On ViewThe Museum of Modern Art
June 6, 2021 – September 25, 2021
With this extensive exhibition of more than 250 works from across Paul Cézanne’s career, MoMA aimed to find new insights by concentrating on the development of the artist’s use of pencil and watercolor on paper, often in the form of sketchbook pages. Cézanne preferred industrially produced pencils, watercolors, and paper from a supplier in his local town, Aix-en-Provence. With the same materials always at hand, we see the subjects familiar from his later paintings quickly replace the violent or erotic fantasy tableaux of the artist’s early career. Cézanne brings his radical and extreme engagement with the practice of painting to his work on paper, endowing what is ostensibly conventional subject matter—landscapes, portraits, interiors, and still lifes—with an unpredictable charge. The first room of the exhibition begins with early work and one gallery after another unfolds chronologically in sequence. Within this progression, works are often grouped thematically—works on paper are also occasionally placed next to paintings, providing a chance to track the relation between them. An extraordinary intensity comes slowly into view, as Cézanne progressively divests himself of any regard for the usual conceptions of finish or unnecessary embellishment.
After meeting fellow painter and anti-traditionalist Camille Pissarro in 1861, Cézanne relinquished a bohemian lifestyle in favor of rigorous dedication to his work. The romantic became disciplined, but retained his fierce temperament. Rage, too, and disappointment followed as each of his paintings seemed to fail in the enigmatic quality he called la realization. This was a trait Cézanne found in abundance in, for example, the works of Venetian painters he admired in the Louvre—the artist’s thoughts on this subject are marvelously recorded in Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub’s short film Une Visite au Louvre (2004), where Cézanne’s remarks to the poet Joachim Gasquet are read aloud as the camera lingers on the paintings that the artist describes. The endless pursuit of la realization, Cézanne thought, had been accurately invoked in Balzac’s 1831 short story “Le Chef-d’uvre inconnu” (The Unknown Masterpiece), which concerns a painting reworked for years by the fictitious painter Frenhofer. Upon completing it, however, the artist succumbs to madness. When he read the story, Cézanne had immediately identified with Frenhofer’s quixotic dedication. Balzac realized that painting could open onto experiences too huge and intense for any individual to fully understand or endure. As much as we can see Cézanne’s immense achievement in the many works in this exhibition, we recognize that this success depends on his ability to hold Frenhofer’s end in abeyance. Cézanne’s greatness is in process—always on the way, but never arriving at a fixed conclusion.
Knowing that Cézanne produced over 2,100 extant works on paper it is impossible to escape the feeling that the artist, who got up at 6 a.m. and didn’t leave the studio until 10 p.m., was on a spiritual quest. He was a committed Catholic who regularly attended church on Sundays, but he also stayed away from his mother’s funeral so as not to miss a day’s work. In a letter dated October 9, 1907—just a year after Cézanne’s death on October 22 of the previous year—Rainer Maria Rilke wrote of the apples, bottles, and other everyday items that populate Cézanne’s paintings: “And (like van Gogh) he makes his ‘saints’ out of such things; and forces them—forces them—to be beautiful, to stand for the whole world and all joy and all glory, and he doesn’t know whether he has succeeded in making them do it for him.” The linked intensity and unknowability that Rilke describes in Cézanne’s project are clear to see in the drawings and watercolors on view at MoMA.
Once more, from Rilke, “Beginning again in front of landscape, nature, Cézanne regarded colors as numinous essences beyond which he ‘knew’ nothing, and the ‘diamond zones of God’ remained white.” Are the drawn or painted areas of the sheet representative of what Cézanne knows, while the sheet’s unmarked areas represent what he doesn’t? The late oil on canvas Study of Trees (la Route tournante) (ca. 1904) explicitly connects to the late works on paper in Cézanne’s treatment of the unworked areas. Consider, for example, the watercolor Mont Sainte-Victoire (La Montagne Sainte-Victoire vue des Lauves en hiver) (1901–06). Both of these works appear to be in the midst of appearing or disappearing—in a process comparable to the Pre-Socratic conception of nature, Physis. The word has no cognate in English but means something like “to grow” or “to appear.” It refers, above all else, to a process or movement. The sense of the road and trees, or the mountain and landscape, are far from impressions: they produce an image that corresponds not to rational thought, but broaches instead the impossible questions of being and its contingency—our relation not to the world, but with or in it. Until these unanswerable questions are answered, Cézanne’s drawings, watercolors, and paintings will intrigue, confound, inspire and console. About this I think there can be no doubt.