Magazine article The Spectator

Stay, Tarry, Linger

Magazine article The Spectator

Stay, Tarry, Linger

Article excerpt

Exhibitions 3

Cezanne Watercolours

(Acquavella Galleries, New York, till 24 November)

Stay, tarry, linger

Roger Kimball

I vividly remember my first Cezanne watercolour. I say 'my', but unfortunately the rightful owner is the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It was on view in a room with several modern French masterpieces, including Cezanne's famous 'Bather' (1885). The watercolour - a stilllife of sun-dappled foliage - was small and unassuming. Its lucent colours caught one's eye, but the bolder objects in the room grabbed one's attention.

Or so it was at first. The more I went to the Museum of Modern Art, the more I found myself returning to that picture. There was something mesmerising about the harmony of colours and the gossamerlike transparency of the washes. Cezanne planted his brush strokes with seemingly infinite patience. The effect of layering and imbrication - of colours piled atop one another like so many translucent leaves of light - was both quieting and invigorating. It invited the alert, fertile silence of contem lation.

It is difficult to analyse the magic of Cezanne's watercolours. Words having to do with light and radiance recur frequently in critics' descriptions, especially words denoting modulated or oblique transparency. A close look at the pictures shows that although Cezanne used relatively few colours he employed carefully graduated intensities of colour. As William Rubin notes in his superlative catalogue essay for this exhibition:

Whereas in an oil landscape Cezanne might use twenty different greens, in his watercolors he regularly used only differing shades of just one (i.e., dilutions rather than mixtures). This single green was employed with enormous subtlety in value, ranging from the thinnest almost invisible wash that reads as an off-white, up to the deepest (almost opaque) green tone that his block of color permitted.

As Rubin suggests and this exhibition confirms, Cezanne was a master of dilution and concentration, and knew exactly how to coax an underlying luminousness through layers of supervening colour.

It is worth reminding oneself, when thinking about the powerful effect of Cezanne's watercolours, that Cezanne was famously a clumsy draughtsman. By academic standards, his modelling was crude, his drawing uncertain. And yet his art towers over early 20th-century painting, a sterling example of the fact that artistic accomplishment and technical prowess are not always found together. (An example from the other side of the coin: Salvador Dali was a superb draughtsman but a negligible artist. …

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