Los Angeles

Cézanne Watercolors

Pasadena Museum of California Art (PMCA)

Cézanne has been approached so often by way of interpretive historical analysis and re-analysis that the pattern has apparently become irreversible. Thus John Coplans, writing in conjunction with his exhibition of Cézanne watercolors at the Pasadena Art Museum, says, “Cézanne’s discoveries led to the Cubist structure and finally into the art, for example, of de Kooning and Kline. Monet’s art, on the other hand, became the genesis for Pollock and the field painters, in particular, Newman, Still and Rothko, with such artists as Guston and Hofmann, for example, straddling both aspects. Thus Monet’s and Cézanne’s art are the two main poles from which Abstract Expressionism ultimately sprang and which sensibility, both these artists fed in equal measure.” For all that Cézanne’s watercolors do strike an uncannily modern chord in their evocative, a literal treatment of color and space and, most of all, by the way in which the unpainted picture surface is allowed to fend for itself—for all this, they simply do not, free of Cubism’s retrospective “influence,” fill the precursory niche (or niches) that most writers on the artist would have us believe. In comparison with, for instance, some of the early landscapes or flower studies of Mondrian, Cézanne’s watercolor sketches seem less closely akin to the pictorial structuring of AE and post-AE than the pre-abstract work of the later artist; and in general his sketches are less “historically” accountable through either earlier or later developments than those of Mondrian.

But regardless of contention on this point, an exhibition of Cézanne watercolors is more than welcome in Los Angeles, and in respect to the choice of its 39 works, the Pasadena show (though by no means comprehensive) is superb. Thirteen of the works shown were executed before1890; this and the overall freshness of the works from the more familiar later period provide a diverse and unconventional view of the artist. One glimpses the progression from Cézanne’s relatively dense, wet manner of the ’60s and early ’70s, when he still inclined to fill the entire picture space, toward the arid, ephemeral spareness of the later works. Among the preponderant group of landscapes are interspersed several still lifes with fruit, each one of which is scant but intensely revealing of the artist’s most pressing concern—how to project the object’s whole, solid character, not just an illusionistic semblance of its demeanor, without sacrificing the equally “true” transience of the image in a fleeting luminal circumstance. The most unusual of these is Two Melons, c. 1890–1900; the composition is a single elongated horizontal shape, with the two fruits placed one slightly behind the other: it is the most elementary but least obvious way of presenting the two forms, and the effect is ungraceful and singularly moving.

Although it is difficult to maintain a preference for any single type among the watercolors, it is probably the landscapes of the ’90s and until the end of his life that are finally preeminent. Within this category, it is not possible to choose between the sparse, fragile calligraphy of such as The Trees (c. 1895) or Rocks of Bibemus (c. 1895–1900) and the sparkling, prismatic lucidity of works like Trees Forming an Arch and Path Through the Woods of 1906.

Jane Livingston