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         Cézanne, Le Bassin du Jas de Bouffan, c. 1876

Last year’s  October 8 issue of the London Review of Books published a long  (just under 9,000 words) article by the art historian T.J. Clark, who has taught at British universities as well as at the University of California, L.A.

I am reproducing one of the seven pages to give you an idea of the tone of this piece. (Click image for readable enlargement)  For those of you who can’t get enough of this kind of hand-waving erudition, here’s the whole article:

https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v42/n19/t.j.-clark/strange-apprentice

I do recommend reading it in its entirety if you are interested in how various scholars have dated some paintings, how Pissaro and Cézanne worked together and how blind Clark is to what’s happening in these paintings. 

He is only interested in that pre-modern obsession with the “quality of light:” Cézanne has pinned down a particular kind of light here—sometimes I feel in the painting even a specific time of day, an early evening transparency answering back to Le Champ  de choux’s thickening and diffusion.

Cézanne is the grand-daddy of modern painting. You’re being absurd and blind if you claim that he and his progeny in modernism—Picasso, Braque, Matisse et al– were interested in “pinning down a particular kind of light.”

So I submitted a letter to the LRB and got a reply saying they were considering printing it.  But they didn’t.  Clark’s long piece did not get the attention of any printed letter at all.

Here, then, is the letter I submitted:

If you want to rhapsodize about light in a painting then you can persuade yourself that the quality of light in Jas de Bouffan is what it’s all about.  But look again and notice how Cézanne fools you.

If he were interested in painting a landscape, he would give us perspective with distant objects hazy and more faded than close up objects. Instead, the green stripes of the field are uniformly green, from close to far up on the hill. Don’t just say, ah landscape, look more critically. Start by admitting that the reflection in the basin is laughable.  The reflection of the house on the hill cannot occur at the edge of the basin.  The reflection of the windows does not relate to the windows on the actual house.  Where’s the chimney in the reflection?  Where’s the sloping shed roof?  The little tree in front of that little shed?  For that matter, those large blocks close to the water’s edge would have to reflect in the basin.

I don’t know what T.J.Clark means by “Modernity is loss of world.”  No world is lost in Cézanne, any more than a world is lost when a magician banters your ears full as he does the rope trick while manipulating your expectations.  Jas de Bouffan is a landscape– what else could it be?– but it’s also a banter of colors in a rectangle that manipulates your expectations.  You accept what’s happening in the basin because you’re sentimental about reflections in water.

He places that slender gray tree exactly in the middle. On the top it’s exactly in the middle, then it curves a little.  The reflection is made with the same gray so that the canvas is divided in half, from top to bottom, by this even gray brush stroke.  This gray brush stroke intersects the horizontal  ruler-straight line of the basin’s edge.  Notice how your eye keeps coming back to this intersection, which functions like cross hairs to focus your attention.  Nice.  Your brain likes this clarity in the context of all this hand waiving.  He situates these cross-hairs in the lower part of the canvas, which is where we expect the foreground to be. Voila! I give you a foreground and therefore the upper section must be farther away and you, dear viewer, are happy that this landscape has depth.

Using the same technique, Cézanne persuades us of a foreground in Maison et arbre. (See below)  The “precipitous road and front lawn to the left,” which looks so awkward, serves the same function as the cross hairs of tree-and-basin-edge in Jas de Bouffan. This crude geometry is also in the lower part of the landscape and is also clearly delineated.  Your attention can’t help but land on and linger in that lower left corner.  Location and delineation tell you, this is the foreground.  The green and orange fields to the right of the house are not fading into the distance—as you’d expect—but still they read as distant because the lower left corner of the road and the lawn shouts “foreground.”  Again, you accept this banter of flat rectangles and triangles. You want to believe that this is a landscape with foreground, middle-ground  and  background.  So that’s what you see.

Picasso and Braque called Cézanne their father not because of any atmospherics of light but because the canvases he filled with brushstrokes captivated attention in this new way.

When Cézanne in his 20’s lived in Paris he submitted paintings to the Salon, knowing full well he would be rejected. He did this over and over.  It’s fair to assume that rejection strengthened his resolve to find some new way of relating to a canvas.

Later in Aix, when he sat on the grass and watched Pissaro painting, let’s imagine him muttering in his curmudgeonly way,  “Merde, time of day and light effects…blabla…there must be more to painting than this.”

Cézanne, Maison et arbre, 1874

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