Cézanne in Provence edited by Philip Conisbee and Denis Coutagne (Yale University Press) It was in Paris, not Provence, that Cézanne's art history was made. The centre of the artworld has since been shifted from Paris by the rise of America, but power relations between periphery and centre prevail. The major exhibition that gave rise to this catalogue (available in English and French) would not have been possible without the power of the centre, Washington's National Gallery of Art. The Musée Granet in Aix was thereby able to offer a blockbuster show as a major tourist magnet for the Midi during summer 2006, when the Jas de Bouffan opened to the public. All this is part of a project, 'Cézanne 2006', backed by various development agencies. What is represented for cultural tourism is 'Cézanne's Provence', a short-circuit of nature and painter in which the genius loci of the Aixois landscape supposedly formed Cézanne's approach and the art then forged how we came to see this terrain.
This is supposedly the first exhibition devoted to Cézanne's engagement with the pays d'Aix, but this is not quite true. Admittedly, the Musée Granet's 1990 exhibition 'Sainte-Victoire: Cézanne' was devoted to only one locale, but in 1996 this museum also presented an exhibition of John Rewald's photographs of Cézanne's sites, a conference and a fine book (Les Sites Cézanniens du Pays d'Aix). In fact, Erle Loran Johnson's first article documenting such sites goes back to 1930, and was followed by the assiduous footslogging of Rewald. Many books have extended this work, pre-eminently Jean Arrouye's La Provence de Cézanne (1982) and Pavel Machotka's Cézanne: Landscape into Art (1996). Much research has been done now on the Aix school of art and museum, as well as Cézanne's early days, all encapsulated here in Bruno Ely's essay.
Denis Coutagne, director of the Musée Granet, reconstructs the layout of the Jas de Bouffan, the Cézanne family home, with an excellent map of the manor and its surroundings, though he is rather vague about the precise viewpoint adopted for some of the scenes. (The maps of L'Estaque and Gardanne published in Les Sites Cézanniens du Pays d'Aix are not here, though there is a good map of the Chateau Noir and a general one of the Aix region.) Coutagne also identifies the still lifes and outdoor scenes painted there. Similarly, Coutagne takes it upon himself, later, to try to identify which still lifes and portraits were painted in the Atelier des Lauves, an exercise that tends to limit the scope of enquiry.
Cardplayers, 1890–9. Musée d'Orsay, Paris.
Véronique Serrano's essay attributes to L'Estaque the maturation of Cézanne's solitary struggle with a 'primordial space'. She explains it as a retreat from the complexities of modernisation to a high-vantage distant overview, though her idea that Cézanne is 'tipping' perspective is questionable, since the artist is simply responding to a high view downwards. She also suggests, however, that his 'new vision of the world' was 'inherent in the site itself'. Similar aporia appear in Bruno Ely's discussion of the Gardanne paintings, yet another notionally 'pivotal' moment. If these multiple pivots are part of a broader transition, then it is the artist's concerns that determine how the site is rendered and not the other way around. For instance, Ely shows that Cézanne chose views that omitted the town's industry, but implies at one point that there is an essential geometry of the place that 'offered' the chance at proto-Cubism. He also has the topography of local routes 'structure the space', but how would such tracks and roads not constitute the painted composition for a phenomenal realist?
Conisbee`is precise about the layout of the Chateau Noir, which is useful, given its public inaccessibility. Its two buildings look grander from below than above because they have lower stories built into the hillside. The most frequently painted view shows Cézanne's studio-room, sometimes with the second building overlapping. The limits of such research become apparent here, however, as it is what the image is made into that counts. In Washington's late Chateau Noir (R937), for instance, the blue reflections on the window of his studio produce the effect of a grand windowless ruin, romantic overtones that Conisbee discusses well.
Conisbee's chapter on the late 'Montagne Ste.-Victoire' paintings clarifies that these paintings were done from Les Marguerites, about a kilometre northwards from the studio, not beside the studio itself. Conisbee rejects the idea of serialism for this set of works, despite Ely's earlier moderate acceptance of the idea. There are nine oils and 17 watercolours made from one spot, and I see no reason to disallow a broad notion of systematic or serial endeavour to these works.
Let me turn from the site-analysis tradition to a newer methodology, one described by Benedict Leca here as emphasising 'the importance of regional culture to [Cézanne's] art making'. The major exemplary text of such a recent approach is Athanassoglou-Kallmyer's Cézanne and Provence (2003), a shadow which haunts the catalogue-text throughout. Athanassoglou-Kallmyer introduced the challenging but ultimately problematic notion that Cézanne's art was formed out of particular provincial characteristics, interests and identity. Her thesis that Cézanne drew heavily on Provençal cultural identity and its reaffirmation in the late nineteenth century is acknowledged at several points in this catalogue, which also anxiously reiterates the fact that 'Cézanne of course was never a "regional" painter'.
If anything would clinch the Athanassoglou-Kallmyer argument, it would be some real involvement on Cézanne's part in the major movement of Provençal self-affirmation, the Félibrige movement. Yet Conisbee notes that, although in the 1890s he was briefly drawn through Gasquet into a vague approval of regionalist cultural affirmation, Cézanne did not play any part in that movement. Indeed we know that he wrote disparagingly of Gasquet's journal Les Mois dorées that 'it embalms Provence'. Cézanne's artistic tastes did not run to any Félibrige artists, but instead to national and international artists and writers.
Conisbee rightly notes that 'Cézanne says little about the associations the pays d'Aix had for him' in geographical and historical terms. This is what we know for certain via Cézanne's letters. Instead, Athanassoglou-Kallmyer relied on the more problematic and invented discourses that Gasquet and others had Cézanne utter, and the catalogue follows her on that. So Gasquet makes Cézanne say that he studies the geological structures of the landscape as his starting point, though Gasquet also quotes his saying 'I need to know some geology'. This sounds like his saying he felt ignorant about geology but would have liked to know more (but may be could not find the motivation to study it?). From this Athanassoglou-Kallmyer infers a deep preoccupation with geology. Conisbee takes up her argument that Cézanne's close association with Marion in the 1860s produced an enduring interest in geology and prehistory. The argument is very attractive because Marion actually made prehistoric finds during his early Aixois excursions, perhaps in the company of Cézanne. The idea that this biographical connection makes of Cézanne a Provençal painter is not, however, borne out logically. One problem, for instance, is that Marion's scientific links were international.
When it comes to associating Cézanne with a sense of Provence's artistic culture, in Leca's eyes, Cézanne 'emerged out of a pre-existing local history of similar practice that he knew and participated in', yet he deliberately 'forgot' his Provençal precedents when he trumped their painting of light-filled scenery with structured fields of light–colour. Conisbee also notes the way that Cézanne 'swept away several generations of painters who had been depicting the Provençal scene before him'. This is not consonant with some idea of a respectful continuity with a Provençal tradition.
The problems of associating Cézanne with a sense of Provençal history are similar. Paul Smith's essay has Cézanne, with his late 'Montagne Ste-Victoire' paintings, thinking of the Romans in 102BC driving the Cimbri to their deaths in the mountain's caverns, events again Gasquet has Cézanne lovingly reciting (but then, why would an educated man such as Cézanne not know his history?) Conisbee also explores the association of the mountain with Christian practices and defeat by the Prussians in 1871. Yet he also notes that Cézanne's was a personal exploration of the landscape and that idea does not sit easily with any sense of historical association. 'The subject was a local one', Conisbee remarks, 'but as he worked on a painting, colour and light took on a certain life of their own'. This abstracted view of landscape seen through a tempérament does not gel with the new Cézanne who is rooted to the local soil and culture.
Paul Smith's essay 'Cézanne's late landscapes, or the prospect of death' exemplifies many of the issues I find with some 'new art history'. According to Smith, Cézanne connected his late landscapes with the prospect of a lonely death. The Courtauld's Montagne Ste.Victoire is described as a 'death-orama', said to allude to Poussin's 'Phocion' paintings on the slender basis of strong composition and edging trees (and ignoring its abrupt phenomenal realism and the absence of those paintings from the Louvre). The evidence of Cézanne's copying activity suggests that he was interested in the Baroque Puget and Rubens, as well as Michelangelo, and hardly at all in Poussin. Yet for Smith the Courtauld picture alludes to Poussin's theme of death and stoical endurance of hostility, and its submission to Aix's Société des Amis des Arts in 1895 is a statement about local incomprehension of Cézanne's work! Finally he treats the late 'Ste.-Victoires' as alluding to the tumulus constructed over the body of Daphnis (the inventor of bucolic poetry) by the Arcadians, who then raised him to the stars in song. Smith has the evening darkness of the Pushkin's Montagne Ste-Victoire (not matched in other late renditions) reflect a general preoccupation with the approach of death, with the association of eventual artistic triumph somewhere in the background, bringing too extreme a notion of subjective projection into an aesthetic devoted to a sense of intensely formed perceptions, too precise a range of associations to a motif replete already with the metaphors surrounding mountains, elevation and longing of the human spirit.We might ask of books what sort of reader is 'in' this text, reading Cézanne's practice. We have here scholar-curators assiduously following Cézanne's Aixois connections, mining locally available documentary sources, and academics dedicated to the cerebral explorations of cultural discursivities, often without properly considering the problem of how to choose which discourses. (Do you choose, as Leca does, discourses around Provençal painting's 'essential' light and structure, or discourses around classicism in the Gasquet and Bernard circles, or discourses on Impressionism and light? Do you opt for traditionalism or originality, regionalism or transcultural values?) Hence we end up with a puzzling Cézanne who is significantly Provençal and yet not at all really; focused on the local terrain and yet preoccupied with personal abstracted sensations; deeply classical and yet avant-garde. This catalogue, the focus of manifold interests, may be more synthesis than original contribution to Cézanne studies, but it is certainly a convenient encapsulation of current approaches and their aporia.
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