PRINT Summer 1971

Drawing in Cézanne

“The Dab Of Color Drawing Out Form Was The Constant Factor, Sureness And Specificity The Hallmark Of His Greatness”

THE ASTONISHINGLY HIGH level of achievement of the mature Cézanne and the sureness and frankness of his empirical “realizations,” are what impress so much in the exhibition of his works seen recently in Washington and Chicago and opening this month at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. This exhibition, assembled to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Phillips Collection, gives us, with very few exceptions, Cézanne in undiluted quality: there is very little here to dissuade us from the opinion that he was by far the greatest master of his era. Indeed, although some works are of course less than others, the only criticism which could be leveled at this show is that it comes close to promoting an almost uncritical admiration for Cézanne’s work, so discriminating are most of the selections. But this is no complaint against such a finely balanced assembly of quality and variety. The two paintings from the Sixties included (Still Life with Bread and Eggs of 1865 and the justly famous Black Clock of 1867-69) are of the most firmly structured of that period, especially the latter, whose elementary frontality and stark simplicity identify a formal constant for the mature works (while the former’s “meal-setting” subject shows just how much Cézanne did change). Similarly, only enough from the prefatory Impressionist period is included to map the nature of Cézanne’s development to the post-1880 works of which the exhibition is predominantly composed. Included are such distinguished masterpieces as the Los Angeles Still Life with Cherries and Peaches, the Phillips Collection and Philadelphia Museum versions of the Mont Sainte-Victoire, the Metropolitan’s Cardplayers and the Museum of Modern Art’s Still Life with Apples. And if in this rich show the group of some 30 watercolors (over half of them dating from this century) appears most daring and advanced to contemporary eyes, the careful selection of portraits (11 of the 35 oils shown are portraits) seems designed to remind us just how seriously authoritative Cézanne was in this genre. Confronted with works like the Man with Crossed Arms, the Self Portrait with Beret or that both moving and nearly virtuoso Portrait of Vallier, we are willingly convinced that his treatment of the human form reached a rarely matched synthesis of pictorial and psychological expression, in comparison to which even Van Gogh’s portraits seem lesser, and over-rhetorical.

But it is not towards psychology that one is prompted by the works in this show. Although certain individual items do raise issues concerning the nature of Cézanne’s temperament (the Three Skulls watercolor, hued like Rubens’ painted flesh, for example), such issues are overwhelmed by one’s impression of his formal mastery. Indeed, that the selection is (so welcomely) based purely on esthetic choice itself tends to banish factors other than esthetic from one’s reactions. And if any single factor looms as the most significant here, and which a group of high quality Cézanne pictures most provokes, it is that which his first English-speaking apologist, Roger Fry, so surely identified: the mechanism by which Cézanne’s individual objects are brought together in “a strange complicity,” and the crucial significance of the adherence of color to drawing style in this relationship.

One of the curious effects of Cézanne’s work is that while its interpreters are unanimous about what it achieved, a binding of volumetric illusion to surface flatness, and while they recognize that basic to this achievement was Cézanne’s consciousness of the problem of having to carry his surface across a depicted object’s perimeter to contiguous forms without sacrificing that illusion or that flatness, the precise function of drawing in this endeavor is often disputed. That drawing is perhaps the key factor in Cézanne’s art should not be doubted on the grounds that his method was one of a cumulative massing of touches of pigment, each of which “realized” planes he observed in the chosen motif, since the authority of this chromatic counterpointing depended essentially on its ability to describe volume, that is, to cope with the tonal changes perceived in the foreshortened planes at an object’s contour and to render convincingly that final plane which appears as edge (while, of course, the separate and unblended nature of the dabs of pigment simultaneously translated these tonal gradations into coloristic ones and anchored themselves to their flat support). Moreover, the fact that Cézanne constructed his colored planes around a linear framework (which could itself reappear on top of the planes to strengthen contour), and that he in fact worked from contour into mass, confirms the centrality of edge to his tectonic method. This may be observed in any of the mature works. The Seventies Madame Cézanne in a Striped Skirt already asserts the necessary firmness (though not continuity or precision) of edge description, both through the contrast of complementary colors (which also assists flatness here) and the occasional reinforcement of contour at those points where overlayed impastos so fused contiguous elements that a danger existed that the separate identities of these elements would be lost. And while the mid-nineties Madame Cézanne in a Yellow Armchair displays fewer instances of explicit linearity, the remarkable feat of making this diagonally recessive painting as assuredly frontal as the earlier portrait is as much the result of drawing as of color modulation. Witness the crucial function of the left arm, whose strong outer contour, while located at the deepest point of fictive space, yet manages to advance itself, purely through force of drawing, to the picture plane and hence creates a homogenous flatness for the whole work.

That strengthened contour can thus assert both a clarification of separated volume and a surface verisimilitude is, however, no contradiction. Although some (including Roger Fry him-self have insisted that firm contour inevitably stresses surface and the disruption of edge volume, and others—Erle Loran, for example—the opposite, that “lost and found” drawing always assists in the correlation of adjacent elements while sharp contrast effects a three-dimensional reading, it seems clear enough (even from just these two portraits) that such doctrinaire characterizations are belied by the subtle complexities of the works themselves. And when we consider more extreme or dramatic examples of Cézanne’s treatment of contour, such as the Louvre’s Blue Vase where linear outline is clearly removed some distance outside the color modulation, or the late watercolor, Still Life with Bottles and Lamp, where the perimeter of the uppermost bottle actually seems to explode into the surrounding space, we realize just how completely and flexibly Cézanne put edge to work in his pictures. But the watercolor also raises the question of how not only drawing but, more specifically, linearity itself functioned within the framework of color for Cézanne at the apogee of his powers. This, however, is only explicable in the context of his earlier treatment of line-plane relationships insofar as the striven for color structure he wrested from Impressionism became itself a method for creating a constant and inseparable form-color union at every stage in a picture’s development.

The modest but beautiful mid-eighties painting, Chestnut Trees and Farm at the las de Bouf-fan, perfectly defines how Cézanne detached himself from pure Impressionism for a volumetric interpretation of that mode without sacrificing its surface integrity. Its hollowing, but background enclosure, of fictive space recalls his wish to do Poussin again from nature. The setting is designed to delimit illusion enough to allow the facet planes to alternate their surface and descriptive properties, that is, permit the touches of color to describe their motifs without simply belonging exclusively to them. The suppression of localized texture, the standardization of touch, and, most essentially, the interweaving and overlapping of these touches, contrast with, say, the Albright-Knox’s Pond at the las de Bouffan (of some five years earlier) which still depends too much on a one-to-one identification of perceived small-unit structure (foliage, water reflections) and painted small-unit structure, to have yet achieved the verificative surface alliance of motif and paint which characterizes the later work (although the already continuous tonality of the more Impressionist work is pointing in that direction). And, significantly, in the later painting, Cézanne’s Post-Impressionist rediscovery of an incipiently geometric or at least highly regularized drawing style is put to work in delimiting the bunches of colored planes. This can be seen most clearly in the aligning of the large foliage mass to the left with the inner contour of an adjacent tree and in the important repeated parallel verticals at the center of the picture. What was possibly too obvious in the Black Clock still life—the arrangement of forms around a vertical-horizontal matrix—now receives a more subtle articulation in the grouping of rectilinear elements around the deepest spatial zone, elements which gently insist on their congruity with the picture’s literal shape. But even this designed stimulus to flatness would not surface in the way it does if the restrained and closely modulated color did not function as “not an adjunct to form, as something imposed upon form, but as itself the direct exponent of form.”

Fry’s words are similarly pertinent to the slightly later landscape, Allée at Chantilly, which would be a classic example of a corridor illusion had not Cézanne so surely prevented its back “wall” from either completely receding or advancing by fixing through color the verticality of the critical lower trapezoid. This same alliance or better, coincidence, of drawing and color to hold surface to image exists in the superb Phillips Collection’s Mont Sainte-Victoire of this same period which gives and takes back space at the same time and where linearity is once more put to work to assist in this effect (the far mountain contour being echoed in the near repoussoir branches). And comparing this work to the exhibited small watercolor version of the same view (or to the very similar London painting, not in this show) we see just how much Cézanne could extract from one motif: how different relationships appear with only a minimal shift in viewpoint and in the dimensions of the picture surface.

For sheer coloristic impact, however, these landscapes are outdone by the seven mature still-life paintings, among which the Museum of Modern Art’s Still Life with Apples is supreme. Here it is demonstrated that the familiar blunted ovals and tipped-up circles, and the contrived frontality of the horizontal planes, served not only to compress fictive space but to display a stunning array of colored forms, whose color is all the more for being presented in such simplified format. The careful balance of cools and warms, the firmness with which hues are held together without thwarting the free circulation of space, the now liquid flexibility of the pigment, the area of unpainted canvas — all contribute to a somehow more relaxed (though never slack) and unconstricted ease of effect. And the very flat, disc-like apple to the extreme left, held as if in pincers by the folds of cloth and perfectly realized as both individual form and as rich abstract color against its surrounding pink and adjacent green-ocher, reminds us that it was not only sculptural Cubism that benefited from Cézanne’s example. In contrast, the Phillips Collection’s Ginger Pot with Pomegranate and Pears (from the early nineties), though still very great—serene and warm—is somehow less in color when compared with the acid keenness (but not harshness) Cézanne could bring to the best work of his last decade. The Washington picture is not, however, without its own special compensations: rarely has Cézanne used his famous broken table line as effectively as here. It pushes up that isolated pear (whose upper contour cunningly joins itself to that of the tablecloth), on top of which ginger pot and books are balanced in an assured edge-flanking composition. Nevertheless, the franker separateness of color touches in the other, more “unfinished” work creates a far more dramatic and demanding surface tension, and as such prepares us for the radicalness of its contemporary watercolors where the “flatter” medium permitted far fewer disruptive excavations of contour and where Cézanne’s recognition of this new potential created that almost total identification of image and sheerly optical color which so impresses in its modernity.

The very process by which the watercolors were created is radical enough: Cézanne’s application of discrete unblended patches of color around lightly sketched contours built form through color by translating dark-light gradations into cool-warm ones. And by constantly revising the early (contour) definitions through a layering of new small touches (which never exactly covered their predecessors) while at the same time moving toward larger (and warmer) patches in open territory, he made a mosaic of colored lines and planes, an overlapping of shades which together, as Emile Bernard put it, “formed a veil and modeled the object with their colorfulness.” And if this method had to wait until Morris Louis’s Veil paintings for its fully abstract realization, equally our appreciation of Cézanne’s watercolors is now informed and enlarged by the experience of Louis’s work, and the criticism which developed around it. But, this said, it is not just hindsight which lets us recognize that Cézanne’s additive accumulations of intense, bright (and hence flat) color areas, each one uncompromised by any variation in hue, depended above all else on the sureness of application of each individual mark (eschewing fuzzed edge, reveling in saturations) and on the disciplined firmness of the drawing they collaborated to effect: this belonged also in essence to the earlier work and was implicit in the patience of Cézanne’s approach. The dab of color drawing out form was the constant factor and, for all the visible relaxation of the watercolors, it is sureness and specificity that is the hallmark of Cézanne’s greatness.

In the unbroken sequence of transparent washes, drawing and color are now so surely blended. Whereas a painting like the Philadelphia’s Mont Saint-Victoire of 1902-06 evidences a certain reciprocation of line and plane, that is, a proto-Cubist contrast of modulated color planes with an all-over framework of geometric lines which function to echo literal shape at the expense of their power as color (although they are, of course, colored), no such distinction of roles is to be discovered in the best of the watercolors where structural identities are incumbent on the very existence of line as color itself, and on the mutual cooperation of colored line and colored plane in the creation of volume. This is seen most strikingly in the Chicago Three Skulls which, though contemporary with the Philadelphia oil displays, is far more radical a compounding of linear and suffusive color markings, to the point that contour may no longer be automatically understood to imply a spatial shift. And if the same is true of far fewer areas in the earlier Still Life with Teapot and Fruit, then here a dramatic restriction of hue contributes to a more robust definition of sculptural form in a high-pitched contrast of red-orange and chrome yellow fruit on that intense blue-green which Cézanne made so much his own. But the power of Cézanne’s chromatic linearity itself is most in evidence in such landscape watercolors as Trees (ca. 1900), the high-keyed Bridge of Les Trois Sautets (1906) and the quieter but possibly more completely realized Trees Forming an Arch (1904-05), where the repeated contours of the trunks spread so far outwards that sections of the picture surface are filled by these flat and parallel color marks, around and over which is established the delicate transparent network of planes. A glance back to, say, the Allée at Chantilly oil of sixteen years earlier shows how doggedly Cézanne had pursued his ambitions and also how his later willingness to accept a more flexible interface of object and surrounding space through a kind of dissolved contour gave to this late work an authority of line-plane coordination which gained far more in deference to its medium than it lost in its surrender of exactly matched chromatic juxtapositions.

What I have stressed here, that Cézanne’s assured drawing style provided an important structural constant for his art which only maximized this drawing when it reached its heights in the late works, is sometimes thought irreconcilable with Cézanne’s reputation as an adjuster of flat planes (though the planar modulation may itself be understood as a magnification of drawing both in technique — contour to mass — and in effect). For example, Kurt Badt has viewed the overlayed lines of the 1906 Vallier portrait as detracting from the formal realization of the motif. While it must be admitted that here the brown-colored contour reinforcements around the gardener’s jacket seem perhaps too much an application of drawing to volume to be entirely successful (and I am not of course suggesting here that Cézanne’s method itself inevitably brought success), a glance at the more fully developed painting of the head, where curving strokes of creamy pigment simultaneously describe edge and mass, affirms that what came more fluently to the watercolors (witness the watercolor version of this same subject) could yet achieve a Rembrandtesque dignity in the greater corporeity of oil painting. And if the hard lacquered color planes which form the head of the earlier (1900) Self Portrait with Beret appear more definitely stated than the meniscoid swerves of the brush in the Vallier portrait, the latter yet creates a true drawing in paint that never ceases to impress.