Modern Art and Modernism: A Critical Anthology

By Francis Frascina; Charles Harrison et al. | Go to book overview

10 Cézanne

Maurice Denis

There is something paradoxical in Cézanne's celebrity; and it is scarcely easier to explain than to explain Cézanne himself. The Cézanne question divides inseparably into two camps those who love painting and those who prefer to painting itself the literary and other interests accessory to it. I know indeed that it is the fashion to like painting. The discussions on this question are no longer serious and impassioned. Too many admirations lend themselves to suspicion. 'Snobbism' and speculation have dragged the public into painters' quarrels, and it takes sides according to fashion or interest. Thus it has come about that a public naturally hostile, but well primed by critics and dealers, has conspired to the apotheosis of a great artist, who remains nevertheless a difficult master even for those who love him best.

I have never heard an admirer of Cézanne give me a clear and precise reason for his admiration; and this is true even among those artists who feel most directly the appeal of Cézanne's art. I have heard the words quality, flavour, importance, interest, classicism, beauty, style.... Now of Delacroix or Monet one could briefly formulate a reasoned appreciation which would be clearly intelligible. But how hard it is to be precise about Cézanne!

The mystery with which the Master of Aix-en-Provence surrounded his life has contributed not a little to the obscurity of the explanations, though his reputation has benefited thereby. He was shy, independent, solitary. Exclusively occupied with his art, he was always restless and usually ill-satisfied with himself. He evaded up to his last years the curiosity of the public. Even those who professed his methods remained for the most part ignorant of him. The present writer admits that about 1890, at the period of his first visit to Tanguy's shop, he thought that Cézanne was a myth, perhaps the pseudonym of some artist well known for other efforts, and that he disbelieved in his existence. Since then he has had the honour of seeing him at Aix; and the remarks which he there gathered, collated with those of M. E. Bernard, may help to throw some light upon Cézanne's aesthetics.

At the moment of his death, the articles in the press were unanimous upon two points; and, wherever their inspiration was derived from, they may fairly be considered to reflect the average opinion. The obituaries, then, admitted first of all that Cézanne influenced a large section of the younger artists; and secondly that he made an effort towards style. We may gather, then, that Cézanne was a sort of classic, and that the younger generation regards him as a representative of classicism. [...]

Gauguin used to say, thinking of Cézanne: 'Nothing is so much like a croûte [daub, badly painted picture] as a real masterpiece.' Croûte or masterpiece, one can only understand it in opposition to the mediocrity of modern painting. And already we grasp one of the certain characteristics of the classic, namely, style, that is to say

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Source: Burlington Magazine, XVI January 1910, pp. 207-219 (part I) and February 1910, pp. 275-280 (part II), translated by Roger Fry. Originally published in L'Occident, September 1907.

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