The Walter Darby Bannard Archive

The Late Cézanne: A Symposium (1978)

Art in America, March - April, 1978, p. 83.

When Art in America asked me to write a few lines about the Cézanne show I thought it would be a good idea to see it again, with a mind to saying something about it. A friend and I went over to the museum on the Friday before the show closed. It was a cold and grey and windy, and there was the most amazing line of people from the museum up to the church and around the corner up 5th Avenue. It may have reached all the way to 54th Street and around that corner, for all we know. We headed down to lunch on 48th Street talking about long lines at art shows and why people stand on them for hours at a time, and decided that we wouldn't stand on a line like that unless it was the only way to get food. As Cézanne faded from our thoughts we invented wacky ways to get into the supershows of the future.

I had been to the show on a low-density day and got a look at everything. It's hard to see Cézanne; we've had so much of him and what everyone has made of him, in words and in oils, ad nauseum. Besides, I was in a crotchety mood, full of sour thoughts about the Modern Museum, the art public and supershows in general. So I didn't expect much.

I checked out the paintings quickly and critically and made lots of small observations. Once again I noted how much the Modern's Pines and Rocks is built like their Picasso Ma Jolie. If they were painted today the art gossips would have Picasso down as a Cézanne rip-off. Originality is so over-rated. Thank God time and good sense turns imitation into evolution. I was surprised to find that the Hermitage Still Life with Curtain and Flowered Pitcher is a dead picture. It looked good at the Knoedler Russian show a year or so ago. The exquisite apple in the middle of the Louvre Apples and Oranges got me thinking about Cézanne's wonderful touch and how his use of adjoining short strokes has the same effect as a cartoonist's visual shorthand for movement. The museum took some flak for concentrating on the late pictures instead of putting on a "true" retrospective, but for me seeing a wall full of Mont Saint-Victoires was like tasting a dozen vintages of Chateau Latour. Really elitist, I suppose, but comparison is everything in art, and Cézanne is such a heavy figure they got away with it. The Baltimore version looked best to me at the time but now I might go for the one on the cover of the catalog. And I wondered when curators will realize that pictures in corners stops up the traffic flow in a crowded show. I suppose they really haven't had the problem before.

As I was about to leave the museum an uneasy feeling prompted me to buy a catalog, which I seldom do. It wasn't as if I thought I had missed anything, but I felt I wanted to dwell on Cézanne a while longer, to get to "know" him better. That hadn't happened to me since my post-adolescent awe of Picasso and the Life of the Artist. I dipped into it now and then while eating lunch or riding the Metroliner to Washington, marveling at Professor Rubin's excruciating scholarship, or looking back with George Heard Hamilton at the benighted old-time critics who perceived Cézanne's "primitivism" but didn't know what to make of it. Professor Rewald's photographs of the motifs were a treat and I tried for the longest time to figure out which "Mont Sainte-Victoire" Cézanne was working on in one of them. I leafed through to find out what Cézanne thought of his own pictures, what he thought about leaving bare canvas, what his day was like and why he put green in the sky. The rude and one-sided character of his pictures kept haunting me. After a while I realized I was treating the catalog as a kind of bible.

That was unnerving but a little introspection told me what I was doing and why. I had gotten much more out of the show than I thought. The paintings were reaching me even as I sped past with glib thoughts. The show settled in on me very hard. I realized that the experience was tied right in to my own painting and my own changing feelings about the nature of art. Until recently art has seemed to me to be not ineffable but merely difficult. But in going through changes in the last few years I have come to see that making art won't be governed or measured any more than appreciating art will. Cézanne not only held up the highest standards to me but also he showed me, with his clunkiness, "primitivism," raw canvas, and the like, that he was just as puzzled by it all as I am. I really don't know what I'm doing when I'm painting and I don't think Cézanne did either. I never get what I want on the canvas; months later I'm glad I didn't. Cézanne never got what he wanted, and I think that's just as well too. The best we can do is keep on plugging and hope something runs out through our fingers onto the canvas. Cézanne gave in to that, and the show tells me that's OK, maybe even necessary. The catalog is a token of assurance.

Now I wish I could go back and see the pictures again.

Transcribed from WDB draft.