The Threepenny Review

Not Writing about Cézanne

A FEW YEARS ago, reviewing a show in London of Cézanne’s paintings of cardplayers, I began by saying, “Cézanne, whose work was the touchstone for critical thinking and writing on art for more than a century, cannot be written about any more.” And went on: “After a few minutes in the exhibition at the Courtauld, surrounded by Card Players and Smokers, one understands why. The mixture of seriousness and sensuousness in the paintings—I am tempted to say, in the best of them, of lugubriousness and euphoria—is remote from the temper of our times. And the quality of grim, eager pursuit of perfection within a deliberately narrow range—‘the difficult thing is to prove what one believes,’ Cézanne wrote to one correspondent, ‘so I am continuing my researches’—is likewise deeply foreign. It has a nineteenth-century flavor to it.”

The temper and pace of Cézanne’s art are unthinkable, in other words, apart from the grave, dogged optimism of a long-vanished moment. But that optimism was always perceived in his case to have taken a strange, maybe self-defeating, form. “He dares,” wrote a critic in 1895, at the time of Cézanne’s first one-man show (the artist was in his mid-fifties, and had been painting for three decades) “to be harsh and as it were savage, letting himself be dragged to

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