Our friend and writer Maureen Mullarkey examines a new biographer of Cézanne who, “abandoning scholarly obligation to periods of taste different from his own . . . declares allegiance to the dashing Young Turks against the old duffers” and “gratifies the susceptibilities of the author’s own generation, one that came of age enamored of the stock motif of radical breaks from the shackles of bourgeois convention.” And in doing so badly misunderstands Cezanne’s painting, and indeed the effects of painting itself.

The writer, Alex Danchev, declares that “the revelations of Cézanne are akin to those of Marx or Freud” in their “transformational potential.” No, says Maureen :

Marx and Freud were momentous secularizers: Their mythologies of redemption, in concert with Darwin’s positioning of man firmly in the animal kingdom, de-stabilized Western civilization’s Judeo-Christian axis. No artist approaches such consequence. As the age lost its taste for God, it developed a taste for Art instead. Cézanne was a beneficiary, never the agent, of that transfer.

The fragmentations of modernism, reflected in the arts, owe more to Flanders Fields than to any marks on a canvas. Paul Valéry put it best: World War I exposed our civilization as mortal. Distinctions between revelation on that scale and a method of painting will not dissolve in the warm bath of aesthetic sensibility. But in the eye of the professor, art is the universal solvent for turning the past into an endorsement of particular values in the present. He values the painter as a promoter of dissent from established norms.

One thing the author’s use of Cézanne requires is that he not become, as he did, a believing Catholic. Danchev writes: “Given his temperament, it was only to be expected that he was not a good impressionist, just as he was not a good Catholic. Denominations were not his style. Impressionism could not contain him; no movement could.” And “The One True Church (whatever it might be) could not contain him; followership was one of the many things he could never quite believe in.”

That was the hero the biographer wants, and so, as Maureen notes, “it would never do to have us thinking of the great insurgent as a reactionary Catholic.” She does not say, perhaps thinking it obvious, that the biographer’s is a tired and inane and boring and cliched attitude, at least for those of us who grew up hearing our elders talk like that and then saw what happened to them when they lived like that. Much more interesting, because much more fruitful, is the kind of relation to the past Maureen describes Cézanne having: his was “the gleaning of a long, luminous pedigree that stretches past his beloved Delacroix, back to the persistently inventive Constable.”

Articles by David Mills


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