Cézanne's Bathers: Biography and the Erotics of Paint

August 7, 2008

D'Souza's fascinating study of what Cézanne did to the female nude on the cusp of the modernist century is a book about reading readings. It is a rigorous attempt to pierce, by critical reading, what contemporary critics said, or could not say, about Cézanne's painted female bodies in order to mount the argument that Cézanne fashioned, through paint itself, a "new language of the erotic". Cézanne displaced the fetishism of the image itself, the traced or resembling body and the narrative of imaginary possession. Through her final reading of Matisse's painterly readings of Cézanne's bather paintings, one of which he owned, D'Souza argues that Cézanne asserted "an erotics of paint that seeped beyond the body's contours, that constituted those contours, that collapsed the sensuality of the medium with the sensuality of the body".

Marked by the dual legacies of T. J. Clark's lesson that we can begin to discern what paintings may have meant at their moment of production only by a symptomatic reading of the said and the unsaid in the discourse of critics - the works' first readers - and of feminist disclosure of the perpetual and structural play of desire (burdened, in contradictory combinations, with sadism, voyeurism, fetishism and helplessness), D'Souza patiently tracks the struggles of Cézanne's interested, if always perplexed, contemporaries in the avant-garde to make sense of his distressing paintings of the female nude. In this genre alone, critics found themselves confounded. What accounted for the gaucheries, the deformations and the ugliness apparent in his wilful refusal of the established modes for rendering the image of the female body both erotic and imaginatively desirable?

Biography, it seems. D'Souza opens her study with a contrast between two photographs of the old Cézanne. One shows the painter still vigorous, outdoors, at work sur le motif, active in his looking, marking, making. The contrasting image, by Bernard, shows a huddled, "shrivelled" (D'Souza's freighted word) and elderly man sitting with his back to one of this late, studio-composed series of large-scale paintings of bathers in a landscape, the 1904 version now in the Barnes Collection. D'Souza reads this photograph as visual witness to one of the two strands of biographically inflected interpretation that would emerge to account for the dissonance and dissidence of Cézanne's late bather paintings. First rendered in Emile Zola's hardly veiled fictionalisation of his childhood friend, The Masterpiece (1886), one vision of Cézanne presents him as the failed genius, sexually as well as artistically tortured, defeated by his impossible ambition, an impotent artist who ultimately hangs himself before the hubristically modernist painting he comes to recognise as both false and monstrous.

This extended into a biographical trend that became an oft-repeated explanatory myth, attributing Cézanne's oddities in painting the female nude to the man's unmanageable, uncivilised arousal and intense puritanical anxiety before the naked female body. Pitting this reliance on external, biographical speculation against Matisse's artistic absorption and painterly translation of Cézanne's lesson, D'Souza offers a finely argued claim about Cézanne's material modernisation of the erotic that distances itself from both Tamar Garb's and T. J. Clark's recent, psychoanalytically and phenomenologically (hence anti-biographical) attempts to theorise what is happening when the painter Cézanne confronts the body.

The book, therefore, leaves unanswered both how to understand such a displaced, sublimated erotics of materiality and painterly process and how to assess its cultural implications beyond establishing the modernist genealogy of masculine modernism. An obvious legacy of this Cézanne debate resurfaces in Willem de Kooning's Woman series of the early 1950s, paintings that were denounced for performing a violent "massacre" of the imaged woman and equally defended by the argument that the violence was in the paint application and not the subject.

D'Souza's judicious and fascinating study takes us to the brink of such difficult questions that still string out art historical debate, not between iconography and formalism but precisely between modernism's self-defence - "it's just a matter of the medium" - and the sexual and often racial and classed politics of what is happening on the canvas and then to us, when in viewing, we process the practical but also psychic event that brought it into existence.

Cézanne's Bathers: Biography and the Erotics of Paint

By Aruna D'Souza. Penn State University Press. 176pp, £34.50. ISBN 97801032146. Published 15 May 2008

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