What's So Great about Cezanne?

Article excerpt

Byline: Blake Gopnik

The French artist was an unquestioned genius. But try putting his gifts into words.

Paul Cezanne is one of the greatest artists of all time. And that's almost all there is to say about him. That may be what makes him so much greater than others.

Look at almost any Cezanne, in any museum (right now the Metropolitan Museum in New York is doing a focused show of his Card Players paintings), and you're struck by its power. And struck dumb by it, too.

I had my first Cezanne moment as a Eurailing teenager, in the old Jeu de Paume museum in Paris. It was just a bunch of fruit, painted around 1899, and I could also tell it was a picture I'd remember all my life. I couldn't say why. Decades later, I still can't.

You could say that good art speaks in a language we know: we get the message, then move on. Great art seems to speak in a foreign language we imagine we'll get with long enough immersion. And then there's Cezanne, who is like the sound of water dripping or the clank of a train. It's just there to be known, full of meaning and pleasure, somehow, but without a hope of translation.

Cezanne isn't ineffable in some swoony, aesthetic, double-rainbow sense that puts him beyond words. He's so effing effable, he's unparaphrasable.

When you're looking at an actual chunk of reality--a real card player, say, or a bowl of fruit--there's no storyline to sum it up, because there are too many things you could say. Looking at the card players at the Met one recent afternoon, I felt the same is true of Cezanne. Except that the pictures add an extra layer of bafflement, because we imagine that any man-made object as coherent, as structured, as fully willed as a Cezanne must exist to be doped out. Unlike nature, Cezanne himself demands we talk him through while rebuffing any conclusions.

Richard Shiff, one of our greatest Cezanne thinkers, sums up his lifetime of work on the painter: "I don't feel that my various explanations of what he was doing are all that essential to what he was doing. …