There is Paul Cézanne the artist, and there is Paul Cézanne the godfather. There are the unbalanced, weighty apples and pears; then there is their legacy, even weightier.
With your eyes alone you can fall into his painted still lifes and card players, the densely packed bathers, the blocky views of Mont Sainte-Victoire. Just look, and his broken perspectives disclose his scrutinizing intelligence at work. But just looking: ehh, it’s not so easy. Not when the taciturn painter has been elevated into a master teacher, and his distorted spaces into the starting pistol of modernism. The Museum of Modern Art, in particular, has treated Cézanne for most of its history as a pass/fail entrance exam — stationing his downcast “Bather” from around 1885 at the opening of its collection galleries, a stripped-off sentinel guarding Picasso, Matisse and the rest.
It’s hard to hold onto these two Cézannes; I certainly struggle. He was the first painter I ever loved, when I was a teenager. These days, though, I have a bad habit of treating Cézannes like math problems, totting up their heavy brush strokes as so many mileposts on the road to the 20th century. So among the many astonishments of “Cézanne Drawing,” MoMA’s vast and vastly important show of the summer, one overarches all: It returned Cézanne to me, at human scale, undogged by what’s to come.
This progenitor of modern painting — “the father of us all,” as both Picasso and Matisse supposedly said — also drew. Just about every day, for 50 years. The dense masses of fruit we think we know appear here only as shadows. The solid clumps of bathers’ bodies resolve into trembling outlines. In his less exalted drawings (as well as paintings on paper), rough marks and unfinished regions become testimonies to how a new kind of art has to be forged day by day.
Concentrating on the drawings — some 280 of them are here, which the curators Jodi Hauptman and Samantha Friedman have meticulously laid out by theme — reopens Cézannian vistas we (MoMA and me?) bricked up for too long. To the layered perceptions of the paintings, “Cézanne Drawing” adds back single moments of looking. To forward motion, it adds back classical inspiration. To color, it adds back line. All that was here, within and around Cézanne-the-modern-godfather, but it took this show to remind us. In all those gray pencil marks, those scanty daubs of watercolor, what you’ll find here is not so much a Cézanne we don’t know as the Cézanne we’ve forgotten how to see.
Where on earth do you start? Start with yourself. Around 1880, when he was in his early 40s, Cézanne looked in the mirror and sketched himself in three-quarter profile: his eyebrows arched, his lips slightly pursed, his full beard setting off the bald crown of his head. On the same sheet, at around the same scale as his forehead, he made another drawing. It’s a dimpled apple, lightly shaded at the bottom where a table might be. The person and the object, the perceiver and the thing perceived, feel explicitly equated.
How can this little sheet, of such an unprepossessing subject, have such authority? For crying out loud, it’s just an apple!
Well, it is an apple and it isn’t an apple. What Cézanne’s showing us in this drawing, and what you see throughout this show, is that the apple itself, or indeed the artist’s own face, is of no great concern on its own. What matters is his perception of the apple (and his face), and the style with which he renders those perceptions. For centuries before Cézanne, the greatest European art was the art that most accurately pictured the world, with precision, illusionism, elegance, sprezzatura. Cézanne junked all that. Instead, he used art to give form to the process of seeing that world, individually, with both eye and brain.
That was what could make an apple into a subject as gripping as the Madonna of the Rocks — and it was through drawing, even more than painting, that Cézanne most clearly made how he sees into the stuff of art. In another sheet here, the stern Madame Cézanne is also equated to produce; her disembodied head is indented, and solidified, in the same manner as the round fruit with which it shares a page. A little plaster putto Cézanne had in his studio — familiar from one of his greatest fruit-strewn still lifes, in the Courtauld Gallery in London — appears several times here as a lumpy, unwieldy assemblage. Day after day, in pencil or watercolor, in the Louvre galleries or outdoors in Provence, his senses solidified objects and people into shallow, perspective-free mass.
It was an assiduous approach, and a pretty cold one. Throughout “Cézanne Drawing,” faces and bodies have the dispassion of still life. (“Be an apple!” he notoriously said to his models.) With the bathers, especially, bodies harden into things. Torsos like clay. Buttocks like pears. More classically proportioned figures could be paired, on the same page, with squatter, lumpier piles of flesh.
Following the Impressionists, Cézanne with his bathers wanted to capture the effects of light, the play of angles, the individual and not ideal perspective. But against Monet’s or Degas’s fleeting perceptions, these acts of looking have put on weight. Their massing becomes a mechanism by which Cézanne could invent a new art without giving up on tradition — and drawings of classical statuary, throughout this show, affirm that what turned out to be a revolution in depiction did not have such destructive aims. “One does not replace the past,” he wrote to a friend in 1905. “One only adds a new link.”
This is a show about process and practice, and you may not love “Cézanne Drawing” as much as I do if you’re in the market for refinement. Compared even with his fellow Post-Impressionists — van Gogh, for one, or especially Seurat — Cézanne wasn’t screamingly proficient in line drawing, and didn’t even get much better at it over the decades. A drawing of Hercules and another of a peasant farmer are not so easy to distinguish. A bather in a full-scale drawing exhibits not much more finesse than a bather drawn on an accounting receipt. His friend and colleague Émile Bernard called Cézanne’s drawings “documents without artifice,” as if they weren’t actually art at all.
And yet it’s that lack of artifice, the feeling that you are witnessing Cézanne at work as he draws, that makes the sheets so modern. Spend some time examining “Mercury After Pigalle,” from 1890 or so, one of countless drawings the artist made after neoclassical sculpture. The wobbly lines twist into one another, and the contours are tremulous and awkward. No eraser marks, little sense of finish. None of the heroism of the classical nude. In those lines, though, you witness a whole artistic consciousness being made manifest — and, with it, a new kind of art with consciousness at its center.
There’s more elegance in the watercolors, which feel more familiar than the pencil drawings. (Although I guess these are “drawings” too; lines sometimes overlays watercolor in these sheets, the pencil and the brush working together.) Still lifes of apples, pears and the like are among the most worked compositions in this show, although voids of white give their masses an added tension. Even more white intrudes in the sheets of Sainte-Victoire, the Provençal peak that Cézanne distilled into layered blocks of color and jagged, broken lines.
The sheets I looked at longest are Cézanne’s plein-air watercolors of rock faces in southern France, washy and open, nearly unrecognizable as geological formations. This show has 10 of them on a single wall, and the whispering contours of the stones come as close to abstraction as this perceptualist would ever allow.
In one of several drawings he made of rock faces outside a grotto next to Sainte-Victoire, he leaves block after block of white space, using the empty paper to compose the rock face. Small dabs of green and orange fleck the edges of the boulders, but the centers remain barren. Cézanne was a keen student of geology, and alone among his drawings, these rocks are the one subject that looks lighter, not heavier, under his eye. The stones seem to sublimate. Solids melt into air.
“An apple is not very interesting,” the Canadian photographer Jeff Wall once said, justifying his own Cézannesque doubt that an artist’s subject matter counts for much. Right now in contemporary art, of course, everything is subject matter. No work is complete without a justificatory explanation stapled to it; shape and color and line are hardly anyone’s concern.
But here in Cézanne’s watercolors of the cliffs of Provence — deliquescent landscapes, rocks turned into fluid — still lies a master class for artists working in a totally transformed climate, culturally and ecologically speaking. The keen gaze from Aix cleared the way for a century of modern artists who wanted to change the world, but you can’t change anything, not in your society and not in your atmosphere, unless you first give it form. Form is weddings and funerals, form is marches and movements, form is the difference between what you scroll past and what lasts. Form is how things you see becomes things that matter, investing even the daily haul from the greengrocer with the force of truth.