In 1968, the artist Carolee Schneemann delivered a lecture at the ICA in London, during which she repeatedly undressed and re-dressed herself while discussing one of her great influences as an artist. “Does a woman have intellectual authority?” she asked at the time. “Can she have public authority while naked and speaking?” The scandalised response to Schneemann’s intermittent nakedness rather eclipsed the significance of the artist about whom she was speaking: Paul Cézanne.
The choice was heartfelt, and considered. The influence of Cézanne is clear in Schneemann’s fractured, evolved, sensation-driven early paintings, both landscapes and nudes. As a drawing-crazy kid, looking through art books for inspiration, she had searched in vain for female role models. “I decided a painter named Cézanne would be my mascot; I would assume Cézanne was unquestionably a woman – after all the “anne” in it was feminine,” she wrote in her 1975 pamphlet Cézanne, She Was a Great Painter.
It is an art world cliche to describe certain figures as “artists’ artists” – those who fascinate their peers and those who follow with work that is radical, mysterious, and discomforting – perhaps no one more so than Cézanne. Next week, Tate opens its first substantial exhibition of his work in a quarter of a century. The catalogue begins with an essay detailing the artist contemporaries who collected his work, among them Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas, Mary Cassatt and Claude Monet. Camille Pissarro – who described Cézanne as a “refined savage” – owned 19 paintings, as well as drawings and watercolours.
The fascination endures, and often in unexpected quarters. “When Cézanne went to paint Mont Sainte-Victoire, he went out to have a relationship with a mountain, to practically lick it with his eyeballs,” the painter Amy Sillman has written. “In his paintings, people and things exist in equally molten form. His paintings are a recording of a haptic seeing, an endless flickering thatch of paint strokes that aspire to capture the flux of sensation itself.”
In his essay The Pixels of Paul Cézanne, the film-maker Wim Wenders ponders the painter’s ability to zoom in on a landscape and break the visible field into fragments. For those of us living in the digital age, expanding an image until it segments into pixels is an everyday phenomenon: looking at Cézanne’s Montaigne Saint-Victoire, Wenders feels the “unfathomable thing” is not only that something we can now all do with digital technology “was being done back then for the first time with just a pencil and a few watercolours”, but that “he was so moved by what he had done in a way that, for us in the present day, is no longer possible.”
In 1996, ahead of Tate’s last Cézanne show, this publication ran a piece by its newly appointed art critic Adrian Searle and asked artists of the day whether he could be considered the father of modern art. On the eve of this new exhibition, we have posed the same question, and invited artists to discuss his enduring influence.
I’m not sure what “father of modern art” means, but I love Cézanne. I like the paintings of Hortense a lot. She sits like a big doll propped sideways in her chair, her large hands in her lap, there’s an uneasy tension between painter and sitter. The most tender paintings are of his son Paul, his beautiful head and delicate neck. Cézanne’s paintings feel very exciting – they make you look a long time to try to figure them out. But, writing this, I remember the bathers, the still lifes, Montagne Sainte-Victoire, the card players, his colour, his shadows, and I am returned to the realisation that he’s the starting place for so much painting that followed.
Each new generation finds something fresh and astonishing in Cézanne’s vision. It inspires and eludes, raises questions and provides no answers. “Ma petite sensation” [the phrase Cézanne often muttered] has led the way forward.
In 1992, I started a series of landscapes in the southern part of Mexico, in the grand tradition of plein air painting, probably the only “Cézannian” episode of my life. After a year or so of wanderings in the Sierra, I gave up in the face of the impossibility of painting without thinking I was painting, of allowing myself to just be in intelligence with the nature I was immersed in. I remember blaming Cézanne (or was it that I blessed him?) for having saved me from having to deal with the enigma of painting.
In 2009, I participated in the group exhibition Cézanne and Beyond at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, for which I was invited to contribute a response to Cézanne’s work. My answer to the invitation was to veil an original painting by Cézanne with bubble wrap. The proposal was not an act of iconoclastic disrespect; it was an act of homage and surrender.
Why is Cézanne particularly appreciated by artists? I think that many attempts in his practice are delicate and only his counterparts could perceive their values. When I observe Cézanne’s work, I like to blur my vision, usually by squinting, so that I can see the compositions drained of the chromatic aspect. This allows me to see how Cézanne constructs forms by means of varied tonality.
Like many others, I agree that the structure of Cézanne’s painting constitutes one of his most significant achievements. His way of rendering the pictorial space is very striking. And I am particularly inspired by his analytic use of colour. In his painting, colour is primarily revealed through contrast, while form is revealed through colour. Every single detail was considered and backed up by a precise and logical thought process.
Working directly from a Cézanne reproduction has been the best painting lesson I ever did – twice I have attempted to make a grisaille version of paintings of Montagne Sainte-Victoire – one as an idea of flying over a black-and-white reproduction of his work from an aeroplane window. Because of his understanding of tone and hue in painting, you can’t work from a straight black-and-white version to make the painting do what it does in the original – he could put two colours next to each other that were a perfect tonal match – so to paint a version in greys, I had to invent each tonal brushstroke to make it do the physical work in the original painting.
I can’t believe it’s 25 years since the last Cézanne show at Tate – to see his work en masse for any painter is an overwhelming experience. The longer one makes paintings, the more extraordinary his achievement. Cézanne brought the formal aspects of a painting as artificial to new and giddy heights, in so doing placing his work as the most important for Painting (with a capital P) in the last century and any yet to come.
A still life is not a portrait, nor is it a landscape, however it was and maybe still is perceived as the lowest denominator within painting as a discipline. By the time Cézanne revived it, its importance was next to nothing. I suspect that the neglect of still life made it attractive to Cézanne. It sort of opened up a free zone in which he could experiment in a fairly unhindered way. On the other hand, his choice might even have been an underhand political statement against the more urban, worldly and mundane themes in painting of his time, since the fruit was grown locally and the pottery made of clay from the surrounding landscape. All in all, I think Cézanne’s quest was for affirmation of his own eternity, driven by a monumental persistence.
The irony is that by using the most humble and unimportant subjects – such as an apple – Cézanne was able to crack depiction single-handedly.
What about the durability Cézanne pursued? Is there still something vital for us in the pictures he made? Do they wear their age lightly? Pablo Picasso declared that for him: “There is no past or future in art. If a work cannot live always in the present, it must not be considered at all.” Artists who believe their work meets all the important criteria upheld by museums must internalise this in order to persevere.
In 2022, however, we are well past the revolutionary phase of art, when the condition of painting as an essential mode of representation was vigorously contested. Today, every kind of image that gets made is presented as though it has a claim to relevance. No one looks to nature or the self as the source of revelation in art, as Cézanne did. These days, artists don’t even learn to paint by copying other paintings. Examining pictures of paintings seems sufficient. Even so, the art of making paintings has, once again, taken on quasi-mystical overtones following a retreat from skill and renewed suspicion of authority.
Cézanne is at Tate Modern, London, from 5 October to 12 March. The pieces by Luc Tuymans and Kerry James Marshall are extracted, with permission, from the catalogue.