Painting great possibilities Art: Philadelphia exhibit shows the emphasis on continuing action that made Cezanne's work appear 'unfinished' to early critics.

June 02, 1996|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

Among all the insults aimed at Cezanne's art during his lifetime -- it was barbaric, savage, insane -- none was offered more frequently than that it was unfinished. In one of the first major appreciations of Cezanne, critic Thadee Natanson noted in 1895: "He is known to have had famous friends, to be respected by masters, yet even his most ardent partisans never completed a panegyric without expressing reservations. There was virtual consensus about the applicability of the word 'unfinished.' "

If by finished one means a work that is complete on its own terms, then the grand Philadelphia Museum of Art survey titled simply "Cezanne" proves there is no such thing as an unfinished Cezanne. And proves it above all with those works that at first sight look the most unfinished -- many of the watercolors and drawings on paper that amount to only a few pencil lines or dabs of color.

"Rocks Near the Caves Above the Chateau Noir" (1895-1900) and "Aix Cathedral Seen from Les Lauves" (1902-1904) are sketches rather than full depictions, in which one can receive only a vague idea of the actual objects.

Yet so perfectly are they achieved that one cannot imagine them either any more or any less developed than at the moment when Cezanne stopped working on them. The effect is due at least in part to two attributes of Cezanne's art that have been noted more than once.

There is his ability to make the tiniest gesture a work of art. "How on earth does he do it?" the show's catalog quotes Renoir. "He cannot put two touches of color onto a canvas without its being already an achievement." More recently, art historian Meyer Schapiro wrote that individual brush strokes "make us see that ++ there can be qualities of greatness in little touches of paint."

And they are finished precisely because they are unfinished. The critic Maurice Merleau-Ponty observed of Cezanne, "he wanted to depict matter as it takes on form an object in the act of appearing, organizing itself before our eyes." That is, part of what makes a Cezanne live is its ability to suggest that it is ongoing, becoming, that it holds out future possibilities. Without that quality, it would be incomplete.

Still appears fresh

As this extraordinary exhibit proves, Cezanne's art when taken as a whole possesses the same quality almost a century after his death in 1906 at the age of 67. Endlessly analyzed and interpreted throughout the 20th century, it appears as fresh, as new, as astonishing and as deeply moving as if we knew nothing of it until the moment when we are in its presence. It is an art of infinite possibilities.

The possibilities are of two kinds: its relationship to other art, both before and after its time, and its ability to speak to us directly quite apart from the rest of art history.

Certainly Cezanne's work has been tirelessly examined in the context of other art, as the show's massive, 600-page catalog attests. Among other things, it contains an anthology of excerpts from what artists, critics and art historians have written about Cezanne. They reveal him as the seminal artist of the 20th century, without whom its major developments are unimaginable.

Cezanne's revolution in the way he translated the world into paint -- his breaking down of volumes into planes (as in the "Mont Sainte-Victoire" paintings of 1902-1906), his use of multiple perspective (as in the still life "Apples and Oranges" of about 1899) -- prefigured the rise of cubism and abstract art.

But his influence goes beyond matters of form. The emotionalism and even violence of his early work ("The Murder," about 1868), together with the intensity of feeling in later works ("The Chateau Noir," 1900-1904), are seen as seeds of expressionism.

"Generator of ideas"

Clement Greenberg, the foremost critical advocate of abstract expressionism, stated simply that "Cezanne is the most copious source of what we know as modern art, the most abundant generator of ideas and the most enduring in newness."

No less is he recognized as one who reflected and built upon the past. The antique subject matter of his oft-repeated paintings of bathers, and especially the monumentality of his late works in this vein ("The Large Bathers," 1902-1906), have been cited as carrying forward the grand tradition of such artists as Poussin.

Schapiro saw him as fusing the classical and romantic traditions expressed earlier in the century by Ingres and Delacroix. If color is associated with romanticism and line with classicism, Cezanne broke new ground by using color rather than line to build pictures of "classic style, stable and clarified as any work of Raphael." Thus he made the stylistic dichotomy unnecessary for later artists. "Cezanne anticipates the twentieth century in which the two poles of form have lost their distinctness and necessity."

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