Peel Slowly and See

T. J. Clark’s impressions of Cézanne out of time

Paul Cézanne, Still Life with Apples, 1893–95, oil on canvas, 25 3/4 x 32 1/8''.


THE MOST PUZZLING THING about T. J. Clark’s new book is its title. If These Apples Should Fall: Cézanne and the Present suggests a contemporaneity, even a topicality, that never comes. Most of the chapters derive from texts written years ago, and all the pulsations of the present day—its politics, crises, and fashions—ring somewhere beyond the book’s ambit. For the author, Paul Cézanne’s present tense instead resides in the moment of looking itself: “I want . . . a writing,” Clark issues, “that finds ways to linger for a moment in the state induced, time and again, by a new Cézanne, or an old one encountered after long enough away . . . the feeling of the world ‘occurring’ in this particular pattern of line and colour, and pushing both to behaviours that are more like conjuration than composition . . . more like . . .” Clark elliptically leaves the sentence hanging before a paragraph break. “More like what?”

Lauren Berlant once described ellipses as punctuation for sentences that “I don’t end because . . . I don’t know how to” or “I don’t end because . . . you know what I mean.” Clark teases both conditions in a book that runs something of an oblique victory lap around European modern art’s most bountiful reserve of interpretation. In her 2009 book on the artist, Susan Sidlauskas noted that “the body of scholarship on Cézanne is among the weightiest in art history.” If These Apples Should Fall doesn’t so much answer this scholarship or correct an art-historical course as it distends the scholar’s moments of study into an elaborated, loping encounter with the artist’s work. Clark writes that his book “gathers together efforts, made over decades, to come to terms with the strangeness as well as the beauty of Cézanne’s achievement.” Ever since Merleau-Ponty spoke of the “feeling of strangeness” as the “one emotion” possible for the artist, estrangement has become the privileged desideratum in Cézanne commentary. The late Peter Schjeldahl rued its absence when reviewing the Museum of Modern Art’s “Cézanne Drawing” exhibition last year: “Lost, to my mind, is the strangeness . . . that had to have affected Cézanne’s first viewers.” In 2018’s Cézanne’s Gravity, Carol Armstrong wanted to make the Aixois painter’s work “quite as strange as it deserves to be seen,” to erect an interpretative bulwark of sorts against “canon-critique from feminist and other quarters” as well as the challenge posed by “what may loosely be called a postmodernist sensibility.” Clark himself invokes strangeness almost fifty times in If These Apples Should Fall (“the sheer strangeness of House and Tree”; “the strange whorls and openings of Still Life’s white tablecloth”). Strangeness secures Cézanne’s legacy as modernism as such: the angles that don’t match up in a still-life; the Provençal topography built from both dumb canvas and unbounded form; the “weird anima” and “mysterious shiftiness of the scene under our eyes,” as D. H. Lawrence wrote.

Paul Cézanne, The House and Tree, 1874–75, oil on canvas, 25 5/8 x 21 1/4".

In his effort to recover the artist’s strangeness, Clark turns to familiar Cézannian subjects (apples, mountains, cardplayers) and interlocutors (Roger Fry, Meyer Schapiro, Rilke). Painting predominates, despite recent foci on other media (as seen in the MoMA show). Yet readers of Clark’s last volume, Heaven on Earth: Painting and the Life to Come (2018), will find a more heterogenous cohort of texts this time around. The first chapter, adapted from an exhibition review, tracks the frictions and sympathies during Cézanne and Pissarro’s studies together. Another is a watchful explication of the cardplayer paintings that originated as a catalogue essay, while “Cézanne’s Material,” on the still lifes, works through a series of journal entries Clark wrote in 2016, not unlike the technique of his 2008 book, The Sight of Death: An Experiment in Art Writing. “Matisse in the Garden” concentrates on the younger painter but follows Cézanne as the groundwater under the quondam Fauve’s pleasure-bound botanical scenes. The introduction even hazards some poetry written by a teenage Clark in the 1950s: “Look at the playing card fields and the tallest tree, raising its stubby hands / In prayer or surrender.” Within the confines of the monographic treatment, Cézanne’s art demands a discursive itinerancy, one where Clark travels down every hermeneutic path the work sets forth.

What drives If Apples Should Fall is less the task of scholarly exposition than the swelling momentum of interpretation itself.

If a painter such as van Gogh promises feeling in art above all, Cézanne always beckons with the allure of form. Any writing on him must approach the moving target of aesthetic experience with language’s distance. Texts on the artist are often about themselves, and faced with the French paragon, Clark wields his usual rhetorical arsenal. There are the self-reflexive jerks backward: “maybe that opening paragraph moves too far too fast”; “‘touch’ in the sentence before last may be smuggling in too much animation.” There are the tutorial imperatives: “Ask the question of Still Life with Apples, then”; “Compare the Orsay and Courtauld pictures again”; “Keep the ridiculous pool in sight.” These maneuvers, coupled with a tone both chatty and always-already erudite, have positioned Clark outside the phantasmal category of academic writing even as he stands among art history’s most constant curricular fixtures. He has recently described his mode as “a performance of the picture—meaning that the thing itself . . . will be constantly, vitally, discontentedly present in the writing we do, as the reality our writing moves toward and always misses. Misses but maybe gets closer to—in ways that throw up new possibilities of phrasing, new tempi, new kinds of rubato, new instrumentation.”

What drives If Apples Should Fall is less the task of scholarly exposition than the swelling momentum of interpretation itself. Some theses crystallize from longer musings: “Modernity is loss of world. Cézanne is the painter who makes that cliché draw blood.” Others must be earned in bouts of Clarkian auto-interrogation. When he is compelled in one moment to ask himself what “Cézanne’s art is ‘about,’” the author concedes that “if I do not at least sketch an answer, I shall have colluded in what seems to me the dreariest remainder of the early-twentieth-century myth of Cézanne: the myth of his paintings’ utter ineffability. Because a picture is not a proposition does not mean it cannot be translated into one or more.” Yet a page later, “because the embedded propositions in Cézanne are so simple and primordial, and so entirely dependent on ironic feats of matter—of paint—to breathe life and death back into them, putting them into words is exactly betraying ‘what they have to say’ about material existence.” And so follows Emily Dickinson’s “I died for Beauty—but was scarce,” reprinted in full as ersatz commentary.

Paul Cézanne, The Card Players, ca. 1882–94, oil on canvas, 18 1/2 x 22 1/4''.

If These Apples Should Fall confirms that Clark should rarely be read for his “takeaways” or “arguments.” Even in his classic The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers (1985), each chapter dispensed with its thesis in the very first lines. Not unlike those of Sebald or Brecht (or Berlant), Clark’s gestures function as demonstrations of method foremost. It’s unclear what experts on the artist might glean from these sustained poetics besides the pleasures of rhetorical figuration, or if the casual readers presumed by the phalanx of copies available for sale at the Tate Modern’s current Cézanne exhibition exist in practice. Sentence after sentence, Clark’s observations can be unforgettable, as when he spots the “tremendous synecdoche” of the “little underworld” beneath the table in the Musée d’Orsay’s Card Players, ca. 1892–94, (a detail he then instantly dismisses!)—or distant and unapproachable. When later in the same chapter Clark affirms that “It is the Courtauld painting, I feel, that most fully deserves to live in the same space as the greatest of Cézanne’s still lifes,” it seems as if half the audience has by then left the room.

In these more-than-close readings, social and historical worlds open up tentatively: Faced with Cézanne’s Still Life with Apples, ca. 1893–95, at the Getty, Clark takes in details like “the sugar bowl perched on its carpet” and realizes that the painting was “already pointing me towards Marx,” specifically chapter one of Capital, “where Marx is struggling to characterize the ‘being-for-us’ of the new world of mass-produced commodities.” This “sacred text” chimes with “Cézanne’s sense of the new form of the object-world,” buttressed by Rilke’s related description of the painting in a 1907 letter. “Marx and Rilke were edging me towards a ‘social’ view of matter and space,” Clark continues. “But weren’t they beckoning me in a too comfortable, too predictable, direction? Isn’t there a side to Cézanne’s materialism that disdains the social . . . that shrugs off the very idea of the human?” Clark’s compromise for Still Life with Apples then leads to something like a malerisch phenomenology of commodity fetishism—one where “our objects have never been more ours,” yet entertain too many realities (pictorial, material, semiotic) to sit in real proximity to the subject. The sugar bowl is both mundane and deeply weird, transmogrifying the otherwise organic fruits into a display of artificial entities.

These glimpses onto relations of production flicker only occasionally in If These Apples Should Fall. We are in different political territory from the author who in the 1970s influentially wrote of the “concrete transactions . . . hidden behind the mechanical image of ‘reflection’” that made up social art history’s concerns. Cézanne is not Courbet, after all. And as André Dombrowski has expressed, “the more formal aspects of Cézanne’s practice will always resist a full usurpation into an interpretation relying heavily on historical and contextual facts.” Indeed, whether remarked upon by Merleau-Ponty—awed before the artist’s “flight from the human world”—or a terrified Hans Sedlmayr—aghast at “the eruption of the extra-human” his work seemed to portend—Cézanne’s extradition of the human and the humanly has long distinguished his modernism. But as his book proceeds, Clark invokes this quality to articulate a broader skepticism toward art history’s historicism writ large. “Right-thinking art-lovers have been taught for several decades now to hold the category ‘aesthetic’ in suspicion,” the author opines. “It is held to usher in a world of universals, at the opposite end of the spectrum from the concepts we need if our aim is to grasp the work of art’s particularity—concepts like ‘history,’ ‘ideology,’ and ‘production.’” Clark sympathizes, but such a posture “has come to be [art history’s] cross,” an “alibi . . . for not exposing oneself to what painting is capable of.” What art actually does in its singularity exceeds any of the frameworks we might throw at it. (Nina Athanassoglou-Kallmyer’s celebrated, hyperlocal Cézanne and Provence: The Painter in His Culture from 2003 gets labeled as “a fine piece of disenchanting art history” in a footnote.)

Henri Matisse, Studio, Quai Saint-Michel, 1917, oil on canvas, 58 1/4 x 46''.

From this formalism Clark derives a curious political ethos he names “hedonism.” The author finds it in Matisse, by way of Cézanne, in the book’s final chapter. The younger artist’s Garden at Issy (The Studio in Clamart) and Studio, Quai Saint-Michel from the shattering year of 1917 prove the hedonistic value of placing “one’s trust in the realm of the senses,” of exhibiting “ruthless aesthetic concentration” in defense against modernity’s sundry horrors. In contrast to the severe political programs of a revolutionary artist like Varvara Stepanova (and strangely, Jörg Immendorff), Matisse proves that “the charge of escapism, of emptiness, of mere aesthetic exercise” is indeed one of modernism’s most serious responsibilities, one that should “never go away.” Matisse here acts as a sensualist wingman for Cézanne, spinning the latter’s asocial strangeness into an Epicurean technique for enduring history itself. 

Paul Cézanne, Scipio, 1866–68, oil on canvas, 42 1/8 x 32 5/8''.

In Clark’s hands, Cézanne’s practice is at once singular and a paradigm for an art history that lets in the world only when it needs to. In Cézanne’s Gravity, a book comparable to Clark’s in its summary gaze, Armstrong sought to redeem the artist in part through an interdisciplinary approach, where if Cézanne in his strangeness could be brought to bear on Einstein’s physics or Woolf’s fiction, he could be released from the teleological prison of modernist painting and gain newfound relevance. Clark is less concerned with rescuing Cézanne: This art, he suggests, will unfold in its own present of vision and paint and unfastening form. And it is Clark’s careful, self-entangling writing which brings such untimeliness to life. Such concentrated focus could be said to honor what the artist did and wanted, but this tact risks privatizing interpretation, hemming the work in to the lines and shapes of individual perception. Perhaps art need not be thought as the labile, vital force against history’s clumsy, bludgeoning mediation. Few passages are as alive in Clark’s oeuvre, after all, as his discussions of Haussmannized quartiers in Manet’s Paris or of War Communism in Malevich’s Vitebsk. History can bring in other questions, too: Many visitors to the Tate Modern now will wonder, for example, what Clark would make of something like Scipio, 1866–68, a painting of a Black model on loan from the Museu de Arte de São Paulo, which the exhibition timorously places within the context of French abolitionism and which others have connected to photographs of enslaved people. (“Then the critics stepped forth and abstracted his good apple into Significant Form, and henceforth Cézanne was saved,” Lawrence grumbled in 1929.) There is a Cézanne who cannot be captured by “‘history,’ ‘ideology,’ and ‘production,’” but he might not be the Cézanne of our present.

Joseph Henry is a Ph.D. candidate in the art history program at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and a fellow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.