Discerning palette

Alex Danchev salutes the inexplicable mastery of Cézanne, subject of a scrupulous exhibition

November 4, 2010

Credit: The Courtauld Gallery
‘Wanting tones to be forces’ - The Card Players (from the Courtauld)

Cézanne's Card Players

The Courtauld Gallery, London

21 October 2010-16 January 2011

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

9 February 2011-8 May 2011

Cézanne's Card Players

Edited by Nancy Ireson and Barnaby Wright

The Courtauld Gallery in association with Paul Holberton Publishing, 160pp, £25.00

ISBN 9781907372117

"How does he do it?" asked Renoir. "He has only to put two strokes of colour on a canvas and it's already something." Cézanne is the man - "the sublime little grimalkin", as D.H. Lawrence described him, the master of modern art, the one that all the others studied, collected, copied, revered, resented, and strove to comprehend.

The struggle for comprehension has been going on for more than a century, and it is not over yet. In 1905, a survey of the profession was conducted by the prestigious Mercure de France. One of the questions was "What do you make of Cézanne?" Not the least remarkable aspect of this was that Cézanne himself was still alive to read it. The responses varied wildly: "Nothing to say about Cézanne. The painting of a drunken cesspit emptier"; "What do I make of Cézanne? What the pagans and heretics make of a dogma that is in their eyes completely incomprehensible"; "He is a very great master for whom a sympathetic group of artists profess the veneration due to the Originator."

Cézanne died the following year. Since then the Originator has triumphed over the cesspit emptier, but the incomprehensibility remains. The power of the work is indisputable. Explaining it is still the task.

Cézanne has become the exemplary artist-creator of the modern period (a status not confined to painters). And yet, as Roger Fry once concluded, "in the last resort we cannot in the least explain why the smallest product of his hand arouses the impression of being a revelation of the highest importance, or what exactly it is that gives it its grave authority".

The strange, serial masterpieces that are the Card Players and their cousins the Smokers offer themselves as a test case of the species, Homo Cézanniens. A room full of them at the Courtauld Gallery is a rare treat. Man with a Pipe appears here as an archetype, protean and ubiquitous, now conjured with a dab of watercolour, now a cracking oil painting, luminous like the old masters - with a revolutionary exploding head.

These men have a moral force. Matisse had a go at nailing it. "I am very surprised that anyone can wonder whether the lesson of the painter of The House of the Hanged Man or The Card Players is good or bad," he told an interviewer. "If only you knew the moral strength, the encouragement that his remarkable example gave me all my life! In moments of doubt, when I was still searching for myself, frightened sometimes by my discoveries, I thought: 'If Cézanne is right, I am right.' Because I knew that Cézanne had made no mistake. There are, you see, structural laws in the work of Cézanne that are useful to a young painter. He had, among his great virtues, the merit of wanting the tones to be forces in painting, giving the highest mission to his painting."

On another occasion he added: "Cézanne's paintings have a peculiar construction; reversed, looked at in the mirror for example, they often lose their balance."

All of this may be observed in the exhibition: the peculiar construction, the characteristic tilt, the ambiguous setting, the misshapen bodies, the migrating contours, the misaligned pipes. Above all, perhaps, the riveting tones, the figure in deep-dyed dialogue with the ground - and, in this company, with the other figures ranged around the sympathetic walls.

André Breton thought that Cézanne gave his subjects a kind of "halo". Around The Card Players, he wrote, "there swirls an air of menace, part-tragic, part-clownish, just like the goings-on in the card game in the Chaplin film A Dog's Life". Menace does not seem quite right. But the close-knit community of card players does have a certain atmosphere. The longer you are with them, the more it seeps in.

Rilke said of Cézanne that he did not paint "Look at me" but "Here it is". There is an echo of that epitaph in Richard Shiff's catalogue essay, "He Painted." The catalogue, like the exhibition, is a scrupulous production. Cézanne's Card Players is a one-room show, but it is the best room in town.

He painted. Here it is.

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