Recently I went to a major museum retrospective in London. I looked the first painting on display, and wondered, ‘how amazing that a hedge fund can lose tens of billions of dollars’. I had no idea how the swift disappearance of so much money was possible. Was my mind drifting when that thought about business entered it? Not at all. Was I entering a show of contemporary political art? No, I was looking at The Basket of Apples (1893) in Paul Cezanne’s show at the Tate Modern . If we cannot expect apples in a bowl on a large table to sit in a stable array, then what can we count on? That was the question that occupied me and led naturally to this seemingly digressive political association. Why does Cezanne’s art speak to us still in this way when the Salon paintings of his contemporaries, which during his lifetime were so much more popular, are now only of academic interest? And why more than his heirs, the cubists, the surrealists and even the Abstract Expressionists, whose concerns may seem so much closer to the present, has Cezanne has become the artist for our time?
The subtitle of T. J. Clark’s new book, If These Apples Should Fall. Cézanne and the Present, says it all. Cezanne is (or has become) the artist who speaks to our present anxious and unsetting concerns. Clark is concerned not with Cezanne’s personal politics, a very limited subject, but with a political reading of the content and form of his paintings. He explains how Cezanne puts together his representations of landscapes, peasants and still life objects. During the era of the Weimar Republic, the German expressionists often presented subjects from a world coming apart. Cezanne presciently did something much more radical-— using curiously banal subjects he represented the very experience of this instability of perception. In The Basket of Apples, for example, the apples threaten to tumble across the tablecloth. And the table itself, far from being a ground that can contain them, appears curiously unstable. Only the vertical wine glass in the background provides a sense of stability. In Five Bathers (1885-87), the gestures of the five female nudes, set in a densely packed and amazingly gawky composition, are illegible. What in the world are they thinking? There are no clues. And in Paris Rooftops (1882), the banal sloping rooftops in the foreground cut off our vision of the cityscape behind, dividing the picture horizontally in a hopelessly awkward fashion. The Tate show has many paintings like these. How apples (and bathers and landscapes) are represented can, it turns out, matter politically. And thanks to our own global insecurities, so it seems to me, we can now properly understand Cezanne’s art, in ways that for most of his contemporaries was barely possible.
Earlier scholars produced complicated theories about Cézanne’s revelations of the structure of perception. Two generations ago, for example, Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s essay “Cezanne’s Doubt” was mandatory reading for New York artists. The idea that painters cannot escape doubt was very important for artistic practice. Although Clark cites that account, his different concerns, by contrast, are historicist- he’s interested in the evolving nature of perception here and now, not the eternal verities of the phenomenologist. What’s lost, he says, is confidence in painting’s capacity to truthfully represent the world. And that result would be “not anti-aesthetic, precisely. But it is a kind of horror, and elation, at what the work of form might be about.” My present account, written under the spell of his, is simpler, but not necessarily in disagreement.
In the 1970s, Clark became famous for his application of Guy Debord’s ferocious leftist politics to nineteenth-century French painting. Then in Afflicted Powers. Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War (2006), the collective team of writers labeled Retort, including Iain Boal, Joseph Matthews, Michael Watts and Clark, extended that viewpoint to deal with Osama bin Lauden and 9/11. In my judgment, If These Apples Should Fall, which looks in part to the immediate present, provides a more satisfying account. If pictorial representation fails, if the world is not representable, what follows? I ask this question is the most literal way, without offering even a sketch of an adequate answer. What we’ve seen recently, and especially very recently since covid, is that our political world transcends comprehension. (This thought was the source of my brooding about the hedge fund.) It’s as if Cezanne’s visual worldview, communicated by his painted presentations of bathers, landscapes and still lives, has become our commonplace everyday reality.
In his justly famous book published in 1962, Meyer Schapiro suggested that Cezanne’s paintings depended upon the belief that an art of personal expression has a universal sense. His Cezanne, who was an optimistic Marxist thinker, is no longer ours. Now Cezanne reveals a place that is barely (or inconceivably) picturable, where visual experience cannot coherently hold together. Schapiro’s Cezanne, to place his account historically, was the Cezanne of Willem de Kooning, and the other Abstract Expressionists who lived and worked in a self-confident America, the victorious power in World War Two. And now the Cezanne in this Tate show has become an icon of a very different visual culture, a place whose political power is permanently under siege. The revelations of his art, Cezanne’s biographer right declares, “are akin to those of Marx or Freud.” What is it like to live in a world which threatens in this way to be incomprehensible? Does anyone really know the answer to that question? Ready or not, we’re all about to find out. No wonder that this Cezanne exhibition was so popular. Welcome to early modernist art that is about our present life!
In an earlier essay in this publication I quoted Hannah Arendt:
The man-made world of things . . . becomes a home for mortal men, whose stability will endure and outlast the ever changing movement of their lives and actions, only insofar as it transcends both the sheer functionalism of things produced for consumption and the sheer utility of objects produced for use.
And then, so I observed, by distinguishing art from the products of labor, which are consumed in living, and the utilitarian objects produced by work, she argues that our lives are stabilized by these artifacts, created before our birth and destined, so we hope, to outlive us in our museums. If my present interpretation is at all correct, that Cezanne’s paintings cannot now have this function.
The Tate identifies the artist as ‘Cezanne’, i.e. without the accent. This essay extends my reviews of this Cezanne exhibition, forthcoming in·Athenaeum Review, and of T J Clark’s If These Apples Should Fall. Cézanne and the Present (2022) which will appear in the British Journal of Aesthetics. On Retort see my “State of the Disunion: Hans Haacke and T.J.Clark,” ArtUS 12 (March-April 2006): 22-24. I owe my concept of representation to Julian Bell, What is Painting? (2017). The quotation of Arendt comes from The Human Condition (1959). And I quote Alex Danchev, Cézanne. A Life (2013).