“Cézanne in Provence”

Artists, so the myth says, are supposed to go off in search of adventure. Paul Cézanne did it for awhile, making his way to Paris to soak up both the excitement of the metropolis and the lessons of works by recent masters such as Delacroix, Courbet, and Manet. But unlike Picasso, who moved to that same city for similar intellectual stimulation, or Gauguin, who left it for the promise of exoticism in Tahiti, Cézanne can’t be characterized by his decision to leave home. Indeed, his career-defining decision was always to return from his excursions in Paris, re-entering the orbit of his family in Aix-en-Provence and painting in relative isolation.

For many other artists, this might smell like failure—after all, staying home with your parents is generally not a move forward. But for Cézanne, the landscape of his home region would prove to be endlessly fertile. That’s certainly what the National Gallery of Art’s “Cézanne in Provence” intends to show. The exhibition’s 117 oil paintings and watercolors are arranged thematically, broken down by location and subject rather than strict chronology—although generally, the earliest, silliest works tend to appear in the first few rooms. The show presents Cézanne as a product of a definite place, and his paintings as documents of that place’s history—geologic records, as it were, that show nature slowly shrugging off man’s schemes and interventions.

It was said for a long time that nothing Cézanne chose to paint mattered—which was, of course, a good thing. This was the argument advanced by a generation of modernist critics, and few other artists have been so strongly identified with either the genesis of that movement or with purely formalist strategies for painting. Never mind the apples and the pine trees, theorists such as Roger Fry and Clement Greenberg insisted. In their view, subject matter was only a pretext for Cézanne. One needs to pay exclusive attention to his compositional structures and paint handling, they said. Look at the syntax, not the meaning.

Of late, though, there have been a number of new publications examining Cézanne’s politics and, without casting him as some kind of regionalist per se, emphasizing his ties to local culture. The first room of the show offers views the artist painted of his family estate: the manor house of the Jas de Bouffan and the chestnut trees around it. These paintings date mostly from the 1870s and ’80s and illustrate the tremendous impact Pissarro had on Cézanne’s working methods. Beginning in 1866, the older artist brought Cézanne around to both painting outdoors and to “broken” impressionist brushwork. House With the Red Roof (Jas de Bouffan) (1885–1886) illustrates the strange collision that takes place in all of Cézanne’s best work—between that flickering broken stroke, meant to show the action of light, and the painter’s continued insistence on the solidity of things.

The house in the picture, despite the bright red triangle of its roof and the crisp edge of a supporting wall defined by dark, enclosing blue-greens, leans uncertainly to the left, seemingly prepared to slide off its foundation into oblivion. Flurries of green and violet paint, applied in short, clumpy diagonals and representing foliage and sky, press into the center of the picture, crowding out the house from the left and bottom and threatening to swallow it altogether. This is no mere delight in the purely optical sensations many impressionists sought. Instead, it is a battle between two different ideas for picturing the world: one of definite limits and geometry, another of matter woven into an undulating, frenetic mass.

Before meeting Pissarro, Cézanne didn’t paint this way. The second room shows Cézanne’s early portraits of family and friends, executed in what he referred to as his couillarde (“ballsy”) style. This is Cézanne as he was on his first expedition to Paris, slathering paint on in ridiculously thick impasto with a palette knife. He used this style to execute his portrait of Antony Valabregue (1866), hoping to provoke with its heavy-handedness. Valabregue’s prominent forehead juts impossibly to the left, making his image appear crudely unobserved. In places, the thickly applied paint has puckered and shriveled as it has oxidized. Valabregue’s clenched fists look like undefined slabs of red meat; his petulant lower lip is a thick dollop of pink. There’s none of the modulation here that defines the best of Cézanne’s work—only self-indulgent bravado married to slack draftsmanship. The paint is juicy but never seductive.

In his catalog essay, curator Philip Conisbee ventures that this sludgy technique was a defense mechanism, employed by a young artist who was a fine draftsman but understood little about oil paint. Cézanne’s personal posturing while in Paris also looks like thinly veiled defensiveness: He attempted to cast himself as a rugged provincial, crude in manner and dress. Think here of the famous incident in which Cézanne refused to shake Manet’s hand, proudly announcing that he hadn’t had a bath in a week—or of his delivery to a salon of one of his paintings in a wheelbarrow. Sophomoric stuff, to be sure, as symbolically important as it might have been. The artist did better when he attempted to embody his native place in paint, not persona, carefully choosing his motifs and repeating the ones that pleased him again and again: the sea at L’Estaque, Mount Sainte-Victoire, the Château Noir. Cézanne spent his mature years grappling with what he must have understood were powerful metaphors for his own subjectivity.

The strongest pieces in the show tend to be in the two rooms devoted to Cézanne’s studies of the Bibemus Quarry and the Château Noir, undertaken from the early 1890s to the last couple of years before his 1906 death. These paintings are the most impressive examples of Cézanne’s supreme magic trick of conveying several modes of visual perception at once: sensations of light and color, certainly, but also of, well, heft. Done in the shadows of an abandoned quarry, the works range from thinner oil sketches to full, glistening accretions of green and orange. In Rocks Near the Grottoes Above the Château Noir (1904), light, shadow, tree, and rock are all rendered as eruptions of patchy color and broken line. This upheaval of matter crowds out the sky in the top of the picture; here and there, it coheres enough to convey the presence of things, but only as if seen peripherally. The effect is a nervous, halting sort of beauty.

In related watercolors such as Pine and Rocks at the Château Noir (1900) and Rocks Near the Grottoes Above the Château Noir (1895–1900), Cézanne puts light and color in the service of locating depths; they cling to crevasses and other surface interruptions that seem to swallow them, as if these features were black holes. In both rooms, nature is depicted as ravenous, seeming to take human structures to pieces. In the 1900–1904 oil painting Château Noir, a small house looks as if it’s about to disappear from the center of the picture, broken apart by twists of gnarled bare branches and flurries of pine. In another oil, similarly composed and bearing the same title, a stand of trees bulges in front of the house, blocking much of it from view and seeming poised to lift the structure from the ground and into the sky. Once again, Cézanne is interested not just in the play of light but also in the dynamism of soil, in the shift of continents and seas.

It’s tempting to identify all of this as Cézanne’s sublimated fear of his own mortality, made acute after he began to suffer from diabetes in 1890 and, shortly thereafter, converted to Catholicism—to prevent, as he put it, his “roasting in æternum.” His work, so apparently materialist, begins to look nearly metaphysical in scope. In the catalog, Conisbee quotes Cézanne describing his beloved mountain, the one he depicted again and again: “Look at Sainte-Victoire there. How it soars, how imperiously it thirsts for the sun! How melancholy it is in the evening when all its weight sinks back….Those blocks were made of fire and there’s still fire in them. During the day shadows seem to creep back with a shiver, as if afraid of them.” This is no mere excited eye looking for a novel way of envisioning the world; this is someone determined to master and embody unseen forces. As the intensity of Cézanne’s brushwork increases, he seems more and more bent on echoing the power of original genesis—heavy stuff for a provincial landscape painter.

With all this in mind, Cézanne’s last great series—his bathers, appearing mostly between 1894 and 1906, and presented in the next-to-last room in the exhibition—no longer seems like the exception in his oeuvre. Still, there’s something undeniably strange about a painter so determined to have firsthand contact with his subjects deciding to construct paintings entirely from memory and imagination, apparently fixed on recalling the figures in much-admired artworks by Courbet and Poussin. In Large Bathers (1894–1905), Cézanne worked and reworked countless choppy blue contour lines; the painting shows not bodies themselves but the positions and attitudes of bodies. Faces are practically featureless; blobs of shadow congeal here and there without ever forming eyes, noses, or mouths. Rather than solid forms, these figures appear to be masses of air.

The thing to keep in mind here is that Cézanne’s approach to these works was really no more conceptual than his process for interpreting light and color in general. With the bathers, Cézanne went after artistic forces, not natural ones, attempting to define his experiences with pictures in a museum. The modernists, of course, saw this as the thrust of the artist’s entire program. But only the bathers truly come close to being art for art’s sake, which “Cézanne in Provence” makes clear without obscuring the series’ connection to the rest of Cézanne’s production.

This we’ve always known: that Cézanne, the most adventurous of early modern artists, stayed home—that he found all the tools for his new way of seeing in his own backyard. The importance of that backyard itself is what newer views of Cézanne have promoted, which reflects the conditional nature of most histories. The past looks different to each succeeding generation, and our awareness of Cézanne, as either the granddaddy of Cubism or an exceptionally sensitive local historian, is contingent on the character of the present moment. In “Cézanne in Provence,” you can see that awareness changing—exactly the kind of powerful, slow-moving transformation that its subject would appreciate.CP