Cézanne, Murder, and Modern Life by André Dombrowski

Alex Danchev finds new Modernist shades in this portrait of painter

January 31, 2013

This is a book about the messiness of Modernism, the horripilation of history, the perturbation of painting and the problem of the painter’s state of mind - perhaps even his mental state - focusing on the painter of modern life who revolutionised both the painting and the life: Paul Cézanne.

André Dombrowski wants to see Cézanne plain, rather than through retrospective spectacles. This involves a forensic re-examination of his early work, seen as a set of ambitious propositions about the possibilities of painting after Manet, in particular, as that imperturbable gentleman upset the apple cart with Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe and Olympia. Cézanne vis-à-vis Manet is perhaps the dominant motif. Cézanne’s Strangler is said to murder Manet’s Olympia. Cézanne inserts himself into Manet’s paintings. (A Cézanne figure appears in his variations on A Modern Olympia - the title itself a piece of impudence.) “He embodied and interiorized Manet’s major paintings through his own presence in them,” argues Dombrowski. What emerges is something like Cézanne’s Manet, an intriguing exercise in the practical criticism of an indubitable master by his putative successor; or Cézanne as anti-Manet, defining himself against the reigning monarch, and for his own intellectual and social circle, spearheaded by Émile Zola, his boon companion and comrade-in-arms.

In other words, Cézanne, Murder, and Modern Life addresses Cézanne becoming Cézanne. This process had ramifications beyond painting. When he arrived at the Café Guerbois - the favourite Paris watering-hole of Manet and his band - “he threw a suspicious glance at the assembled company”, Monet recalled. “Then, opening his jacket, with a movement of the hips worthy of a zinc-worker he hitched up his pants, and ostentatiously readjusted the red sash round his waist. After that he shook hands all round.” The performance was not over yet. In the presence of the monarch himself, Cézanne removed his hat, smiled his smile, and in his best Provençal accent announced, “I won’t offer you my hand, Monsieur Manet, I haven’t washed for a week.”

Dombrowski tells that story (mildly mistranslated), but does not make much of it. Despite a fascination with psychology, and something close to an obsession with “the self”, he is not much interested in story, or biography. He makes surprisingly little use of testimony from Cézanne himself, even where it might help his case. He has a nice line on the way in which “Cézanne seems to have tried to subjectify (even ‘psychologize’) the object world”, as he puts it, such that a clock or a teaspoon almost ceases to be inanimate and takes on a life of its own. In Cézanne’s paintings, objects tell tales; it is as if they are endowed with personalities, histories, autobiographies. They are sentient, recalcitrant, mutant. “People think a sugar bowl has no physiognomy, no soul,” Cézanne said. “But that changes every day [as with people]. You have to know how to take them, coax them, those fellows.” Proust’s comment about the profound life of still life might have been made with Cézanne in mind.

Instead, Dombrowski concentrates on the paintings themselves in their sociocultural context - principally The Murder, ripe for exhumation in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool; The Strangled Woman; the two versions of A Modern Olympia; the two versions of Paul Alexis Reading to Émile Zola, with The Black Clock as a kind of pendant; Young Woman at the Piano, vexingly subtitled Overture to “Tannhäuser”; and three studies from fashion plates in La Mode Illustrée (Cézanne is full of surprises). This enquiry is conducted with tremendous intellectual verve and interpretative vigour. The close readings, comparisons and contextualisations are immensely stimulating, even where the reader may be tempted to call a halt or enter a caution.

The point of entry is often Baudelaire, who functions here as the original interlocutor-interpreter-inspirer, much as he does in Roberto Calasso’s recent study La Folie Baudelaire, which seems wholly justified. Cézanne was steeped in Baudelaire: two of his favourite books were Les Fleurs du Mal and L’Art Romantique. The latter contains “The painter of modern life” - the essay that gives Dombrowski his argumentative traction - but more importantly, “The work and life of Eugène Delacroix”, the éloge that Cézanne read and re-read all his life.

Cézanne, Murder, and Modern Life is beautifully produced. The use of illustrations is masterly. Dombrowski is in need of a good editor. He traffics too much in the tropological, the imbricative and the thanatonic. But he pulls off a rare feat. He says something new and true about the most extraordinary phenomenon of the age: la folie Cézanne.

Cézanne, Murder, and Modern Life

By André Dombrowski

University of California Press, 320pp, £41.95

ISBN 97805203399

Published 11 January 2013

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