Paul Cézanne was trying to tell us something.
That was the strong sensation I had while viewing the exhibition of his drawings and watercolors, now at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City through 25 September.
Cézanne is an artist whose work has enthralled me since I began looking seriously at paintings. His watercolors are especially magnetic as you can easily see the full buildup of the brushstrokes. The overlapping color swatches can produce a kind of mesmerizing shimmer, dissolving the subject into a luminous tapestry evoking movement and time. They are, at their best, sublime.
Beyond the visual splendor though, what grabbed me anew when I saw this most recent show was the sense of dedication to a vision of the world, a vision of constant flow and unseen energies. It put me in mind of Lucretius, who in his book On Nature described a universe of ceaseless atomic activity that animated the world as we experience it.
William James likened the interior flow of our thoughts to the movements of a bird, a succession of “flights and perchings.” James, who coined the term stream of consciousness, went on to cast the difficulty of capturing the essence of our flights of thought in almost quantum terms (decades before Heisenberg formulated his uncertainty principle), comparing them to a snowflake crystal which when “caught in the warm hand is no longer a crystal but a drop.” In observing the flights of thought we risk obliterating one of their vital qualities—evanescence. James surmised that as a result, the perchings got more attention, inferring that we are losing a lot of the the story by not finding ways to learn more about the flights.
Far from Harvard, at around the same time, Cézanne was making his pictures of the Provence landscapes he loved and wrestling with a similar conundrum—how to depict the unceasing flow and energy of nature he felt so deeply in the static medium of painting.
Cézanne was at heart a traditionalist, despite inadvertently precipitating Cubism. He loved the paintings he saw in the Louvre by Poussin, Veronese, Velázquez, and others, and he wanted nothing more than to emulate what he felt was the solidity and permanence in those pictures. His most famous quote comes from a letter to his amanuensis Émile Bernard in 1904, “Treat nature by means of the cylinder, the sphere, the cone…” That widely known statement has cemented Cézanne’s renown as the grand geometer of painting.
Ask almost any painter or viewer who has looked at Cézanne with care though, and they’ll talk first about the sense of movement, flux, or time that emanates from Cézanne’s works. Nowhere is this more evident than in his watercolors where the translucence of the paint allows us to see the serial nature of its application, and the resulting depth and interplay of the layers and color.
The challenge for Cézanne of reconciling motion and solidity, stillness and flux, was rife with inherent contradiction. But tilting at contradictions — seeking to trap the transient flights of the mind, track the wayward electron, depict flow in static paint — can sometimes lead to something totally new and to strange beauties. Like quantum mechanics for instance, a rigorous and so far flawless scientific explanation of the universe at its most fundamental level, discovered by our most devout empiricists, and rooted in — of all things — chance.
Despite Cézanne’s reputation as an innovative formalist who developed a system of painting using shards of color that anticipated the fractured styles of the 20th century, his second-most famous quote is probably “With every brushstroke, I risk my life!” Not the declaration of a cool theorist, and it feels less like self-aggrandizing theatrics if you consider the complexity of the fabric Cézanne was trying to weave on the canvas, and the difficulty of imparting the motion of the world into paintings that retained architectural heft. It meant harmonizing hundreds or thousands interdependent relationships of color and brushstrokes. Joachim Gasquet, a young writer who accompanied Cézanne on some of his landscape painting sessions, reported the painter sometimes took 15 minutes between brushstrokes. Often he left paintings unfinished, presumably because he saw no way forward without blowing up the fine-tuned balances.
After seeing the exhibition I read Gasquet’s Cézanne, A Memoir in Conversations, where Lucretius in fact makes a cameo. In the book, Gasquet recounts things the artist told him while he was painting. “When I read Lucretius, I drench myself with those first huge rainbows, those cosmic prisms,” he says to Gasquet. “I feel as if I’m saturated by all the shades of the infinite. At that moment, I and my picture are one.” If Gasquet’s renditions of the truculent Cézanne’s sayings are suspiciously florid, I think we can still assume they came from viable seeds. In a later painting session, he tells Gasquet, “Everything is connected. Believe me, if my canvas is imbued with the vague, cosmic religious feeling which moves and improves me, it’s going to affect others at a point of their sensibility that they may not be aware of.”
The things I’ve reaped from Cézanne’s paintings have changed over the years, and that’s natural not just because we change but because of the enigmatic nature of Cézanne’s work. Scholars and critics often deem him among the most difficult artists to come to terms with, even more than a century after his death. I thought a lot about his work in the weeks following my visit to the exhibition, and re-evaluated much of what I’ve read about him and my past takes on his work.
The overwhelming feeling I got from this show was that for Cézanne the endeavor of his life from around his 40th year was to fuse his penetrating visual analysis of his subjects with an almost mythical metaphysic. When you get a sense of something that big in an artist’s work and career — the depth of ambition and commitment to a vision, pursued with unflagging intensity — it’s hopeful, it’s touching, and it’s deeply inspiring.