“Cézanne: Finished-Unfinished”

CÉZANNE'S OEUVRE is littered with paintings in various states of incompletion, and what glorious litter it is. By the time of his death in 1906, the most important color on his palette was bare canvas or (in the watercolors) bare paper, an unmark that made the marks around it shiver into life.

With Cézanne “a form exists only by virtue of the neighboring forms,” R.P. Rivière and J.F. Schnerb noted in 1907. Corollary: A blank can be a form. This demonstration of the equal semiotic rights of unworked, unmarked areas made everything possible in modern art, from Pollock's use of bare canvas to Cage's manipulation of silence to perhaps even Duchamp's readymades. Which means that today Cézanne's barest outings look complete—and have often been varnished to prove it. It is difficult to see them as anything other than finished masterworks containing the history of twentieth-century art in embryo.

But we can try, and that is just what we were asked to do by “Cézanne: Finished—Unfinished,” a breathtaking, eye-boggling show mounted at the Kunstforum Wien (Jan. 20–Apr. 25) and the Kunsthaus Zürich (May 5–Aug. 13) by in-house curators Evelyn Benesch and Klaus A. Schröder (Vienna) and Felix Baumann (Zurich), with Cézanne scholar Walter Feilchenfeldt. There we could remove our high-modernist lenses and distinguish between the “truly incomplete,” in the words of the curators, and the “unfinished yet complete”—between the pictures that Cézanne abandoned or slashed (the marks are still visible in the restored Portrait of Alfred Hauge, 1899) and the ones he stepped away from gingerly to avoid upsetting an optimal balance of painted and bare canvas.

But can we be sure of such distinctions? The trouble with Cézanne, as Picasso put it, is that “the painting already exists the moment he paints the first brushstroke.” Take the most “unfinished” picture in the show, a study for the left-hand group of figures in one of the last paintings of bathers. About one-tenth of the canvas is covered, more with turpentine than pigment, and the four bathers are in the body shop, unassembled. But the scrubby marks link up in a single arabesque that conveys all of the space and drama of the final work hanging next to it. The half-formed figural group already has the architecture of a Poussin holy family, and the cataract of foliage above has the lightness and sweep of one of Fragonard's sublime decorations.

In short, the life of a painting by Cézanne, or even (as Picasso implied) its viability, began with the initial mark. That is one kind of finish, and it came as naturally to Cézanne as breathing. His problem was the embryological one of preserving that life through development up to delivery, which he seems to have defined quite conservatively as requiring the total coverage of the canvas with paint—witness his famous tussle with the bare knuckles in the portrait of his dealer, Ambroise Vollard (dated 1899), also in the exhibition. When after countless sittings Vollard noticed these last bare spots, Cézanne explained that he could not paint them without further studies in the Louvre. He never did fill in the blanks and ended up content only with Vollard's shirtfront.

Here Cézanne's essentially semiotic conception of painting as a pure matter of differences came home to roost, for making that last mark meant that every single relationship was settled, a utopian goal. Hence various symptoms: his endless complaints about the difficulty of réalisation; his reluctance to sign his work; his struggle with “abstractions,” which, he said, “do not allow me to cover my canvas entirely nor to pursue the delimitation of the objects where their points of contact are fine and delicate.” This is Cézanne's only direct statement on his finishing problem, and it seems neurotically elliptical. But whatever he meant by “abstractions,” it is clear from the statement that he regarded the unfinished parts of his paintings not as successes of protoabstraction (as a later generation would believe) but as failures of representation.

The problem of finishing became more acute as Cézanne matured, a fact nicely reflected by the chronological distribution of works in the exhibition: There were several from the 1860s, a dozen from the 1870s, over thirty from the 1880s, forty or so from the 1890s and more than fifty (!) from 1900 to 1906. We should also recall that after 1886, when Cézanne inherited his father's money, he could afford to worry even less about finishing or selling canvases.

As a result, this was essentially a late Cézanne exhibition, and indeed almost a quarter of the works were also present in the Museum of Modern Art's 1977 show “Cézanne: The Late Work.” But along with the familiar pictures were little-known gems, radically unfinished, many from private collections. The inclusion of these, rather than all the iconic Bathers and Mont Sainte-Victoires (although several were here, too), is what made the exhibition so remarkable.

In the end, the problem of finished versus unfinished got dissolved by a third term that had been lurking all along: overfinished. Take the late portraits of the gardener Vallier, two watercolors and three oils whose reunion was one of the triumphs of the show. These run the gamut from the clearly unfinished, in which Vallier's beard and hat band are eerie aporias above a spindly body, to the overfinished, in which the paint bubbles thickly around the endlessly reconceived contours of the subject's incredible hulk.

Here the problem of retrieving Cézanne's attitude toward finish becomes hopeless, or collapses into the equally hopeless question of which work is best. The juxtaposition of two late sous-bois pictures (each showing a road bending beneath trees) brings the question home. In Forest Path, 1900–02, a tissue of blanks allows the picture to breathe as if through pores; in Bend in the Forest Road, 1902–06, on the other hand, everything is magisterially sealed. Late-modern eyes might prefer the former. I chose the latter, but maybe only because I was imagining how hard those final strokes must have been for an artist who, while ridiculing the slick fini of the Academy, dreamed of landing a picture in the Louvre.

Harry Cooper is associate curator of modern art at the Harvard University Art Museums and a lecturer in Harvard's Department of History of Art and Architecture.