New York

Paul Cézanne, Étude d’arbre (Study of a Tree), 1885–90, watercolor on paper, 14 1⁄4 × 11 1⁄8".

Paul Cézanne, Étude d’arbre (Study of a Tree), 1885–90, watercolor on paper, 14 1⁄4 × 11 1⁄8".

“Cézanne Drawing”

Paul Cézanne, Étude d’arbre (Study of a Tree), 1885–90, watercolor on paper, 14 1⁄4 × 11 1⁄8".

Curated by Jodi Hauptman and Samantha Friedman

I’M NOT ONE FOR FLATTERY and hyperbole, especially when reacting to exhibitions. There is already enough sycophancy to go around on social media—even in the feeds of those who should know better. I am therefore going against every fiber of my being when I say that the Cézanne drawing show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art is unequivocally a once-in-a-generation not-to-be-missed event.

Why the superlatives? First, there is the sheer volume: more than 250 works on paper, mostly drawings and watercolors, some of which may never be seen again (or will have faded by the time they are). They will almost certainly never be together again in my lifetime. Then there is the sheer quality (another word that does not easily cross the lips). Usually, even the most carefully curated show has at least one turkey, a work that for whatever reason doesn’t fit, looks off, is unappealing, or appears to be by a different artist altogether. No ugly ducklings here. In a sea of modestly sized works, I struggled to find one that was not captivating in some way, however seemingly insignificant or small (and I really, really tried).

Paul Cézanne, Le cruchon vert (The Green Jug), 1885–87, pencil and watercolor on paper, 8 5⁄8 × 9 3⁄4".

That this was all put together during a global pandemic is a miracle. But the show’s achievements go far beyond what must have been the herculean efforts on the part of curators Jodi Hauptman and Samantha Friedman to obtain loans from far-flung places. For one, the exhibition is a crash course in art history: Most of the drawings and watercolors discussed at length in the Cézanne literature are on view, including almost all of those figuring prominently in the most influential readings of his work. Now is the time to see if Lawrence Gowing was right about Pommes, poires et casserole (La table de cuisine) (Still Life with Apples, Pears, and a Pot), 1900–1904, and Le cruchon vert (The Green Jug), 1885–87 (he was partly correct); to test whether Kurt Badt’s analogy of watercolor to music holds any weight (it doesn’t in most cases); to confirm the not-so-thinly veiled anthropomorphism detected by Carol Armstrong in Nature morte au pot au lait bleu (Still Life with Blue Pot), 1900–1906 (definitely true and then some).

Paul Cézanne, Nature morte au pot au lait bleu (Still Life with Blue Pot), 1900–1906, pencil and watercolor on paper, 19 × 24 7⁄8".

Cézanne was probably the only artist of his time for whom what was said about his painting process could apply almost equally to his drawing practice. Seurat was an innovative draftsman, but the building blocks of his drawings were the dragged traces of his beloved conté crayon, not pointillist dots of color as in his paintings. Renoir supposedly stated that “Cézanne could not put two spots of color on a canvas without it already being good.” His words could easily apply to a particularly minimal watercolor such as Étude d’arbre (Study of a Tree), 1885–90, with the slight modification of increasing the number of marks from two to twenty. After a deep dive into “Cézanne Drawing,” you realize that the artist’s painstaking, constantly evaluative procedure and tendency to leave works in a state of “unfinish” are even more on display in his work in watercolor than they are in his oil paintings, due in no small part to the medium’s transparency, which multiplies those perplexing intertwinings of figure and ground. While the general conflation of painting and drawing in Cézanne’s art has long been acknowledged, it has taken a show of the scope and ambition of “Cézanne Drawing” to fully flesh out its possible permutations.

The subversion of expectations turns what could have been a staid, Old Masterish presentation of an all-too-well-known canonical artist into something suspenseful and dramatic.

Previous exhibitions of Cézanne’s works on paper have been either laserlike in their concentration on a small number of works, or one part of a sweeping survey in which they had to compete—often to no avail—with much larger paintings. An exhibition of Cézanne watercolors from the Pearlman Collection at the Princeton University Art Museum, New Jersey; a focus show at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; and an exhibition organized by Fabienne Ruppen at Luxembourg & Dayan, London, on his paper supports are examples of the former; recent surveys of his portraits, still lifes, and time spent in Paris and Provence typify the latter. The MoMA exhibition, by contrast, has multiple intense centers of gravity and chronological and thematic breadth.

Paul Cézanne, Feuille d’études dont un portrait de Goya (Page of Studies, Including a Portrait of Goya), 1877–80, pencil on paper, 19 3⁄4 × 11 3⁄4".

One of the primary themes is anthropomorphism, the equivalence of objects and spaces with human form. I prefer the only slightly less clunky term corporeality, because we often perceive his “figures” more as organic parts than as whole persons. Building on ideas previously broached in recent exhibitions in Karlsruhe, Germany, and Budapest, the first four rooms of the MoMA show explore the increasingly porous boundary between body and thing in Cézanne’s drawing. I lost count of the number of times a piece of fruit rested next to a face, a hand, or a drawing of another artwork. Moreover, these combinations are neither gentle nor finessed. Awkward leaps in scale, radical shifts in drawing style, and abrupt reorientations of the sheet punctuate these sketches. Surprisingly, the one disjunction I had expected—the switch from more descriptive studies to more narrative ones—was less jarring when it eventually came. For the violent and caricatural nature of Cézanne’s more fantastic scenes, which frequently involve an outside figure crashing into a recognizable scenario, was already prefigured by the odd juxtapositions of his deceptively sedate object studies.

View of “Cézanne Drawing,” 2021. From left: Le parc du Château Noir avec la citerne (Rocks and Trees Near the Château Noir), 1900–1904;  Intérieur de forêt (Forest Landscape), 1904–1906; Arbre tordu et citerne dans le parc de Château Noir (Trees and Cistern in the Park of Château Noir), 1900–1902; Route tournante (The Bend in the Road), 1902–1906. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar.

This subversion of expectations turns what could have been a staid, Old Masterish presentation of the work of an all-too-well-known canonical artist into something suspenseful and dramatic. I often found myself trying to guess, even more than usual, why certain works were where they were; more often than not, the intelligence of the curatorial logic showed through in unanticipated ways. To take another example, the transition from Cézanne’s drawings after sculpture in the second gallery to his famous bather images at the beginning of the third is practically seamless. In Adrien Chappuis’s 1973 drawings catalogue raisonné, the two bodies of work appear miles apart in conception. Whereas the bathers seem to look forward to the large canvases of his later years, the sculpture studies come across as wedded to an outmoded practice of drawing after the antique. But nothing could be further from the truth. What stands out in Cézanne’s pictorial treatment of a plaster cupid, an écorché, and two sculptures by Pierre Puget is their brutal disfigurement: The putto sprouts a third leg, the anatomical figure twists its own head off at the neck, the crevices and cavities of Hercules’s torso take on a life of their own. It is painful just looking at them. The line connecting these pulsating figures to the bulbous rocks near the Château Noir outside Aix-en-Provence, the subject of one of the most stunning walls of the show, is abundantly clear. (But in case you missed it, just follow the sketchbook pages laid out in sequence down the middle of each gallery—a brilliant Ariadne’s thread reminding us that Cézanne came back to his drawings time and again.)

Paul Cézanne, L’amour en plâtre (Plaster Cupid), ca. 1900, pencil and watercolor on paper, 24 3⁄4 × 19 1⁄4".

Perhaps the only unwelcome interruption is a video, installed roughly halfway through the exhibition, that works hard to suggest that Cézanne’s art of radical juxtaposition shaped his painting technique. However, this might be one of the few cases where the parallel between painting and drawing doesn’t quite survive close scrutiny. Did he paint his son’s portrait next to some apples because he was struck by how apple-like his cheeks were? Or did he simply reuse some old, discarded canvas? Whatever the case, nothing changes the fact that the next three rooms of still-life, landscape, and portrait watercolors are among the most breathtaking I have ever seen. I have nothing to add to what has already been said about these spectacular, epoch-making, epoch-breaking works. What I will say is that they are as interesting for what they do not show as for what they do. Not much of the built environment aside from a bridge, a cabin, and a handful of ghostly constructions; in fact, an avoidance of straight lines in general when not picturing architecture, trees, and tables; and most of all, no scenes of modern life. For what Cézanne found to be the crux of modernity was not the spectacle of leisure but the intensity—and also the inhumanity—of everyday experience, the brutal uncertainty of our hold on the world revealed in things as banal as the space between an unmade bed and a nightstand, a cluttered kitchen table, or the view outside one’s window.

Paul Galvez is assistant clinical professor at the Edith O’Donnell Institute of Art History at the University of Texas at Dallas. His book, Courbet’s Landscapes: The Origins of Modern Painting (Yale University Press, London), is forthcoming in spring 2022.