.


 Cezanne's three late portraits of his gardener, Vallier, might almost be portraits of the artist himself in their very personal intensity and expression of mood. The dark, dark green and blue-black, clenched figure of the man suggests the onset of a huge thunderstorm, the struggle of life, night or death itself.


 No matter how scorned, laughed at, dismissed and isolated Cezanne was in life, he, stroke by painted stroke, picture by picture, fought his way to artistic realization in a magnificent display of stubborn personal and creative bravery that can leave few people, aware of his achievement, unmoved.


 If the right young artists see this exhibition and recognize that Cezanne never abandoned nature and reality as the means of expressing his emotional vision of life, the positive effect on the future of art cannot help but be dramatic. Modern art, after years of diminishing returns, will be revitalized, will find its own fulfillment, its own Mt. Ste. Victoire.




Copyright by Don Gray


Don Gray Art  •  Art Essays & Art Criticisms