Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 24, 2010
Joseph J. Rishel and Katherine Sachs, eds. Cézanne and Beyond Exh. cat. Philadelphia and New Haven: Philadelphia Museum of Art in association with Yale University Press, 2009. 600 pp.; 85 color ills.; 483 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780300141061)
Exhibition schedule: Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, February 26–May 17, 2009
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Cézanne and Beyond is the impressive catalogue published on the occasion of the eponymous exhibition held at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2009. Conceived as a companion to the catalogue of the 1995–96 Cézanne retrospective, also shown in Philadelphia, which spelled out the critical fortunes of Cézanne’s art during his lifetime, this volume focuses exclusively on the artistic reception of Cézanne’s art as seen in the work of sixteen artists ranging from Henri Matisse to Jeff Wall. Joseph Rishel and Katherine Sachs, the editors of Cézanne and Beyond (and the major organizers of the exhibition), make clear in the introduction that their focus was only on the response of artists who came of age after Cézanne. Consequently, none of the artists singled out in this catalogue ever met Cézanne and many were even born after his death.

Richard Shiff’s essay, “Lucky Cézanne (Cézanne Tychique),” describes the circumstances of Cézanne’s reception in the years immediately following his death in 1906. In 1907, the Salon d’Automne dedicated two rooms to showing his paintings, watercolors, and drawings. The same year saw the publication of important articles by Charles Morice, Maurice Denis, and Emile Bernard, the latter two authors including reported statements by and conversations with the artist in their texts. Invoking the notion of tychism coined by American philosopher Charles Sanders Pierce in the 1890s, Shiff suggests that Cézanne’s art has had a tychic effect on generations of subsequent artists, a chain reaction of “chance contiguities and alignments” (83). Shiff’s essay offers a welcome framework with which the reader can process the cascade of artists who are linked to Cézanne through inspiration, affinity, analogy, correspondence, attraction, and other tychic terminology in the pages that follow.

Two essays establish Cézanne’s importance for Henri Matisse, on one hand, and Pablo Picasso, on the other—certainly the most important artists to have grappled with Cézanne’s legacy. Like many artists of their generation, both men emulated Cézanne’s iconography and style early in their respective careers. It was not until 1904–05, however, as Yve-Alain Bois explains in his contribution, that Matisse began to creatively “misread” Cézanne as a way to help move him out of the cul-de-sac of pointillism. Finding support in Cézanne’s reported comment that drawing and color are not distinct but are the results of a unified process of painting, Matisse began to approach his canvases as energetic fields in which the relative scale of color areas, which simultaneously established hue and edge, became the basis for a “decorative” conception of pictorial space. John Elderfield uses Picasso’s famous remark that Cézanne’s significance lies not in his art but in his anxiety as the basis for suggesting that Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) is best understood as a desublimation of Cézanne’s Large Bathers (1894–1906). Cézanne’s extremism, Elderfield argues, with its wrenching distortion of space and “savage linearity” (220), spoke to Picasso’s discomfiture as a vehicle for the expression of private emotions and uncertainties, all of which required jettisoning conventional canons of beauty. “Work by instinct,” Elderfield proposes, “. . . was perhaps Cézanne’s greatest bequest to modern art” (225). John Golding’s essay shows that Georges Braque’s exploration of Cézannesque, “fluid” space in canvases dating from 1907–08 laid the groundwork for both his and Picasso’s development of Analytic Cubism.

Subsequent essays in the catalogue explore the impact of Cézanne’s art as it increasingly became a thing of the past. Ferdinand Léger, discussed by Christopher Green, and Liubov Popova, discussed by Albert Kostenevich, were deeply influenced by Cubism and indirectly by Cézanne. The increasing distance from Cézanne represented by the work of these artists can be measured by their adaptation of the vocabulary of Cubism to the celebration of technological and social progress, both aspects of a modern world that Cézanne himself bemoaned in his late life. For Max Beckmann and Piet Mondrian, examined by Anabelle Keible and Joop Joostein respectively, Cézanne functioned more as a signpost on the march toward their unique visions of modern painting, one based on discovering the “magic of reality” (318) and the other on treating line and color as themselves the elements of a new “plastic” reality within the space of the canvas surface (137). In an essay on Alberto Giacometti, Carolyn Lanchner argues that the quivering contours and expressionless figures characteristic of his late work invite comparison with Cézanne’s own later output. Each artist sought to grapple with the difficulty of translating his sensations into art.

Some of the remaining essays read as though they were complementary pairs. This is the case, for example, with Mark Mitchell’s essay on Charles Demuth and Michael Taylor’s essay on Arshile Gorky, both artists who turned to Cézanne’s technique for inspiration. In Demuth’s case, it was Cézanne’s watercolor technique and its expression of “the excitement of the outdoors” (288) that was of most interest, whereas it was Cézanne’s technique of oil painting that captured Gorky’s enthusiasm. Demuth’s Cézanne-inspired watercolors have only a loose resemblance to Cézanne’s work in the medium. Gorky, conversely, became a virtuoso imitator of Cézanne’s oil painting technique, which Taylor describes as a form of identification and possible rivalry with Cézanne (419). Rishel’s discussion of Madsen Hartley and Jennie Hirsch’s text on Georgio Morandi also seem to form a complementary pair. For the American Hartley, understanding Cézanne required seeing the same views and breathing the same air as had the artist. Rishel describes Hartley’s sojourn in Cézanne’s hometown of Aix-en-Provence, where he rented a house on the grounds of the Chateau Noir, one of Cézanne’s preferred motifs in his late career. Hartley’s attraction to the French painter served him poorly, Rishel notes, during the isolationism of the 1930s, when the American art world increasingly turned toward regionalism and looked with skepticism upon those espousing foreign ideals (167). In a similar manner, under Fascism and in the context of the general effort to establish a new, authentically Italian art, Morandi’s interest in Cézanne exposed him to criticism, despite his support for the Fascist cause (369).

The four final essays in the volume, all focused on North American artists, bring the story of affinities and analogies with Cézanne through the post-war generation to the present day. Roberta Bernstein argues that Jasper Johns has been drawn throughout his career both to Cézanne’s earnestness and Marcel Duchamp’s irony, key elements of his art that he has refused to consider incompatible. Johns’s tracings after Cézanne’s canvases of bathers excavate what Johns called something “underneath” the image, a smoldering carnality that he brings to the surface (469). In an essay on Ellsworth Kelly and Cézanne, Katherine Sachs suggests affinities between their mutual focusing on nature as the basis of their paintings and drawings. If Kelly’s turn to the givens of the natural world became a strategy of non-composition, as Sachs suggests, Cézanne’s interest in the natural world always took him beyond it into the realm of subjective sensation and emotion. For Brice Marden, Sachs explains, Cézanne is quite simply a “hero” (501). Like Cézanne, Marden understands the process of painting, of giving and taking, as the main point of the enterprise. Perhaps the weakest of the affinities with Cézanne discussed in this volume is the one ascribed to Jeff Wall. Jean-François Chevrier’s essay quotes no supporting remarks by the photographer, nor does it insist on iconographic parallels between Wall’s photographs and Cézanne’s paintings. For Wall, we read, Cézanne was an example simply in the way he “transformed the legacy of the masters . . . to adapt it to his own ambitions” (519).

In comments at the very beginning of the catalogue, Robert Storr notes that this kind of publication (and exhibition) inevitably invites quibbles. For my part, I would like to have seen André Masson included, given his crucial engagement with Cézanne during the 1950s. Robert Irwin also would have been relevant, since he has referred to Cézanne as one of the sources for his light and space art. Of course, no single study can account entirely for all the ever-expanding network of affiliations, affinities, and analogies between Cézanne’s art and the work of those who came after him. As it stands, Cézanne and Beyond is an ambitious and important contribution to critical thinking and documentation of the many strands of tychic association that can be traced from Cézanne into twentieth- and twenty-first century art.

Matthew Simms
Professor, Department of Art, California State University, Long Beach

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.