The Master of Us All

4 minute read
Richard Lacayo

It’s one of the ironies of art history that Paul Cézanne used to warn young painters, “Beware of the influential master.” Could there have been a more influential master than he? “The master of us all” is what Henri Matisse once called him, by which he surely meant himself, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Piet Mondrian and any of the other pioneers of modernism. Fernand Léger once told an interviewer about his “battle to quit Cézanne,” as though he were a narcotic. “Then one bright day,” Léger insisted, “I said, ‘Zut!'” (See pictures of Cezanne’s art.)

But shaking Cézanne is not so easily done. His discoveries were too fundamental to the course that painting would take. By the time of his death, in 1906, it was plain he was the hinge on which the art of the new century was turning. And his influence didn’t end with the first cohort of modernists. His grip on the imagination continues well into the present. As proof, there’s “Cézanne and Beyond,” an ingenious new exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art that combines a choice selection of Cézannes with the work of 18 artists whose practices owe something to his. Organized by Joseph Rishel, the museum’s chief curator of European painting before 1900, and adjunct curator Katherine Sachs, the show is dedicated to Rishel’s late wife Anne d’Harnoncourt. For years the Philadelphia Museum’s smart and spirited director, d’Harnoncourt died, much too soon, last year. Had she lived to see this fascinating mix and match, which runs through May 19, she would have loved it.

What was it that Cézanne did that was so important to the future? Many things, but chief among them is that he shattered the picture plane. By constructing each painting as a series of plainly separate, insistent strokes, he confounds the viewer’s natural impulse to treat the canvas as a window onto a scene. He compels your attention instead to the fact that it’s a field of marks on a flat surface. In a mature Cézanne, every brushstroke leads a double life, as part of a painterly illusion and as a thing in itself, a patch of pigment on a canvas. This opened the way to everything from Cubism to abstraction. And as the Philadelphia show makes clear, it was a discovery that continues to reverberate more than a century later in the work of living artists like Ellsworth Kelly, Jasper Johns and Brice Marden.

Cézanne took the immediacy of the Impressionists–their flickering surfaces–and joined it to an ambition to create an art that was more stable and solid. Almost any human figure painted by him possesses the weight and mass of an Egyptian tomb carving. (This may help explain why the later versions of his naked bathers, load-bearing diagonals in an arching composition, are as sexless as shopping-mall escalators.) But it’s the paradox of Cézanne that his multitude of discrete strokes can destabilize forms even as he builds them up, dissolving them into a force field of shimmering hatch marks. Look at his 1877 portrait of his wife Hortense. Cézanne conferred on her a monumental stability that’s constructed somehow out of a field of pulsing strokes. More than a half-century later, Picasso painted his young mistress Marie-Thérèse in The Dream with the same weighty decorum, hands in lap just like Madame Cézanne. With her lavender flesh and gentle contours, Marie-Thérèse is a more yielding figure. But Picasso also lends a pulsating charge to her image–the pulse of sex. Given the phallic upper half of her head, an indicator of what’s on her dreaming mind, you wonder just what that girl’s hands are up to.

Almost everybody learned from Cézanne. Braque pored over the great still lifes–all those apples and bunched tablecloths–and took from them ideas about distorted forms and tilted planes that he and Picasso would carry into the profound thickets of Cubism. The serene heft of Cézanne’s many views of Mont Sainte-Victoire inform the muscular Maine landscapes of the American painter Marsden Hartley. The enduring reach of Cézanne can even be felt in Ellsworth Kelly’s Lake II, a color-field wall panel from 2002 that distills and abstracts the visual experience of water, just as the old Frenchman distilled the forms of nature.

Cézanne zut? Finished? Gone? Not a chance.

Steady Art Beat. Richard Lacayo blogs daily about art at

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