PRINT Summer 2011


Paul Cézanne

Paul Cézanne, The Card Players, ca. 1892–96, oil on canvas, 23 5/8 x 28 3/4".

BACK IN 1990, in an essay for the Oxford Art Journal, Griselda Pollock asked the question “What Can We Say About Cézanne These Days?” Her answers—regarding the contributions that could be made through socio-historical, psychoanalytic, and feminist interventions—were rather more generous than that given in the London Review of Books this past December by T. J. Clark. In the opening of his review of the Courtauld Gallery in London’s recent exhibition dedicated to the artist’s “Card Players” series, 1890–96, Clark flatly declared: “Cézanne . . . cannot be written about any more.” When the exhibition moved to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in February, Peter Schjeldahl, writing in the New Yorker, seconded Clark’s judgment. Referring to Picasso’s remark that “what forces our interest is Cézanne’s anxiety” (what Maurice Merleau-Ponty called “Cézanne’s doubt”), Schjeldahl closed his own essay by stating, “We worry differently today.”

In both these reviews, Cézanne’s game is declared an endgame not despite but because his work was, as Clark puts it, “the touchstone for critical thinking and writing on art for more than a century,” because it compelled Picasso and others from the beginning to the end of the twentieth century, because that century is over and the death knell of its grand illusions has sounded. The same fate has necessarily befallen the century before it, which for some time has been considered the anteroom to twentieth-century art: The French modernist canon paved the way for the canon of radical abstraction in Europe and then yielded the canon of the New York School. The name Cézanne represents the link between two centuries of modern art. Thus, as we say farewell to the idea of Cézanne, we are also putting paid to both the nineteenth-century heritage to which he was heir and the twentieth-century lineage he is supposed to have fathered.

Well, why? Are our anxieties and doubts so small that they cannot encompass Cézanne’s larger ones? Are we so self-absorbed and so unwilling to undertake the effort of historical and other kinds of empathy that we can no longer engage with this art at all, with all the thought and difficulty and uneasy pleasures it entails? And are we all such graybeards—Clark declares himself one and more than once makes a show of switching off his “metaphorical hearing aid” when others start up their “blather” about Cézanne—that we must walk around muttering, “Après moi le déluge,” declaring the end of the revolution that never was? In short, according to this view, it’s all over, there’s no hope for the future, and nothing important can go on after our own demise.

I’d like to reexamine the premises underpinning these good-byes, as well as the present status of art history—in particular, the history of what we call modern art—in relation to contemporary art criticism and art practice. As Terry Smith observes in his 2009 book What Is Contemporary Art?, it seems that the only binding value within the field of art these days is its contemporaneity, its cotemporality, its obeying the imperative to be “of our time.” That that was a nineteenth-century imperative—that it was founded on specifically nineteenth-century notions of history—is part of the problem I want to address.

The name to bring up first, for my purposes, is neither G. W. F. Hegel nor Karl Marx, but Charles Baudelaire. For it was Baudelaire who, in the French context, most eloquently proclaimed the necessity, for the “modern” artist, of being of one’s own time, i.e., wearing modish clothes and expressing a way of seeing, a mode of subjectivity, and an experience of temporality that were properly in accord with one’s era. And thus Baudelaire seems to have embraced, though in his usual mocking, contrarian way, the Hegelian theory of history that was then coming into vogue: not only linear, evolutionary, and progressive but also dialectical. Which is to say, proceeding according to thesis, antithesis (or negation), and synthesis (or overcoming, otherwise known as sublation, the negation of the negation), a process by which ruptures and revolutions could be resolved into the inevitable forward march of history, while all that was no longer viable would be left in the dust. Following from that theory of history is the notion of the past as garbage heap: It’s all so last year.

It should not be surprising that the nineteenth century also paved the way for the invention of the academic discipline of art history. Here Hegel’s lectures on aesthetics come to mind, with their triadic, progressive, dialectical forward motion toward the “romantic” stage of art (otherwise known as the “modern” age—though for Hegel that modernity began in the Christian Middle Ages), if not the utter obsolescence of art as it fragmented and dissolved into pure “Spirit.” Directly or indirectly, in German or in translation, once published after Hegel’s death those lectures underwrote much that came after: Certainly their impact can be felt in the early art-historical formulations of the positivist Hippolyte Taine, which in turn put their stamp on the periodizations and binary oppositions of one of the founders of modern art history, Heinrich Wölfflin.

It is well known that the modern discipline of art history arose just as “advanced art” broke with the Western representational tradition. But it is worth emphasizing the cotemporality and even interdependence of the founding of a discipline dedicated to narrating, explaining, and ordering art’s past, and the arising of a modern art dedicated to breaking with that past. Art history and the avant-garde were each other’s alter egos, forming the Janus face of modern thought about art. Later, it was Clement Greenberg who famously wove together the two strands of dialectical historicism and the advocate’s view of modern art, laying down the basic terms with which anyone interested in the history of modern art had to wrestle.

The historical model that left its traces in Greenberg’s criticism runs as well through the work of those art historians of “modernism” who took him seriously, and it lingers still in much thought concerning modern and contemporary art. It is again not coincidental that the rise of the so-called new art history in the 1970s and ’80s should have coincided with the larger, extra-academic repercussions of the “end” of modernism as Greenberg defined it. Clark’s early writing about Courbet and 1848, and then about Manet and the “painting of modern life,” represented one form of the new art history; Michael Fried’s teleologies another; Rosalind Krauss and October’s espousal of Frankfurt School and French poststructuralist critical models yet another. All these varieties of the new art history engaged with Greenberg in one way or another—often, of course, by arguing with him—and all took on board some version of the dialectics of history. And it happens that the French nineteenth century was an epicenter of this new art history. No longer; for decades, historians of nineteenth-century art, Clark included, have been decamping to more recent specializations, and much of the weight in the field has shifted to the study of contemporary art. And so it is symptomatic of endgame thinking with regard to nineteenth- as well as twentieth-century art that Clark himself, who has done so much to invigorate the study of the period, should betray an air of fatigued censoriousness concerning recent writing about Cézanne.

Paul Cézanne, The Card Players, ca. 1892–96, oil on canvas, 18 1/2 x 22".

But though I myself remain steadfastly committed to teaching and writing about the nineteenth century, including Cézanne, my complaint does not concern the dwindling of the nineteenth century as an area of study. In fact, it is a good thing if the century that gave us French Impressionism, so beloved of Americans, now has stiff competition from earlier and so-called non-Western fields of art history among undergraduate and graduate students in American academe. Rather, my aim is to call for an end to the endgame in our thinking about the art of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, not to mention the present moment, as well as for an end to the linear, dialectical model of history on which that endgame thinking is based.

For after a century of reconsideration, by philosophers, scientists, and others, of what temporality itself means, what ought to be understood as old-fashioned is not this or that artist or period of art but the nineteenth-century model of the (single) time line that has for too long dictated the obsolescence of the past. So perhaps, to be of our time, we must be less quick to discard what used to move us because, having moved on, it is no longer what we worry about. Instead we might consider what our time is made of—which is a multiplicity of pasts and presents, of different heritages, trajectories, velocities, and points of view; in short, of different diachronicities and synchronicities. In that case, our many pasts would still be usable, would still constitute our share of human histories, and thus would remain part and parcel of present discourse. In art-historical and art-critical terms, this approach would necessarily suggest a pluralist and thus relativist model of the relation between past and present art, of the contemporaneous, and thus of the dialogue between art history and current art criticism. And it would in turn demand a view of art itself as an active form of thought, which must wrestle with its past(s) as well as its present(s), rather than being a mere reflection (or construction) “of its time.”

So, rather than issuing peremptory calls to end all writing about the art of Cézanne and, by implication, the art of his cohorts, we should lift the burden that has been placed on this art of requiring that it answer for everything that did or didn’t come after it. Cézanne has been dubbed everything from a proto-Cubist to a proto–Abstract Expressionist; he has been viewed as an illustrator of “simultaneity,” of the concepts of the photon, the atom, the fourth dimension, the Freudian unconscious, and of course Greenbergian flatness. In other words, he has been to everyone what Greenberg once called him, the “gateway to contemporary painting.” But that does not seem to be what he was to himself. And none of these renderings of his project describe his art very well, which on its own terms is among the weirdest painting I have ever seen. For Cézanne, every day of painting was a struggle with his “sensations.” He had no certainty and no facility; he was not Picasso. For Cézanne, the “painting of modern life” was of no very great interest. He spoke of art’s past, not its future. Look at his painting, and if you have the patience to concentrate—if you honor his laborious investment in trying to paint what he thought he saw, striving to learn the art of painting from the ground up each time he did so—you will find, among other things, that neither “simultaneity” nor flatness, neither all-at-onceness nor any kind of confident totalized gestalt, yields itself up. Cognitive strangeness, a temporalized fabric of objects and people and the landscape they inhabit, a mark-by-mark world that buckles and folds and shifts in space and time, constantly coming apart as it constantly comes together; moments of incredible coloristic intensity; here and there a sense of phenomenal presence, elsewhere a clumsiness, a failure of the hand to render; and, running through it all, repeated decisions to stop painting before the painting was “finished,” because the next brush mark might ruin whatever tenuous hold the painting had on its own or external reality: These are what offer themselves to the seeing eye and the considering mind in just about any painting by Cézanne, at least from the early 1880s onward.

I myself never quite knew what to do with the “Card Players” series, but now I do, though I’m pretty sure that what I see in them has nothing to do with a provincial bourgeois’s last-ditch efforts to represent the peasant proletariat. Rather, I see a historical genre subject treated with the same ineradicable gravity with which Cézanne treated his familiars, as well as apples and oranges and Provençal crockery and the repeated humpback of Mont Saint-Victoire. I see repetition, because he was trying to get it right. I see a vibrant, vivid red, unaccounted for on a wall. I see a pair of knees vying with the pushy space beneath a table and not really cohering with the body above the table. I see an obdurate, slightly sullen, crookedly individualized face. And above all I see a seriousness that we are no longer used to giving to the task of representing the world. All this is something from which we can still learn much.

Of course I am not naive enough to believe that I can look at this work in some unmediated way. But I can look at “The Card Players” and other works in such a way as to denormalize and make them strange: namely, by bracketing off the modernist understanding of them. I can honor the bravery of their uncertainty, rather than some magisterial idea of their avant-gardism. I can refuse to slot them into some preconception that I, as historian and critic, might have about “their time.” And I can opt, instead, to see them as possibly both behind and ahead of their time; as questioning what that time might be; as attempting to weave an always unfinished, always in-process fabric of a space-time in which temporality and spatiality cannot be cordoned off from each other; as struggling to account for the human quotient of their card-playing men as at once unchanging and always changing. And I can do so by considering the “modern” as not especially distinct from any other time and place in its plurality and inconsistency of temporal experience and its modes of being, becoming, and duration; and thus as requiring a rigorously art-critical art history that, in being chronologically relativist, also questions the singularity, linearity, and dialectics of the historical model of modernism.

That Cézanne’s final years of painting, and his recognition by younger artists, critics, dealers, and the burgeoning art market of his time, should have coincided with the historical moment that saw the beginnings of the historicization of past art, in tandem with the critical development of trajectories with which to account for modern art’s breaking with that past, is arguably nothing but happenstance. And it is a coincidence that should not foreclose on the continuing interest, on the part of artists, art critics, and art historians, in work of this quality and this past time. Do or don’t indulge a taste for this particular painter—happily, I saw and heard many around me at the Met indulging that taste with enthusiasm, and I see no reason to feel contempt for them; on the other hand, I know some who don’t care for Cézanne’s work at all, and who am I to say that they should? Don’t admit his art into your list of worries if you don’t want to. But don’t close it down. Keep it open for present contemplation, current consideration, ongoing dialogue, and good, honest debate, as a piece of the stuff of human thought from the past that is still available to us now. For it behooves us to believe that in fact it is not all over.

Carol Armstrong is a Professor in the department of the history of art at Yale University.