August 2012

Evan McMurry


Cézanne: A Life by Alex Danchev

"The blues are white and the whites are blue!" Gauguin once exclaimed of Paul Cézanne's work, awestruck at the elusive science by which, though they were in fact careful studies girded by a moral theory of art, Cézanne's paintings seem to blurt nature out, folding and flapping from the canvas as if we had come upon the world in medias res. D. H. Lawrence named this vibrato of colors the shiftiness of Cézanne's art. As Alex Danchev puts it in his new biography, Cézanne: A Life, "The sky invades the trees."

Danchev's is no easy task: Cézanne shrouded himself in eccentricity, whether intentionally or helplessly, and toward the end of his life his work seemed to replace him. A professor of social sciences who has previously written a biography of Georges Braque, Danchev wisely eschews the demand for the definitive, instead patching together a blinkered portrait of Cézanne, lit by insight and leafed with detail. If the painter still seems to occasionally slip the grasp of the author, the fault lies less with Danchev than with the playful shiftiness of his subject.

Cézanne's early years are a biographic breeze: he began as a poet, writing copious verse, some of it decent, much of it dirty (Beckett was a fan). The bonus of so many papers, not to mention piles of letters foaming with emotion, is to furnish the history, and Danchev happily lets Cézanne tell much of his own tale, at least until the poet picks up a brush and his sentiments climb onto the canvas.

The master began humbly. Cézanne came to Paris a Manet disciple, stalking the scandalous figure through the halls of the Salon des Refuses like a teenager after a rock star, only to quickly surpass the senior painter, whose oeuvre, for all its smart technique and clever paraphrase, Cézanne ultimately faulted as inert. Gradually outgrowing the melodrama of large, forceful pieces that drew their power from the striking pairing of symbols, as Manet's Le déjeuner sur l'herbe and Olympia did, Cézanne instead developed from Impressionism's study of light and perception a theory of art based on sensation, the serendipity of an object's work upon the senses read back onto that object. Soon Cézanne's trees waved their arms; his still lifes pitched toward their viewers with reciprocal curiosity; his bowls became irregular, asserting not their specificity, as in the traditional, minutely-rendered still life, but their personalities; and the human figure rejoined the world of color and weight, as a card player's face barely registers against the dense folds of the coat that overhangs him, and a bather's skin tone migrates into the beach upon which he lies. Cézanne's world was visually charged with its effect on the onlooker, a dislocation of perception and sensation from the subject that inherently questioned assumptions of human centrality. We are, in Cézanne's world, at the mercy of the enchantment of apples, and his apples quiver with this knowledge.

That these works of momentary elation were achieved through hours of careful application -- legend has it that Cézanne took twenty minutes between each stroke, though Danchev points to new x-rays of the paintings suggesting "the mythical interval" is exaggerated -- only underscores the blindness of his critics and the public, who found his pieces lazy, incomplete, and malnourished. Cézanne's peers knew better. Pissarro declared Cézanne the genius among them all; when Monet was depressed, Danchev tells us, his wife covered the Cézannes; Matisse, penurious, so badly desired Cézanne's Three Bathers that he pawned his wife's family ring. (The reaction of Mrs. Matisse is not included.) During his lifetime, Cézanne was such a marginal figure that he was skipped entirely in the first critical study of the Impressionists, but by just a few years after his death, Picasso was citing him as the primary influence in the development of something called Cubism.

For all that the artists kept tabs on him, no one was closer to Paul Cézanne than the novelist Emile Zola. The two were friends from the day Cézanne saved Zola from schoolyard bullies. They spent their teens annoying townspeople with recitations of Virgil. Zola enticed Cézanne to Paris. Even after Cézanne moved back to Aix, trading Paris's catalyzing bustle for the languor of the province and failing to realize the zeitgeist-laden oeuvre Zola assigned him, each continued to drop everything when the other passed through town.

It was a friendship that lasted until the publication of The Masterpiece, Zola's roman ŕ clef of the Impressionist movement. Zola claimed Claude Lantier, the novel's tragic protagonist, was a combination of multiple Impressionist figures, and while there are certainly strong strokes of Manet's use of shock to propel his art and Pissarro's anti-bourgeois sentiment, the overriding inspiration for Lantier was Cézanne, even down to both men's favorite meal: vermicelli and olive oil (households would often stock up on vermicelli if they knew Cézanne was coming to town). The Masterpiece is not a satire, but neither does it reflect well on the school of painters, and Claude Lantier -- who is called "impotent" so many times in the last third of the novel that I stopped counting -- in particular is painfully unable to realize his artistic vision.

Cézanne wrote Zola the day the book arrived in the mail, thanking him for sending it. That is the last recorded correspondence between the two friends.

A debate rages in both Zola and Cézanne scholarship over how much the novel contributed to the end of one of the most significant friendships of nineteenth century France, and Danchev is not alone in pushing the idea that it had little role. (Danchev is also more interested in Cézanne's Picasso-and-Braque relationship with Pissarro.) The Masterpiece was serialized before being published in book form, and Danchev thinks it unlikely that Cézanne would not have read it long before it was brought to his doorstep. Besides, the friends had been growing apart for years; it's possible that Claude Lantier was an excuse, or that his appearance simultaneous with the moment that his creator and his model stopped speaking was just a coincidence.

These theories feel like a stretch. Danchev, a game biographer who is always ready to capsize apocrypha, tries too hard here to gin up counterfactuals when the presiding explanation just doesn't call for a reassessment. Even if one grants that only one-third of Claude Lantier is comprised of Cézanne, Zola's book remains a foul gloss of the Impressionist movement, and of the urge to paint in general. The Masterpiece is not a very good novel -- its last third wallows in human failure well beyond any structural necessity, to say nothing of readerly patience -- and Cézanne may have taken offense more on behalf of his craft, which was so poorly and condescendingly reproduced. In short, perhaps Cézanne objected to the novel's lack of reflection of himself, as the nineteenth century artists did as much as anybody of their time to uncover the beauty of nature that Zola portrayed as beyond their grubby reach. That at least seems more plausible than the novel having no role in the ending of the men's friendship.

Regardless of the strength of Danchev's twist, however, his book-length recreation of Zola and Cézanne's friendship is sustained and affecting. Danchev is sharply attuned to the ways in which Zola, for a novelist, could be remarkably blind to irony, both in his own fate -- which found him asphyxiated in his bourgeois mansion, a Zola ending if there ever was one -- and in his friend's work. Zola saw little in Cézanne's apples and trees and country bathers; the "unresolved" quality of Cézanne's paintings, to use the painter's preferred word, were merely unfinished to Zola, who thought his friend never truly devoted himself to the craft. ("Paul may have the genius of a great painter," the novelist wrote. "He will never have the genius to become one.") After Zola died, Cézanne wept for days, but when Zola's house was thrown open for auction, few Cézannes were found hanging on the walls. Danchev artfully shows that if there was a real betrayal by Cézanne's longest and best friend, that, and not The Masterpiece, may have been it.

Danchev is even stronger in his defense of Hortense, Cézanne's mistress and, eventually, wife. "La Boule" (the dumpling, as she has been unfortunately remembered) was barely acknowledged by Cézanne's family, dismissed by many of his friends, and sidelined by his biographers; those who bothered to acknowledge Madame Cézanne did so through the unforgiving archetypes of gold-digger, harridan, annoyance. Danchev reclaims her, arguing for both her innate intelligence and her constantly failing health, which cast her frequent travels less as the extravagances of a rich wife than an uneasy soul's search for relief:

In this light, [Hortense] appears less high-and-mighty and more needy, less imperious and more exposed. So far from being solid, stolid, fat and placid, La Boule begins to look curiously fragile, just as she does in Cézanne's variations, which become at once more understanding and more penetrating then we ever realized.

Somewhere in all this is the man himself. Danchev, who has a Flaubertian knack for finishing chapters, ends one with Cézanne's arrival, upon the first pangs of his powers, at a table of Parisian artists, done up like a madman and declaring to Manet that he hadn't bathed in a week. It was an act, his attempt to become "Cézanne." But as Cézanne increasingly turned his back on the constructed world and stared into the natural one, working sur le motif in the French countryside and paying so little attention to the selling of his paintings that when he finally had to raise money he had no idea how to do it, this caricature became a decoy, distracting detractors and fans alike and leaving Cézanne be in his desired quietude. His relationship with the hitherto unpainted pigments of the world was a zero-sum game; as his pieces increased in expression, Cézanne, who once had scribbled poem after letter, ceded earthly communication. By the end, he was barely known by anybody.

Needless to say, the more powerful his peintures became, the less explicable they were to the masses, and the more French society needed a convenient dismissal for this work that so confounded their conceptions of good art. Eccentricity, bordering on insanity, worked quite nicely. "For the bourgeois of Aix," Danchev records one painter as saying, "Cézanne willingly passed for mad." Sure enough, when Roger Fry went searching after Cézanne's legacy, he found only locals who referred to the painter as un vieux monsieur qui n'etait pas net, "the old man who wasn't all there." One peer noted that Cézanne had so thoroughly been soaked into rural folklore and oblique reference that he was the only artist the man had ever encountered who was spoken of during his lifetime as if he were dead. And Cézanne's aphorisms, which had once seemed dispatches of a Heraclitean wit, come increasingly to feel like intentional refractions. Cézanne ended up leaving us with "Cézanne," less the beatific mad artist of his youth than an assembly of odd tics and rural idiosyncrasies; the man who saw the souls of bowls was little seen himself.

Danchev's Cézanne pushes against this recession. Though he never quite catches the painter, Danchev nonetheless captures enough of Cézanne's buoyant erraticism that we may extrapolate him from his cameos. This is how Cezanne painted trees, snagging in brief snapshots of their zithering limbs a simulacrum of nature's entirety, and taken as a whole, Danchev's text achieves a perfect mimesis of the man who more than anyone revealed the full continuum of our world through slant-eyed stills of its movement and color.

Cézanne: A Life by Alex Danchev
ISBN: 978-0307377074
512 pages