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The Problem of Cézanne the Person in Relation to His Art

Figure 1. Paul Cézanne, The Pool at Jas de Bouffan, ca. 1885–86. Oil on canvas, 64.8 cm × 81 cm (25.5 in × 31.9 in). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

[Joachim] Gasquet’s book, which has been available in German translation for some time, has, without exception, been met with approval, even enthusiasm.1 As a collection of observations, the text offers valuable material for the knowledge and study of one of history’s most inscrutable artists. As such, it should be exempt from customary criticism and earn, like all books of this kind, the gratitude of succeeding generations. Gasquet’s account of Cézanne at work before the “motif,” which is closer to a description of the painting coming into being with each successive paint daub, rightfully warrants praise (fig. 1).2 Here, a beautiful illustration of the painting process is achieved, which, with Cézanne as with only a few other painters, corresponds to the final result. In Cézanne’s practice, this relationship between process and final work is more meaningful than, for example, an impressionist drawing that allows the viewer to reconstruct the artist’s process. (Like Cézanne’s paintings, the architectonics of certain Rembrandt drawings demand a genetic conception of the work on the part of the viewer.)3 Gasquet’s account shows the Provençal landscape and, before this, Cézanne’s painting, and forgetting the creator before his work, we perceive Cézanne’s painting as a repetition of nature’s creation. Then, conversely, we grasp the landscape coming into being, and geological events may serve as an allegory for the resulting work: the history of the landscape unfolds for us over hours and on the surface of the canvas there rises victoriously, above the valleys and terraces, Mont Sainte-Victoire.

In the case of an art such as Cézanne’s, a firsthand account of the artist’s activity (and in Gasquet’s book, a crafted account) means more than superfluous anecdotes that serve only to enshrine the artist’s personality without providing insight into the artist’s process.

However, Gasquet’s book is less successful in its discussion of Cézanne, the person. In this field of artist biographies, it is generally true that the biographer is not obligated to create a holistic picture of his subject (Gestaltung). To dispense with this responsibility (a principle of biographical writing), however, is to take on a different risk: lack of discrimination in the choice and reproduction of what has been said, which can equally lead to distortion. This lack of criticality is the hallmark of a certain type of biography, to which Gasquet’s book also belongs. Even if the selection and reproduction of an artist’s spoken word does not call for analytic or synthetic explanation, it does require, as a prerequisite, insight into the biographical subject. This insight can be of two kinds: an intuitive recognition of the individual personality problems or (more simply) a decision as to what type of person the artist is. It seems that mixing these two principles, or rather the absence of any attempt to find the relations between them, has obscured the problem of understanding Cézanne, the person.

As a rule, Cézanne’s work is oversimplified by Gasquet as well as [Émile] Bernard and [Ambroise] Vollard.4 As far as I know, Meier-Graefe is the only one5 who urges skepticism when considering this side of Cézanne’s biography: “He kept little or no company, gave his few encounters little effort, and others put in no effort with him. For this reason, the few firsthand accounts of those who knew him should be regarded with caution.”6 This describes an essential aspect of but not the entire problem. The uncritical reverence of those who personally knew Cézanne leads to the first of those two ways of looking at things, one which sees above all what is unique and singular, even in one’s personal existence.7 Others are quick to classify Cézanne as a special type and marvel at an enigma that has repeated itself more than once in human history: an artistic giant who appears in the form of a philistine, the great creativity stemming from small-minded humanity. Here, we should not bother with the fundamental legitimacy of this myth but only question its application in Cézanne’s case. Accounts that have gone beyond the cliché of “Cézanne the philistine,” but also beyond preoccupation with the psychology of the artist, could attempt to demonstrate the law of economy by arguing that the same person cannot conceive of the most brilliant artistic insights and articulate them in conceptually clear terms. However, the attempt would fail in the case of Cézanne, for although the law underlies the problem of this artistic personality, it fails to explain it. Cézanne does not belong to the succession of “pure painters” who cannot speak because they paint—and thus only paint. We know that such a simple relationship between the two spheres of knowledge and their forms of expression is applicable when discussing artists such as [Wilhelm] Leibl and [Johannes] Vermeer, for example. For painters of this category, not talking about art is an emphatic unwillingness to talk or is unconsciously self-evident.

On the other hand, for those in Cézanne’s circle, particularly Gasquet, the characteristic view of Cézanne’s personality is based on the contrary assumption that the intellectual form of his painting must correspond to an analogous conceptual clarity on the artist’s part.

Thus, these opposing views both begin with Cézanne’s artistic form, in order to claim their favored stance for the interpretation and evaluation of Cézanne’s theoretical and evaluative judgments (almost exclusively conversations on this topic have survived). Such a conclusion could be described as inappropriate or proscribed—the objections are certainly apparent. However, this would misunderstand an essential characteristic of the relationship between artistic and conceptual consciousness. In general, it would overlook the unity of the artistic personality and, in particular, the complicated enmeshment of these two forms of cognition. The assessment of spoken words (both direct and secondhand) may and must be aided by insight into the artistic form of expression if they are not able to provide clarity.

Based on these two explanatory principles, the core of the problem can be defined, and it presents as such: it corresponds to that essential characteristic of Cézanne’s art that entices the viewer to adopt a quality of thought adequate to its artistic demands, an impulse in Cézanne himself, which retrospectively attempts to justify the artistic creation conceptually.8 However, this impulse is only a compulsion to the aforementioned awareness of the conceptual, which would be as clear as Cézanne’s painterly form, but his work does not allow for it and even, according to the first of the two principles, denies it. Thus both principles must be assumed to coexist. Their opposition is not one of mutual exclusion; rather, it denotes an antagonistic interplay of thought and formation. Of course, this does not mean anything specific in Cézanne’s case; it applies to him only generally. That this tension emerges with unprecedented clarity and intensity in Cézanne’s work brings us closer to the problem. Beyond this quantitative distinguishing feature, the singularity of the case only becomes clear by examining the relation between these two forces. The proportion of the “human” and the thought-like in his art can shed light on this.

When it comes to the element of the “human” in Cézanne’s form, his art is characterized precisely by its absence. One could speak of an “extrahuman” manner of seeing and creating. The concept of the “extrahuman” should be understood as such. As a prerequisite, the concept of the “extrahuman,” as a mode of creating, demands the immersive contemplation of an environment that has turned away from humanity. Decisively, humans must not be intellectually or emotionally involved in the life of the depicted things. Together, both conditions result in the special problems of Cézanne’s work. Historically, his work stands at the close of an epoch that excluded mankind from the subject matter of visual art to a greater extent than any previous representation. It stands at the end of the last great and most exclusive period of landscape painting, which has had a relatively short history as an independent genre in Western art. As little as this fact says on its own, it should not be overlooked as evidence that man’s sole reign in the realm of representation ended in the sixteenth century. However, another parallel art historical fact is much more important and far-reaching. In the last centuries, the subject matter of European painting not only expanded quantitatively beyond the representation of humanity but within this new world of objects, the landscape in the broadest sense, the human gaze was directed at new subjects that prior art had ignored or treated as inconsequential: air and light (fig. 2). This was a path, as it were, out of the world of objects and into a world of elements. However, the fundamental spiritualization and abstraction that this transition represents is not absolute because it only concerns a material change. It only implies a distancing of human beings, a qualification of the anthropocentric worldview. It is still possible to regard an object world that is materially far removed from humanity in a “human” way.

Figure 2. Claude Monet, Charing Cross Bridge, 1901. Oil on canvas, 65 cm × 92.2 cm (25.6 in × 36.3 in). Art Institute of Chicago.

The last stage of the “extrahuman” or, more correctly, that which earns this designation in the proper sense, lies in the form of observation—independent of the material depicted; only the negation of the “human” in the subject signifies the culmination of the process that plays a major role in the development of modern European painting, a role that has not yet been examined this context. This historical development is most conspicuous in landscape painting, where rare precursors are the easiest to identify. However, before distinguishing the special nature of Cézanne’s observation as it compares with romanticism or impressionism, a further delineation of the term “extrahuman” is in order.

One might be led to believe that the art of the Middle Ages was as “extrahuman” as Cézanne’s, insofar as every art determined by a religious aversion to worldliness leaves no place for the participation of sentient man. According to this logic, the degree of the “extrahuman” was directly proportional to the distance from nature of the means of creation, i.e., a linearism pursued to the point of ornamentation, an arbitrarily coloristic palette, etc. However, this would overlook that the contemplation of the environment in Cézanne’s case coincides with the elimination of the “human.” For example, the figure of a Byzantine saint or a Romanesque portal statue’s remoteness from reality is nonetheless an expression of divinity as hypothesized by humanity, and the viewer perceives it as such. Naturalism and idealism relate as such to the element of the “extrahuman”: not only are they not related to a broader distancing from nature, but on the contrary, they assume a certain amount of reality in their representations in order to measure them against it. Therefore, a viewer accepts a pictorial space created with artistic means far removed from nature—such as a Russian icon, for example—as the fabrication of human fantasy and a section of their imaginary world.9 The same reality that it held for the creator is thus also evident to the viewer, who can locate him- or herself in such a pictorial space. Conversely, the pictorial space of Cézanne’s painting denies this possibility. Likewise, the unnatural way Cézanne depicts objects within this space is valued as a means of expression, implicating the artist and his ideas, whom the means serve. No starker contrast to expressive art is conceivable than Cézanne’s work. That is why Cézanne’s mode of creating is fundamentally different from the art of the Middle Ages (despite the impersonality these works are perceived to share). The difference is that Cézanne, as an individual, is centuries removed from the forms of spiritual community that allowed one to look past oneself and one’s art. Cézanne, by himself, found a new path into the “extrahuman,” one not dictated by religious ideas. The peculiar impersonality of his art, which resembles the anonymity of the art of the Middle Ages (the anonymity of community), could be described as an unprecedented disavowal not of the individual but of the beholder and creator. Conversely, it is possible to find artforms such as ancient Egyptian or Byzantine art, for example, that develop a system of reproducing objects so far removed from reality that they deny space for humans as living individuals and the world of appearances and emotions created by and for humans, yet as a whole they are still thoroughly subjective precisely as a result of the extent of their remoteness from nature in their means of reproduction. Only after developing the artistic means to represent the concrete world was it possible to conceive of manmade art that nevertheless limited the creator’s presence to the utmost extent.

However, Cézanne’s way of thinking—and the concept of the “extrahuman” developed here to describe it—fundamentally differs from the approach of certain great artists, who sought to overcome the human in their later work. For example, such an attempt to overcome the human through extensive observation of the human is evident in Rembrandt’s late work. Despite the remarkable similarities linking Cézanne’s and Rembrandt’s work (both inwardly and outwardly), the works in question by Rembrandt are—crucially—late works and thus indicative of personal overcoming. By contrast, Cézanne’s art as a whole is the culmination of a more extended art historical evolution. Cézanne also struggled personally. The disparity between his early “dark” period and the paintings of the mid-70s (one of the most puzzling phenomena in the history of modern art) makes this personal conflict evident. However, his perceptual and artistic form do not reflect this struggle. In his work, it is not a matter of overcoming but of excluding the human.

The artistic means developed to represent the concrete world naturalistically served Cézanne’s “extrahuman” art no more than the elimination of a reality-fulfilled “human” way of seeing or feeling as determined by a religious or other idea. A comparison with impressionism illustrates this best. Even when an impressionist landscape in its artistic idea appears to be created according to the physical laws of nature, the existential joy of its realization always reveals its creator. As a result of the elimination of the subject in Cézanne’s art, his landscapes—even when viewed from this perspective—seem like those of a primordial world in which humans did not yet exist. The objects in his still lifes do not look like things that once belonged to humans, and when humans are depicted, they appear as if seen through the eyes of another species. The means of representation in Cézanne’s paintings approximate the appearance of the elements of nature too closely (above all through the essentially negative role of drawing and the importance of color) for the pictures to be accepted as realizations of a subjective imaginary world (in contrast with medieval art). On the other hand, despite the reality of the world they picture, they deny any possibility of “human” empathy.

The manifestation of the “extrahuman” in Cézanne’s art and its means cannot be examined in detail here; it is generally the first strong impression Cézanne’s painting makes on viewers and often complicates their understanding of the work. In preceding art, the product of every formation far removed from reality appears to be a mere excerpt of a primordial world compared with Cézanne’s paintings which assume a peculiar “soullessness” or, better, de-souling of individual things, both living and inanimate. (The distinction could be described as a “superhuman” style that transcends and exceeds the sphere of humans versus an “extrahuman” style that excludes humans.) In contrast with the impressionists, Cézanne is unconditional in his indifference to the inner life—real or fictitious—of depicted objects. For example, impressionist apathy does not extend to the material appeal of things. The impressionist eye is a feeling eye; it encompasses all the emotional intensity that previously appeared separately and in a more direct form (despite definitions of impressionism that claim that their art repeatedly expresses a limited domain of things and feelings). Although the language of impressionism represents an unprecedented simplification of the mode of formation, with this simplified language, the impressionists are able to express a wealth of sensations and sentiments, only some of which belong to the category of the “visible.” Thus, the principle of the mode of representation is often confused with the material constraints (which are seen as depending directly and strictly on the former and are thus overlooked). Impressionism’s way of looking at the world allows for the projection of many spheres of existence (certainly not all, as few as any other artistic movement) onto a single field of vision in a way that admittedly represents a detour for the expression of metaphysical spiritual values. This fact of impressionist art as a form of detour must be established in order to appreciate how significantly Cézanne’s form of perception differs. Cézanne’s work forecloses the possibility of paths and detours, the absence of which would have deprived every other painting of the possibility and right to exist because it no longer recognizes the objectives to which all preceding painting directed itself (here, correctly understood, this broad generalization can be used). Even when the emotional and spiritual values of the object are most powerfully undermined by the scientific systemization of seeing and creating, the artist’s presence is always perceptible and cannot be ignored. (In fact, the artist’s presence becomes more palpable the further the means of representation are “objectified.”) Only with Cézanne’s work does the artist recede into the background in the sense just described. (This does not contradict the conclusion that Cézanne’s viewers are compelled to a genetic understanding of his works, surpassing the demands of impressionist painting. With Cézanne, the creative process bears on our understanding of the work, whereas with impressionism, it bears on our understanding of the artist. We regard the creation of Cézanne’s painting as a natural phenomenon or process, whereas we associate impressionist painting with the activity of an artistic personality.) Cézanne’s art brings the negation of the human to this extreme limit.

Figure 3. Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, ca. 1818. Oil on canvas, 94.8 cm × 74.8 cm (37.3 in × 29.4 in). Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg.

Cézanne does not merge humans with nature. His conception of nature is diametrically opposed to the pantheism that dominates nineteenth-century landscape painting, but which appears in the greatest and purest intensity in the landscapes of the romantics. As its pinnacle, the art of the foremost romantic landscape painter, Caspar David Friedrich, can demonstrate this contrast especially clearly, in the particular feature in which it has taken form: the Rückenfigur (fig. 3). In this figure, the human stands across from nature, in contemplation and wonder, surrendering to it in silent subordination. As has often been discussed, the Rückenfigur is the focal point of the landscape, its intellectual and spiritual center, and a projection of the painter (and the viewer) into the represented space of the picture.10 Of course, the Rückenfigur is not the only expression of (or even a prerequisite for) this particular manner of looking at nature; it is only a visible symbol for the expression of the spiritual and emotional values that pervade Friedrich’s work. Although nothing in these paintings seems to serve human tastes or feelings, or to be modified by human will, even in Friedrich’s deserted landscapes, which are apparently without figures, the Rückenfigur hovers just outside the picture space, an invisible figure standing before the painting (fig. 4).

Figure 4. Caspar David Friedrich, The Watzmann, 1824–1825. Oil on canvas, 135 cm × 170 cm (53.1 in × 66.9 in). Nationalgalerie, Berlin.

Thus, at the beginning of a new, and arguably the greatest, epoch of European landscape painting, the human is reinserted in the landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich (and this is why he serves as a comparison). However, Friedrich’s work emphasizes not only the landscape, never before observed with the same breadth and depth, but also the observing subject. In Cézanne’s art, which concludes the development of this landscape painting, the artist has eliminated every remnant of romanticism or spirituality, in short, anything that could be considered anthropocentric in the broadest sense (which is still present in impressionist art). In this respect, Cézanne differs more profoundly from impressionism than impressionism differs from Friedrich. The development of the lyricism of early nineteenth-century landscape painting into impressionism leads to an impersonal and generalized fundamental means of representation and thus to an unprecedented artistic divergence. In the former, the same penetrating love and care still determine the form of the individual object as well as the overall appearance of the artwork. In impressionism, the fundamentally depersonalized, scientific style of representation (which is, of course, an artistic “form of projection” in itself) coincides with fundamentally contradictory creative ideas, which make those forms of representation, which are intended to be unsuitable for the expression of spiritual or conceptual content, nevertheless, serviceable for that content. This results in the seemingly contradictory quality of impressionist art mentioned above: the more thoroughly the means of representation are “objectified,” the more powerfully the creator’s presence is felt. The infinite number of possible relationships between the human and the landscape (and the various formations that have been realized in the art of the past) contrast with the absolute lack of relationship between nature and human perception in Cézanne’s work.

If we were dealing with the impersonality of an individual, this would justify examination of a closely related second element presented as meaningful for the understanding of Cézanne, the person: the intellectual aspect of his art, or more precisely, the share of conscious, programmatic principles that appeal to and are suitable to generalization. The development of painting since Cézanne demonstrates that the advancement of his work does not entail the enhanced application of the new creative principles that he discovered. A utilization of Cézanne’s insights that exceeds mere imitation cannot be a continuation and enhancement thereof but rather necessitates work that leads in new directions. This, of course, is not a new provision in the history of art. However, what distinguishes Cézanne’s case is that the impossibility of developing his painterly form is not readily apparent precisely because it does not appear as the work of an idiosyncratic individual (as does the work of Michelangelo, for example). Instead, its singular impersonality is essential to its overall appearance. Familiarity with his work indicates it is the conclusion and fulfillment of a centuries-long development in painting. Apart from its historical significance, his work also indicates—and this is most important for the present analysis—a persevering state of visual cognition and formation possible only for an individual, in which the artist appears simultaneously as the instrument of a metaphysical power. These two states coexist with unprecedented immediacy. To appreciate Cézanne’s originality, compare his painting with art of any other kind—a Romanesque portal figure, a seventeenth-century Dutch landscape, an ancient Egyptian relief, or a lithograph by Toulouse-Lautrec—and next to Cézanne’s painting, they will appear like diverse philosophical propositions against his epistemological criticism. One could speak of Cézanne’s work as a “painted critique of knowledge.” Such a designation captures the conceptual quality of Cézanne’s work in relation to its mode of perception and creation. Moreover, it conveys Cézanne’s kinship with the greatest philosopher of epistemology. A systematic comparison of Cézanne’s art and Kant’s philosophy might be more useful for recognizing and explaining the essential characteristics of Cézanne’s painting than the historical and developmental division between these two figures might suggest.

Just as the overall impression after reading the “Critique of Pure Reason” is that of a negativistic performance, which constantly renews its author’s reputation as the “all-destructive” one (just as his contemporaries saw him, regardless of historical preconditions and standards), likewise the negative qualities of Cézanne’s work as a whole have the most significant impact. It is conceivable that upon seeing Cézanne’s paintings surrounded by the work of other great painters, a viewer conversant in art might draw the same conclusion as Meier-Graefe: next to Cézanne’s paintings, all other works appear achromatic. The viewer would attempt to get to the bottom of the incomprehensible power of the extraordinary chromatic intensity (the most positive, and perhaps the only positive, quality) of his paintings, which otherwise appear strange and hostile, and thus confront the problem at the center of his art. However, this approach, which privileges the positive qualities of Cézanne’s art, would fail. The viewer would soon confront the many incontrovertibly negative characteristics of Cézanne’s art. Subjectively, these qualities can be characterized as “extrahuman.” Objectively, the relation between the appearance of a natural phenomenon and its representation, or in other words, the reality content of the painting, can be described as inanimate.

Figure 5. Paul Cézanne, Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair, ca. 1877. Oil on canvas, 72.4 cm × 55.9 cm (28.5 in × 22 in). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Figure 6. Claude Monet, Apples and Grapes, 1880. Oil on canvas, 66.5 cm × 82.5 cm (26.2 in × 32.5 in). The Art Institute of Chicago.
Figure 7. Paul Cézanne, Still Life with Apples, 1895–98. Oil on canvas, 68.6 cm × 92.7 cm (27 in × 36.5 in). Museum of Modern Art, New York.

The present inquiry does not aim to describe the various types and degrees of this inanimacy. Humans present with doll-like rigidity; landscapes are perfectly still; and thus, foliage and water surfaces appear motionless (fig. 5). Beyond this, however, a palpable quality is missing from motionless organic life that extends to the inorganic, which also appears seized by a rigidity that exceeds even the natural motionlessness of inorganic matter. Thus, a sum of negatively formulated characteristics determines the relationship between natural objects and their form in Cézanne’s art. Cézanne eradicates any attribute that could facilitate an intellectual or emotional grasp of the objects represented in his pictorial world. Atmospheric content is systematically eliminated; life as if beheld by an “extrahuman” gaze grows cold; the illusion of three-dimensional space is laid bare; and line, a necessary evil, is deprived of even the slightest measure of expressive value, which until then it had still inescapably and as a matter of course assumed.11 Rather than cultivating a world of thought and feeling beneath appearances, Cézanne’s artistic ideology denies this possibility. Just as, from a subjective standpoint, Cézanne’s work presents itself in opposition to expressive art, from an objective standpoint, it lacks anything that could be construed as an exaggeration of reality. This lack is comparable to the rejection of the transcendental in Kant’s theory of knowledge. Indeed, the relationship between nature and Cézanne’s pictorial world, the deviation between the appearance of nature and its artistic formation, can be captured using Kant’s terminology. Just as Kant’s theory of knowledge is directed towards elements that precede any possible experience and negates speculative claims that exceed the realm of experience, Cézanne’s art presents an object world in which things seem as if they had not passed through a speculative and sentient consciousness in order to come into being, but instead appear in a formation before intellectual—and outside emotional—experience. Certainly, as with every other form of representation, Cézanne’s work allows opportunities for association. However, no other art is, by its very nature, as resistant to association as that of Cézanne. This quality of Cézanne’s form of observation, which restricts to the greatest extent possible any connection of looking with understanding and feeling, also carries over into the sphere of the material insofar as the subject matter in nature complies with such transcription in the form of possible preliminary stages of their present or completed forms. In the strictest sense, this is only true of the landscape paintings. A primordial quality that calls to mind geological stages and processes (only by way of comparison, of course) characterizes Cézanne’s landscapes. Karl Scheffler locates “something fundamental” and “protoplastic” in Cézanne’s paintings, although he says this only of his landscapes.12 In a broader sense, this claim could apply to the entire object world of Cézanne’s paintings. The appearance of things in Cézanne’s paintings suggests something “fundamental.” They seem unfinished as if arrested in an enigmatic statu nascendi.13 This is the meaning of the term “becoming” in Cézanne’s painting. Beginning with the baroque, the aforementioned historical development from art that pictures the world of objects to art that pictures the world of elements, from the depiction of objects governed by the laws of the physical world to an artistic formation of the laws themselves, signifies the oft-cited shift from a creation of the “form of being” to a creation of the “form of becoming.” Considering this artistic evolution, Cézanne’s art differs from preceding work because his form of “becoming” is not tied to movement. In seventeenth-century landscapes or impressionist painting (in contrast to contemporaneous or older “existential pictures”), “becoming” (the concept of the “form of becoming” is understood in the broadest sense of the term here, disregarding fundamental differences and variations) means making perceptible a shift or a change (only metaphysically feasible or real) to which finished things are subjected (fig. 6). On the other hand, in Cézanne’s pictures, “becoming” describes objects coming into being (fig. 7). The tranquility of one of Cézanne’s compositions is not the same as that of an existential picture; it is only apparent tranquility. In Cézanne’s works, what could be called movement is a puzzling fluctuation between pictorial space and the picture plane, compared to which, the superficially similar projection system of an impressionist painting appears as an obvious, quasi-mathematical expression of the tension between pictorial space and picture plane.14 The effect of the emergence or becoming of the pictorial representation and individually pictured objects in Cézanne’s paintings relates to the idea of a basic element from which objects are made. This initially appears as homogenous matter, out of which things appear to be made: without any fundamental differentiation in their material appearance, objects appear to be composed of a single substance. This may call to mind various art historical analogies, for example, fifteenth-century painting, in which the material structure is reminiscent of wood (in Nordic Gothic) or metal (in many quattrocento painters). However, these analogies do not hold. Indeed, the phenomenon itself can have fundamentally different causes. Above all, the impression of homogenous matter as the substance of represented objects (which has only negative and arbitrary causes) must be distinguished from an inherent similarity between the representational and stylistic form of a particular natural substance. (The causes are negative and arbitrary because the value of the appearing material for the representation does not exist, because no special matter is thought of at all, and thus the impression of homogenous matter can arise, which can only be considered as a comparison for the purposes of demonstration.) Neither of these examples describes the effect of materiality in Cézanne’s painting. The matter described in Cézanne’s painting does not correspond to any specific matter found in nature. Nor is the impression of material homogeneity a side effect (as in the first example) of negating natural materiality in pursuit of “idealistic” artistic and formal purity. The element out of which all things in Cézanne’s pictorial world seemed to be formed is material and yet, at the same time, seemingly weightless, and due to its lack of differentiating material appeal, appears as a schema of matter. It is reminiscent of a kind of primordial matter. However, the attempt to characterize the role of materiality in Cézanne’s art cannot stop at this comparison. In contrast to their appearance in nature, the things in Cézanne’s creation do not signify primordial forms. (Neither the seemingly common matter of which they are composed nor their spatial or physical appearance suggests this.) The primordial nature of Cézanne’s landscapes, the “fundamental” quality of all appearances in his work, does not appear to be determined by objective laws within this pictorial world. Instead, it is as if the preconditions, the “constitutive principles” of the object’s appearance, were also painted for our recognition. He renders them not as attributes whose reality only exists in the realm of analytical observation, but as representational content; not as side effects derived from a form of stylization, but as key elements of an overall artistic impression, as constitutive attributes of a more immediate reality. The most significant principle is space; its relationship to individual objects makes their basic conditions of appearance most clearly recognizable. It is like a strange veil of varying density that articulates individual objects with varying degrees of plastic and spatial distinction while allowing others to sink as if into a haze. Yet, these distinctions never correspond to real spatial differences. Nor do they produce contrasting tensions between coloristic stimuli (as in Degas’s work). Nor, finally, do they generate enigmatic, symbolic (almost in an expressionist sense) differentiations in the reality content of a work (as in Toulouse-Lautrec’s work when two figures in a single picture are rendered in different styles, one graphic, the other modeled).15 (The historical developmental causality between these examples and the strangeness of Cézanne’s form of representation cannot be discussed at length here.) Cézanne’s emphasis on space as a continuum does not alone distinguish his mode of representation. That characteristic is common to all artistic representations of natural space that assume insight into its nature. The expression of this continuity in painting ranges broadly since the late Middle Ages: from scientific linear perspective to self-important spatial mysticism; from space bound to the figures from which its laws can be inferred to space that conversely destroys the appearance value of individual objects. This emphasis on space—in baroque and impressionist art—signifies a recognition not only of the dependence of individual objects on the spatial continuum in order to be represented but also of the autonomy of space for its own sake. An understanding of the nature of natural space and artistic mastery of its representation were not only prerequisites and incentives for making the problems of the appearance of real space an essential part of the content of a picture, like the mysterious beauties of a newly discovered world. More importantly, this understanding allowed artists to surpass the sphere of natural space in order to create a “transcendent” spatial world, in which, as in medieval art, before the adoption of a scientific understanding of space into artistic representation, arbitrary laws of spatial relationships, proportions, and movements prevailed. The resulting diminution of the meaning of isolated individual objects witnessed in the space of baroque and impressionist art is even more notable in Cézanne’s paintings. That individual figures are absorbed into the continuum of the overall appearance and lack, to an unprecedented extent, figural boundaries, which are of genuine interpretive value as concluding and delimiting, does not contradict the lapidary form masses take in Cézanne’s painting—nor their apparent solidity. But the difference is not only quantitative. In Cézanne’s art, the subordination of individual objects, the contingency of their position and movement, does not correlate with the autonomy of space. Moreover, the artistic impact of the superordinate (the overall composition or idea) does not directly result from the degree of subordination of individual objects, as it might in other artistic approaches. Space in Cézanne’s paintings has no independent value. It is not comprehensible in positive terms—the mysterious effects of expanse, movement, and the like (in short, the life of space)—just as the strange immateriality and nonsense of the appearance of material objects is without romance or mysticism. And yet, it exceeds the self-evident, unexamined assumptions of object representation. Different degrees of reality surface in Cézanne’s paintings as if seen through a strange veil. Objects appear to emerge from an unformed field, a characteristic that is especially pronounced in the watercolors and the paintings that feature empty, unpainted passages of canvas (fig. 8). The most closely related and perhaps only directly comparable art form (both internally and externally) is East Asian ink painting (fig. 9). This particular genre exhibits the same relationship between objects and space evident in Cézanne’s painting. Moreover, the same differences distinguish Cézanne’s painting and East Asian ink painting from impressionist forms of perception. These differences reveal key aspects of Cézanne’s formation of space since the optical dissolution of the appearance of individual objects in impressionist painting comes closer to Cézanne’s painting than any other comparable form that subordinates individual objects to overall appearance. (Just as comparisons have been drawn between impressionism and East Asian ink painting, this is why Cézanne is so often counted among the impressionists.) In addition to the impressionist autonomy of space as artistic content, these differences include the connection between the appearance of space and the laws of space-filling atmosphere translated into painterly form. Impressionism dispensed with naïve realism (just as baroque painting already had). Instead, impressionism understands appearances as the product of physical-optical forces (following evolving notions about the share of the “human” in observation) and, as a result, as the expression of objective natural laws applied to the matter of light-filled air, which is transformed into an animated element, even when it is just denoted by a few brushstrokes on a vast, open expanse (fig. 10). Yet, despite superficial similarities, the “mist” of East Asian ink painting and the “veil” of Cézanne’s painting are fundamentally different from impressionist representations of air. Spatial form in the work of Cézanne and the East Asian ink painters has much greater immediacy. Their work presents space as a precondition of the object world and individual objects as its manifestations.

Figure 8. Paul Cézanne, Autumn Landscape (Paysage d’automne), ca. 1885. Oil on canvas, 62 cm × 80.5 cm (24.4 in × 31.7 in). The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia.
Figure 9. Attributed to Dong Qichang, Landscape in the Style of Mi Fu, 1611–12. Handscroll, ink on satin, 25.9 cm × 219.1 cm (10.2 in × 86.3 in). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Figure 10. Claude Monet, Stacks of Wheat (End of Summer), 1890 or 1891. Oil on canvas, 60 cm × 100.5 cm (23.6 in × 39.6 in). The Art of Institute Chicago.

Despite profound affinities between Cézanne’s painting and East Asian ink painting (particularly regarding the role of material and the relationship between movement and rest), meaningful differences separate them. Although they differ in their approaches to representing spatial perspective, this is not the most significant difference. Certainly, the opposition of East Asian ink painting to the uniform perspectival space of European art contrasts with Cézanne’s adherence to the laws of linear perspective. However, Cézanne only follows the rules of linear perspective in the most general sense, not as the demands of an unavoidable, absolute, binding law that is a formal precondition for the existence of the appearance of space. Rather he uses these laws—against which many, conspicuous violations may be observed—to his advantage, bending them when desired.

A more profound difference is that the space of East Asian painting appears not only as the basic element from which objects emerge but as an infinite space, which relates to the visionary quality of the image and its basis in religious content. So even if the spatial form of East Asian ink painting is not independent in the western sense, this infinite quality of space differentiates East Asian painting from Cézanne’s work. The argument that space in Cézanne’s art has no independent value or positive qualities can now be refined. Space in Cézanne’s painting has the character of an a priori form of perception brought into painterly representation. It is no more than this, which would mean space with a life of its own expressed through properties that exceed the representation of objects. Nor is it less, which would mean a representation that only places value on individual objects and barely considers the question of space. Just as Cézanne’s homogenous basic material, out of which things appear to consist, can be described as a schema of matter, likewise, the neutral character of his space can be described as a schema of space, in which objects are created. The artistic discovery of this property of space and the role it can play was an art historical event on par with the introduction of scientific perspective during the Renaissance. As an intellectual achievement, it is comparable to the publication of The Critique of Pure Reason. Like Kant, Cézanne was “all-destructive.” (The standard, oversimplified comparison of impressionism’s “analytic” form of perception with Cézanne’s “synthetic” form of perception tells us very little.) Examining Cézanne’s spatial form demonstrates the most complete dependence imaginable of the individual object on the overall appearance of the work. In addition, he achieves the most far-reaching dissolution of the intrinsic value of individual objects conceivable, while still maintaining the apparent solidity of the object’s boundaries.

Figure 11. Paul Cézanne, The Vase of Tulips, ca. 1890. Oil on canvas, 59.6 cm × 42.3 cm (23.5 in × 16.7 in). The Art Institute of Chicago.
Figure 12. Édouard Manet, Moss Roses in a Vase, 1882. Oil on canvas, 55.9 cm × 34.6 cm (22 in × 13.6 in). The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.

The apparent solidity and cohesion of Cézanne’s figures leads to a fundamental characteristic directly related to its epistemological approach: the special relationship between the appearance of nature as the model (or “motif”) for creation and the reality content of the painting. As difficult as it is to determine the degree of proximity to nature, as disputable the either/or judgment of close to nature or far from it, in the case of Cézanne’s art, it is possible to do so by contrasting the aforementioned principles and individual elements of his creation with the overall appearance of the work. Cézanne’s art must be described not only as close to nature (how else could it have been classified as impressionistic?) but as incomprehensibly close to nature. The principles of Cézanne’s art are peculiar insofar as, without prior knowledge of their application in Cézanne’s art, one might assume that they would be best suited to “abstract” art, a form of expression far removed from reality. Their connection with representations close to reality appears contradictory and inexplicable. Where should those principles, imagined as the demands of an overall artistic form (its various expressions of the inanimate, its “extrahuman” form of observation, its complete negation of naïve realism), find clearer expression than in the means of formation? These means clearly exhibit the opposition between the appearance of nature and the appearance of art in the self-important invention of form, as well as the remoteness of artistic materials from the elements of the natural “model.”—As demonstrated, one of these principles, the “extrahuman” form of observation and the impersonality connected with it, does not demand artistic means remote from nature but conversely presupposes a certain proximity with nature in order to grasp the depths that Cézanne’s “extrahuman” observation penetrates. On the objective side, the principles of formation are similar. Except apparently the demand is for a connection between the formation of the basic conditions of appearance for the object world and an “abstract,” to a certain degree intellectualized, means of representation. Here too—even more so than the subjective element of the “extrahuman”—the precisely converse adherence to certain representational values, not far removed from the appearance of nature, is a prerequisite for fulfilling the artistic problem. This is essential to the wonder of Cézanne’s work. The analytical observer of his art finds a world of humans and things from which natural life, as perceived by “human” feeling and intellect, has been withdrawn. This pictorial world suggests a projection of a “transcendent” world of ideas that exceeds reality. Yet one searches in vain for such ideas (because one searches too much and in the wrong direction) and finally recognizes this art as an image of nature in the form of a world seen for the first time (and only seen, less thought or felt, than the pictorial world of any preceding art). Its formation recalls Kant’s famous dictum: “Thoughts without concepts are empty; intuitions without concepts are blind.” Cézanne has adapted this formula to the field of artistic knowledge as an analogous postulate for artistic perception. The form “thought” (which cannot be more precisely defined) and the problem of representing an emerging, “unfinished” world of appearance and making visible the laws of this process of becoming forms the “idea” and the “model” of nature for Cézanne’s realization in painterly form. The relationship between the formation and appearance of nature (the problem of reality in Cézanne’s art) appears to us thus. A well-known peculiarity expresses this: Cézanne’s use of paper flowers and wax fruit as models (fig. 11). Just as Cézanne used these as a schema for real objects, so the role of the model for nature in his art is a schema for reality, which is sufficient for the realization of creative thought, and which is nevertheless necessary to give it an “objective reality.” In this freedom of artistic form, which is still governed by rules and allows itself to be governed by rules that only manifest in the appearance of objects, Cézanne has achieved the complete autonomy of painterly formation (to which Manet’s painting comes closest, although it is still far removed) that represents the culmination of a long history of painting (fig. 12). In addition to metaphysics, Cézanne’s mode of creating likewise has no place for what might be called the mathematical element of formal appearance. A comparison with Cubism demonstrates this most clearly. (Although some of Cézanne’s last paintings and watercolors approach Cubist form.) The renunciation of metaphysics and math suggests great sacrifice, which gives Cézanne’s art the esteem of exclusivity. The ability to create a world of pure artistic perception that is independent of and commensurate with the intellectual world distinguishes fine art. Cézanne’s intellectual achievement entailed turning artistic perception into the actual determining artistic content of his work. This could only be accomplished at a late stage in the development of painting, just as, according to Kant, any discipline can only formulate its principles at a relatively late stage in its development. It is unnecessary to repeat the differences between the awareness that is prerequisite for the self-recognition of a discipline and that required for a mode of creating such as Cézanne’s painting. The awareness prerequisite for the creation of Cézanne’s paintings is precisely the opposite of all that is thoughtful and rational and instead corresponds to consciousness in conceptual thinking but in the sphere of artistically creative cognition. (Since this essay is essentially concerned with the effects of Cézanne’s art and not its means, the primary means of formation—color—must be omitted. All other means of representation are related to it. The examination of color as an integral means of formation in Cézanne’s work and the new qualities it acquires in his painting could provide essential insights into the problems examined here. Admittedly, art history still lacks the terms and concepts required for such an investigation and an exposition of the historical evolution that culminates in Cézanne’s spiritualized use of color. By nature, color cannot be said to have intrinsic qualities, but rather only relationships to other entities.)16

Needless to say, a painterly mode of creating [Cézanne’s] and a mode of thinking [Kant’s] separated by a century, an artistic conception and a system of principles of thought, cannot be directly compared. But this comparison is intended to reveal more than the spiritual affinity between two personalities who possess similar relationships between their personal existence and creative achievement. Incidentally, precisely this similarity does not tell us much. The insignificance of a creator’s personal life to a work (which consumes but reveals nothing of it) is common enough. However, Kant’s humanity surpasses Cézanne’s insofar as the realm of his philosophy exceeds the field of painterly formation in general.

If a concept could capture the congruity of these two personalities beyond the duality of human and work, it would be the concept of freedom, used earlier in a more limited sense. If one regards Cézanne as the freest painter and Kant as the freest human in every sense, this can signify more than merely a superlative description. Indeed, there have been people who could be described as “free” as Kant in terms of content, but the man who discovered the categorical imperative deserves a fundamentally different appreciation, expressed by the superlative. In the same sense, Cézanne can be described as the freest painter because of the role that the autonomy of painterly form plays in his work as a whole.

The question of the historical possibility of an intellectual and creative relationship between an eighteenth-century philosopher and a nineteenth-century painter leads to fundamental questions about the relationship between painterly creation and conceptual thinking which would demand closer examination than the comparison suggested here for the purposes of explanation.17

The task of the preceding deliberations was to dispute the possibility of a biographical interpretation without presuppositions and to attempt to determine some of the essential presuppositions in the case of Cézanne. The next task is to attempt to apply these as principles for a critique of Cézanne’s biography. Only a few examples from Gasquet’s work, which is taken as a starting point, will be indicated here.

Such a critique, if it is to be meaningful and justified as a posthumous critique, can only be aimed at the interpretation and evaluation of the artist’s statements and not at the detection of probable contradictions between his work and personal existence, as handed down by the biographer. Apart from conclusions based on the literary qualities of the biography, it is generally impossible to find the criteria necessary to prove the contradiction or improbability of a recounted fact beyond general skepticism about the biographical account. The juxtaposition between the form of life and the form of art can only be described as a contradiction for which no overriding principle exists, or if one were to be formulated, it would be so general as to be meaningless. The existence of such a contradiction must be accepted. An inability to accept this contradiction indicates the simplicity and crudity of an approach that can only imagine a harmonious relationship between art and life.

The tremendous contradiction presented by Cézanne’s personality, the contrast between Cézanne, the romantic, the irrepressible temperament of a man of affect (whose work one might think could only ever be an expression of this temperament) and the final art form produced by this personality is described dramatically by Gasquet, according to his psychological inclinations, as: “… the most quivering sensibility grappling with the most theoretical reason.”18 As for the one opponent in this struggle, the “romantic” Cézanne, Gasquet’s portrayal corresponds to the spirit of the early works, which are truly an expression of the personal. This psychological picture of Cézanne, the person, as Gasquet presents it, is credible where it concerns the account of what has been handed down and personally experienced, and successful also where it goes beyond this.

The incomprehensible range of artistic development is linked with the puzzle of personal existence: in Gasquet’s book, he resurrects Cézanne like a character from Balzac, with singular clarity and vividness, as the creator of a timeless and impersonal art, which today and for a long time to come will still appear contemporary. Even after Cézanne’s artistic style had reached this form, personally he remained essentially unchanged. He remained the powerful and violent soul, who, nevertheless, was “weak in life”19 and whose only defense was his crankiness driven by mistrust, which could turn into a “divine shyness that endeared him to all those whom he had not already shut out. He was haughty in spirit but humble in heart.”20 These forces, which had in their original manner and power directly and recognizably influenced his early work, were transformed and concealed in his mature work, revealed only in the faintest traces, remaining from an earlier time. The deformed figures of the bathers and the cardplayers echo the forms of the early dark pictures like distant memories (figs. 13, 14, and 15). Even if the similarity between the dense, heavy, threatening masses of the early pictures and the clarity of the large bodies of the later works is great, the latter relate to the former as a self-contained creative result relates to a compositional and representational style with which a formal design is first achieved (and which determines the overall appearance of the picture regardless of its content).21 The fact that Cézanne created figure paintings without models throughout his career, and the peculiarity of his choice of landscape motifs in the surroundings of Aix, especially his preference for Mont Sainte-Victoire and the area around the “Château Noir,” establishes a connection between his early and late work. This mountain and the forest surrounding “Château Noir,” with its swaying trees and distinctive rock formations, are the most romantic parts of the landscape near Aix, contrasting starkly with the tranquil Provençal hills and plains of the “Lauves,” and the area around the “Jas de Bouffan,” the two other main areas where Cézanne found his motifs.

Figure 13. Paul Cézanne, The Abduction (L’Enlèvement), 1867. Oil on canvas, 88 cm × 170 cm (34.6 in × 66.9 in). The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.
Figure 14. Paul Cézanne, The Card Players, 1890–92. Oil on canvas, 65.4 cm × 81.9 cm (25.7 in × 32.2 in). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Figure 15. Paul Cézanne, The Large Bathers, 1900–6. Oil on canvas, 210.5 cm × 250.8 cm (82.9 in × 98.7 in). The Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Since there are no (and cannot be any) correlates in Cézanne’s personal existence for many of the traits that appear in Cézanne’s later paintings (these qualities are not to be found in his earlier period and thus signify a departure), Gasquet attempts to interpret these works as an expression of humanity that he knows from his own and others’ experiences as well as the earlier paintings. This interpretation involves overestimating the role of the “human” in Cézanne’s mode of creating and underestimating the fact that these works are distinguished precisely by their suppression and denial of the “human.” Many of Cézanne’s conversations about art, which Gasquet compiled in the second part of his work (“What he told me …”)22 should be evaluated based on this insight. In addition to this kind of supplementary correction—supplementation is essentially the only correction that a work like Gasquet’s requires—Cézanne’s statements should be differentiated based on their value. Above all, uncharacteristic, ambiguous remarks of a very general nature (from which no more can be inferred than from a painter’s typical, casual studio talk) must be distinguished from statements (although often enough these statements, delivered in the same manner as his remarks, cannot be distinguished with any certainty). In this regard, Cézanne’s manner of speaking about painting resembled Beethoven’s manner of speaking about music. (Indeed, Cézanne resembled Beethoven’s character and temperament in his personal existence.) Even if Cézanne’s proper statements can hardly ever be evaluated based on their objective content, they evince a characteristic relationship between artistic form and thought, which as suggested at the beginning of this essay, is based on the complete clarity of conceptual thought analogous to the unique quality of his painting, which denies the possibility of direct conceptual expression, but which for the artist himself is the impetus for the intellectual formulation of painterly principles.

An example of an uncharacteristic statement is the sentence: “Nature lies below the surface,”23 which Gasquet considers meaningful enough to make the epigraph of a chapter. (Gasquet’s esteem for this statement is evident based on this special treatment, which stands out. Only a few other passages in the entire book demonstrate Gasquet’s attitude more clearly, since conversations and statements are otherwise reported without comment.)

In the third major dialogue of the second part of Gasquet’s book (“L’atelier”), Cézanne reads aloud the description of a table setting from Balzac’s The Magic Skin: “… white as a layer of freshly fallen snow upon which the place settings rose symmetrically, each one crowned by little blond rolls”24 and says: “All my youth, I wanted to paint that, that tablecloth of fresh snow. I know now that I must paint only ‘the place settings rose symmetrically’ and ‘little blond rolls.’ If I paint ‘crowned,’ I’m ruined. Understand? And if I truly balance and nuance my place setting and my rolls as if painting from nature, you can be sure that the crowns, the snow, and all the flickering will be there too.”25 These words demonstrate with rare clarity a fundamental trait of his work: the renunciation of the representation of the inner life of inanimate objects (here in particular evoked by the mysteries of spatial relationships) based on the demands of “pure” painting. Or, to put it more generally, this statement demonstrates Cézanne’s renunciation of “expressive” art. Immediately preceding the above-quoted passage, Cézanne speaks with equal clarity about the fundamental difference between line and color in their relationship to the problem of formation (as a rule, what Cézanne says about his artistic means is conceptually clearer than his broader pronouncements about his work). “Line and color are no longer distinct; as you paint, you draw; the more color harmonizes, the more precise the drawing becomes.”26 “When color is at its richest, form is at its fullest. Contrast and tonal relationships are the secret of drawing and modeling … Everything else is poetry.”27 “Yes, you have your metaphors and comparisons. Though it seems to me that constantly multiplying the use of ‘like’ is like us when our drawing is too visible.”28

Nevertheless, Cézanne’s renunciation of expressive art contrasts with several other statements cited in Gasquet’s book, in which Cézanne speaks of representational content that is fundamentally incompatible with his mode of creating as if it belonged to his artistic objectives.

For example, he says that the atmospheric expression of a landscape painting should, in addition to evoking visual sensations, “marry the blue aroma of the pines, sharp in the sun, with the fresh morning dew of the green meadows, the smell of stone, and the scent of the distant marble of Sainte Victoire.”29

In a conversation in his studio, Cézanne discusses the objects of his still lifes: “People think a sugar bowl doesn’t have a physiognomy or soul. But that changes every day here. You have to take them, coax them, those little fellows. These glasses, these dishes, they talk among themselves. Endless confidences … I gave up on flowers. They wilt right away. Fruits are more faithful. They love to have their portraits painted. They sit there and apologize for changing color. Their essence breathes with their perfume. They come to you with all their aromas, telling you about the fields they left behind, the rain that nourished them, the sunrises they witnessed. As I describe the skin of a beautiful peach with pulpy strokes, the melancholy of an old apple, I glimpse in the reflections that they exchange the same warm shadow of renunciation, the same love of the sun, the same memory of dew, a certain freshness …”30 (fig. 16).

Figure 16. Paul Cézanne, Grapes and Peach on a Plate (Grappe de raisin et pêche sur une assiette), 1877–79. Oil on canvas (later mounted on panel), 16.6 cm × 29.5 cm (6.5 in × 11.6 in). The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia.

And finally, of portraiture, he says: “To hell with them if they doubt how marrying a shaded green to a red can sadden a mouth or make a cheek smile.”31

Any art conforming to these statements would be fundamentally different from Cézanne’s. A landscape concerned with capturing the most precise nuances in mood, a portrait characterized by the use of symbolic color (“a psychology of color,”32—Gasquet regards Cézanne’s portraiture as such33), the penetration of the soul of inanimate objects—is this evident in any of Cézanne’s work? Are not these qualities and the implied underlying approach (to life of all kinds and all things, and basically the individuality of every appearance) fundamentally at odds with all the qualities that determine the effect of Cézanne’s pictorial world and his “extrahuman” form of observation and creation? Sentences such as those cited above more readily recall Van Gogh, Cézanne’s greatest artistic antithesis (fig. 17). Van Gogh not only painted the “symmetrically ascending place settings” but also “crowned” them. Or, to reference an artist whose painterly means are not so far removed from Cézanne’s, but are related in many ways, consider the work of [Maurice] Utrillo.

Figure 17. Vincent van Gogh, Sunflowers, 1889. Oil on canvas, 95 cm × 73 cm (37.4 in × 28.7 in). Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

Thus, the creation of each of Cézanne’s paintings repeats the transformation that led him from his early work to the final form of his paintings: the understanding of the model in nature not only as a visual phenomenon but as attached to a wealth of emotional values, which often brought Cézanne to the brink of ecstatic outbursts, is followed by a “realization,” in which those values are suspended or transformed to the point of primal recognition. The determination of such a contrast, which is very general, requires an essential revision. Cézanne’s use of color, mentioned briefly earlier, as an omnipotent means of formation can help explain the contrast. Frequently, Gasquet cites Cézanne speaking on color in this sense. “There is only one way to render and translate everything: color. Color is biological, if I can put it that way. Color is alive, and alone brings things to life.”34 The above-quoted statement regarding the value of color in portraiture35 and Cézanne’s admiration of Tintoretto36 reveal his desire to make color a means of expression as well. It seems that Cézanne was unable to fulfill this desire, and the question arises whether color can serve as both a means of formation and expression at once. Space does not permit further examination of this problem here. However, one particularly characteristic quality of color must be mentioned: when color is developed into an autonomous means of formation, as it is in Cézanne’s paintings, then it produces the impression that entities (whose negation this essay has explored) are not contained by color, but rather replaced by it. The ability to create the impression that a work of art contains the totality of nature’s appearance is unique to color as a means of artistic formation and an organ of artistic cognition. In the history of painting, this capacity reaches its zenith in Cézanne’s painting.

Figure 18. Paul Cézanne, The Hanged Man’s House, 1873. Oil on canvas, 55.5 cm × 66.3 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.
Figure 19. Jacob Isaaksz van Ruisdael, The Jewish Cemetery, 1654 or 1655. Oil on canvas, 142.2 cm × 189.2 cm (56 in × 74.5 in). Detroit Institute of Arts.

This characteristic leads to an appraisal of Cézanne’s artistic objectives demonstrated, for example, in F[ritz] Burger’s writing about The Hanged Man’s House (Burger offers Ruisdael’s Jewish Cemetery as a counterexample [figs. 18 and 19]): “… the house emerges out of the lower pictorial space, enclosing it, looming, threatening, and pale as death itself. For Cézanne, this house is a certain kind of being to which the color is also attuned. It appears in the faint modulations as if from a light being extinguished. In the place of Ruisdael’s mighty cloud formations, a tired gray resignation creeps across Cézanne’s painting, alternating between light and dark. The indistinctness of representation is like painful uncertainty itself, the house like a monster with its locked windows and doors, protruding into the desolate nothingness. On the gable, a beam like a gallows, still in the dreadful silence, the paralyzing spell of death without action or person.”37 Compared with Ruisdael’s mode of creating, Cézanne’s depiction must appear liberated from all literary, intellectual, emotional, and atmospheric values. However, Burger concludes that the artists share an objective: to express the gloom and horror of a place and thing. Because Cézanne’s form of representation, like nature itself, precedes “human” empathy, it tempts an observer like Burger to see what he wants in this “nothingness.” Furthermore, because Cézanne’s painting lacks any possibility of enhancing the interpretation of nature—such as emphasizing in an impressionistic manner the visual beauty of the bare wall in the gable of the house (in contrast to Ruisdael’s pictorial idea)—Burger sees Cézanne’s enigmatic “objectivity” as a purer and more direct expression of an idea of the object than Ruisdael’s, but nevertheless as an idea that likewise transcends appearance and is thus fundamentally related to Ruisdael’s aims. However, the bare gable in The Hanged Man’s House is truly a negatively defined absence, not a positive expression of abstract content. That Cézanne intended to capture such content and the relationship between this intention and its realization has been demonstrated in the citations from Gasquet. It should not be denied that the realization of such intentions also played a small role in Cézanne’s form, but the decisive characteristic is precisely their absence. Along with The Hanged Man’s House, Cézanne painted a second work depicting a different view of the building (fig. 20).38 This second painting demonstrates how far removed the content of Cézanne’s work is from Burger’s interpretation. Of Cézanne’s A Turn in the Road at La Roche-Guyon, Burger writes: “A little more sensitivity and emotion and one would enter the realm of Van Gogh.”39 About the same painting, Max Raphael writes: “If the subject was a street view, for example, Cézanne emphasized the fleeting road, the sharp vanishing point, and the round swells of foliage, and as such drew out the formal elements.”40 However, just as Cézanne does not represent the metaphysical life of individual things, his artistic transformation of natural forms does not signify a movement toward typification. (Certainly, he did not emphasize A Turn in the Road—the Fleeting Road; this formulation would be more characteristic of Van Gogh.) His work is just as far removed from typification as it is from individualization; the problem of Cézanne’s form has nothing to do with this dichotomy. A detailed study of his Provençal landscapes compared with the natural sites on which he based them might shed light on this question.41

Figure 20. Paul Cézanne, A Turn in the Road at la Roche-Guyon, ca. 1885. Oil on canvas, 64.1 cm × 80 cm (25.2 in × 31.5 in). Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, MA.

Cézanne’s theoretical remarks, found in his written notes and letters, are even more problematic than the aforementioned statements. For example, his oft-quoted proposition that everything in nature could be reduced to primary geometrical forms would require a detailed examination of his artistic means. The only way to treat the problems identified in this essay systematically and in-depth would require such an examination of his artistic means coupled with a critical comparison of the biographical material published by Gasquet, Bernard, and Vollard (the latter should be treated with particular caution).42

Postscript. Following the completion of this essay, Julius Meier-Graefe published an article entitled “The Expulsion of the Human from Art,”43 in which he criticized José Ortega y Gasset’s “The Dehumanization of Art.”44 Above all, Meier-Graefe rejects Ortega’s claims, which “go far beyond” the present study’s description of the “extrahuman” in Cézanne’s painting. According to Ortega, “the task of contemporary radical artists is ‘the expulsion of the human from art,’” which far exceeds the “extrahuman” mode of creating in Cézanne’s art identified here (not mentioned by Ortega). Moreover, Ortega’s concept of dehumanized art cannot, by definition, include the “extrahuman” in Cézanne. For Ortega, art liberated from the “human” usually refers to abstract art, i.e., art employing modes of representation far removed from nature. (For example, he writes, “expressionism, cubism, etc. were attempts in this direction. Artists proceeded from the representation of things to the representation of ideas. The artist closes his eyes to the outside world and turns his gaze on the subjective landscape of the soul.”45) Ortega’s concept of dehumanized art has no relation to the idea of the “extrahuman” as defined in this essay (as the denial of the creative subject). Indeed, compared with Cézanne, Ortega’s concept represents the opposite.46 Consequently, Ortega’s reasoning does not pertain to the problem of Cézanne’s art.

Translated by Carmen Rosenberg-Miller


Translator’s note: “Das Problem des Menschen Cézanne im Verhältnis zu seiner Kunst” first appeared in 1932 in the German journal Zeitschrift für Ästhetik und allgemeine Kunstwissenschaft (no. 26). Fritz Novotny (1902–83) belonged to the Vienna School, and although not a member of the core group, his scholarship exemplifies their methodological approach, Strukturanalyse (structure analysis). While Novotny trained under the supervision of Josef Strzygowski, writing a dissertation on Romanesque architectural sculpture in Austria (1929/1930), this essay belongs to a large body of work that Novotny devoted to the study of modern art. Cézanne was a figure of particular fascination for Novotny, who wrote several important essays on the artist as well as a book, Cézanne und das Ende der wissenschaftlichen Perspektive (Cézanne and the End of Scientific Perspective, 1938), which earned him his habilitation. Novotny’s writing greatly influenced subsequent Cézanne scholars, including Meyer Schapiro and the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty. “Das Problem des Menschen Cézanne im Verhältnis zu seiner Kunst” is a challenging text, even for native German speakers well-versed in philosophy. As a translator, I aimed for clarity of meaning and legibility in English in order to make the text accessible to a broad range of readers, an approach that necessitated departures from the literal German such as altered syntax and clarification of pronouns. Nevertheless, retaining Novotny’s original meaning was my first priority. Where Novotny quotes German and French texts, I have translated the quotations and provided the original text in the notes. Minor misquotations and errors in Novotny’s citations have been corrected in this translation. Moreover, where the original German is cited, the spelling has been updated to reflect the orthography reform of 1996. Lastly, the original publication was not illustrated. I selected the illustrations included here, choosing works named explicitly by Novotny wherever possible. –CRM
1. This essay is occasioned by the publication of the German edition of Joachim Gasquet’s Cézanne, trans. Elsa Glazer (Berlin: B. Cassirer Verlag, 1930). Although Gasquet’s book is not the principal subject of this essay, it raises the fundamental questions examined here. This essay also expands on another essay by the author (Fritz Novotny, “Paul Cézanne,” Belvedere VIII, no. 12 [1929]). Translator’s note: Novotny cites both the original French edition of Gasquet’s book and the German translation. I have differentiated the volumes by their publication year in parentheses. Joachim Gasquet, Cézanne (Paris: Les Éditions Bernheim-Jeune, 1921).
2. Gasquet, Cézanne (1930), 129ff, 100ff.
3. Translator’s note: Novotny uses the phrase “genetischem Erfassen” twice in the essay, which translates literally as “genetic understanding.” This unusual and cryptic turn of phrase might be understood as describing an experience of beholding wherein the picture is built up piece by piece, such that the viewer is acutely aware of the process by which the work was produced and the component parts that make up the whole.
4. Émile Bernard, Souvenirs sur Paul Cézanne (Paris: Albert Messein, 1912); Ambroise Vollard, Paul Cézanne (Paris: G. Crès, 1919).
5. Specifically, objections have been made to biographical accounts of Cézanne’s work—here, above all, Erle Loran Johnson’s valuable inquiry “Cézanne’s Country,” The Arts XVI (April 1930) should be cited—however, a fundamental, comprehensive examination of the relation between Cézanne’s art and what he said about art is still missing.
6. “Er hatte wenig oder gar keinen Umgang, gab sich bei den seltenen Aussprüchen keine Mühe, und den anderen gaben sich keine Mühe mit ihm. Deshalb sind die wenigen Zeugnisse der Leute, die ihn gekannt haben, mit Vorsicht zu gebrauchen.” Julius Meier-Graefe, Cézanne und sein Kreis: ein Beitrag zur Entwicklungsgeschichte (Munich: R. Piper, 1920), 67n20. See also the preface to the fifth edition of Julius Meier-Graefe, Paul Cézanne (Munich: R. Piper, 1923).
7. Translator’s note: Novotny’s phrase “menschlichen Erscheinung,” used multiple times throughout the essay, has been translated here as “personal existence.” Although “menschlichen Erscheinung” translates literally as “human appearance,” Novotny’s use of the phrase is not limited to a person’s physical exterior (as suggested by the English term “appearance”) but suggests what happens in a person’s life (in contrast to what happens to their work). I am grateful to Andrew J. Mitchell, who helped me to resolve this particularly tricky translation.
8. Translator’s note: The German term Gestaltung has been translated variously throughout the text. In most instances, I have used the English term “formation” or “form,” but this made less sense in other cases. For example, I have translated Gestaltungsform as “mode of creating.” Here, die künstlerische Gestaltung has been translated as “the artistic creation.”
9. Translator’s note: This translation of the German “Ausschnitt” as “section” is borrowed from Kimberly Smith’s translated excerpts of Novotny’s book, Cézanne and the End of Scientific Perspective (1938). Smith explains her choice: “The word ‘section’ has been chosen to translate Novotny’s use of the term Ausschnitt. This is not a typical art historical term, and it seems that Novotny is purposefully coining a phrase. ‘Section’ carries the connotations inherent within Ausschnitt of cutting away. ‘Pictorial section’ refers to a view in nature that has been selected and cut away from a whole to serve as the motif for the painting. In other contexts, ‘section’ can indicate a specific portion of a painting, defined in spatial or representational terms.” Christopher Wood, ed., The Vienna School Reader: Politics and Art Historical Method in the 1930s (New York: Zone Books, 2000), 426.
10. See Willi Wolfradt, Caspar David Friedrich und die Landschaft der Romantik (Berlin: Mauritius Verlag, 1924), 41ff.
11. If it belongs to the nature of Cézanne’s art that analysis primarily finds negative qualities, it must not stop at identifying these but must recognize them as correlates of positive qualities, which cannot be located in the realm of pure form (a simple correspondence that often exists with the products of art that is far removed from nature) and are therefore much more challenging to interpret. However, as these are omitted, the identification of negative qualities inevitably constrains the appreciation of Cézanne’s work. See, for example, Waldemar George’s essay “The Twilight of a God,” Apollo 14, no. 80 (August 1931): 75–82.
12. Karl Scheffler, Die europäische Kunst im neunzehnten Jahrhundert: Malerei und Plastik, vol. 2 (Berlin: B. Cassirer, 1927), 101.
13. Translator’s note: Novotny used the Latin term “status nascendi” [sic] or “nascent state” in English, referring to an obsolete theory regarding the form of a chemical element when it is most reactive.
14. Cf. Novotny, “Paul Cézanne,” 448ff.
15. See, for example, the portraits of Lucien Guitry and Jeanne Granier, reproduced in Jedlicka Gotthard, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (Berlin: Bruno Cassirer Verlag, 1929), 239, 277.
16. Cf. Novotny, “Paul Cézanne,” 447f.
17. I should also point out that the comparison between Cézanne’s and Kant’s intellectual output has a different meaning from the analogy between the creative principles of modern painting and the critique of knowledge established by Fritz Burger in his seminal study Cézanne and Hodler, 1st ed. (Munich: Piper, 1913). Burger’s comparison demonstrates the affinity between Kant’s ideas and the creative principles of modern painting in a general sense that encompasses Hodler, Cézanne, Van Gogh, and Picasso (to consider just the field of painting since impressionism, although the analogy is not limited to these artists). Beyond this fundamental affinity, however, there is a much more profound similarity between Kant and Cézanne (which throws the fundamental difference of Hodler, Van Gogh, and Picasso into relief) that belongs to the realm of the personality problem.
18. “Oui, la plus frémissante sensibilité aux prises avec la raison la plus théorique.” Gasquet, Cézanne (1921), 18.
19. Translator’s note: Novotny cites the French “faible dans la vie,” likely misquoting Cézanne in a conversation recounted by Gasquet. According to Gasquet, Cézanne, in conversation with Joachim’s father, Henri Gasquet, once asked, “Est-ce parce que je suis un timide dans la vie?” Gasquet, Cézanne (1921), 114.
20. “… göttliche Schüchternheit ließ ihn jeden aufnehmen, dem er nicht in seiner ersten Aufwallung hatte barsch seine Tür verschließen können. Denn hochmütig im Geiste, war er demütig im Herzen.” Gasquet, Cézanne (1930), 42.
21. See the Bathers illustrated in Marie Dormoy’s essay, “Quelques Tableaux de la collection Ambroise Vollard,” Formes (September 1931, French edition), from ca. 1875 to Cézanne’s death (1906).
22. “Ce qu’il m’a dit …” Gasquet, Cézanne (1921), 75.
23. “La nature est plus en profondeur qu’en surface.” Gasquet, Cézanne (1921), 79.
24. “… blanche comme une couche de neige fraîchement tombée et sur laquelle s’élevaient symétriquement les couverts couronnés de petit pains blonds.” Gasquet, Cézanne (1921), 123.
25. “Toute ma jeunesse, j’ai voulu peindre ça, cette nappe de neige fraîche … Je sais maintenant qu’il ne faut vouloir peindre que ‘s’élevaient symétriquement les couverts’ et ‘de petits pains blonds.’ Si je peins ’couronnés’ je suis foutu … Comprenez-vous? Et si vraiment j’équilibre et je nuance mes couverts et mes pains comme sur nature, soyez sûr que les couronnes, la neige, et tout le tremblement y seront …” Gasquet, Cézanne (1921), 123. As translated by Bridget Alsdorf in Éric Michaud, “Cézanne’s Sensations,” 39 (May 2022),
26. “Le dessin et la couleur ne sont plus distincts; au fur et à mesure que l’on peint, on dessine; plus la couleur s’harmonise, plus le dessin se précise.” Gasquet, Cézanne (1921), 123.
27. “Quand la couleur est à sa richesse, la forme est à sa plénitude. Le contraste et les rapports des tons, voilà le secret du dessin et du modelé … Tout le reste, c’est de la poésie.” Gasquet, Cézanne (1921), 123.
28. “Oui, vous avez vos métaphores, vos comparaisons. Quoiqu’il me semble que de constamment multiplier les ‘comme,’ c’est comme nous, quand notre dessin se voit trop.” Gasquet, Cézanne (1921), 123. As translated by Alsdorf in Michaud, “Cézanne’s Sensations.”
29. “[Darüber hinaus muss] der ganze blaue Duft der Kiefern, scharf in der Sonne, sich mit dem grünen Duft der Wiesen, taufrisch an jedem Morgen, vermählen, mit dem Geruch der Steine, dem Duft des fernen Marmors von Sainte Victoire.” Gasquet, Cézanne (1930), 102.
30. “On croit qu’un sucrier ça n’a pas une physionomie, une âme. Mais ça change tous les jours aussi. Il faut savoir les prendre, les amadouer, ces messieurs-là … Ces verres, ces assiettes, ça parle entre eux. Des confidences interminables … Les fleurs, j’y ai renoncé. Elles se fanent tout de suite. Les fruits sont plus fidèles. Ils aiment qu’on fasse leur portrait. Ils sont là comme à vous demander pardon de se décolorer. Leur idée s’exhale avec leurs parfums. Ils viennent à vous dans toutes leurs odeurs, vous parlent des champs qu’ils ont quittés, de la pluie qui les a nourris, des aurores qu’ils épiaient. En cernant de touches pulpeuses la peau d’une belle pêche, la mélancolie d’une vieille pomme, j’entrevois dans les reflets qu’elles échangent la même ombre tiède de renoncement, le même amour du soleil, le même souvenir de rosée, une fraîcheur …” Gasquet, Cézanne (1921), 122. Reprinted in Michael Doran, ed., Conversations with Cézanne, trans. Julie Lawrence Cochran (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 156–57 (translation modified).
31. “Au diable, s’ils se doutent comment en mariant un vert nuancé à un rouge on attriste une bouche ou on fait sourire une joue.” Gasquet, Cézanne (1921), 117.
32. “une psychologie colorée.” Gasquet, Cézanne (1921), 119.
33. Gasquet, Cézanne (1921), 113.
34. “Il n’y a qu’une route pour tout rendre, tout traduire: la couleur. La couleur est biologique, si je puis dire. La couleur est vivante, rend seule les choses vivantes.” Gasquet, Cézanne (1921), 88.
35. See also Gasquet, Cézanne (1921), 117.
36. Gasquet, Cézanne (1921), 105.
37. “… wächst das Haus aus dem ganzen unteren Bildraum, diesen umfassend, heraus, drohend wie das Verhängnis und bleich wie der Tod. Für Cézanne ist dieses Haus ein bestimmt geartetes Wesen, auf das auch die Farbe eingestellt ist. Sie erscheint in schwachen Modulationen eines erlöschenden Lichtes. Statt des mächtigen Wolkengeschiebes bei Ruisdael ein müdes Grau, Resignation über dem schleichenden Wechsel von Hell und Dunkel. Die Undeutlichkeit des Gegenständlichen wie peinliche Ungewissheit selbst, das Haus wie ein Monstrum mit seinen verschlossenen Fenstern und Türen, hineinragen in das trostlose Nichts. Am Giebel ein Balken wie ein Galgen, still in der fürchterlichen Stille, der lähmende Bann des Todes ohne Handlung oder Person.” Fritz Burger, Cézanne und Hodler: Einführung in die Probleme der Malerei der Gegenwart, 2 vols. (Munich: Delphin, 1913), 1:108.
38. Translator’s note: In 1932, at the time of publication, Cézanne’s La Maison du pendu (The Hanged Man’s House) belonged to the collection of Isaac de Camondo in the Musée du Louvre, a fact noted by Novotny. In 1986, the work was transferred to the Musée d’Orsay, where it now resides.
39. “Etwa mehr Sensibilität und Leidenschaft und man wäre im Reiche Van Goghs.” Burger, Cézanne und Hodler, 1:110.
40. “War das Sujet zum Beispiel ein Straßendurchblick, so betonte er: der Straßendurchblick—das Fliehen der Straße, das Spitze des ideellen Zusammentreffens, das Stehen der Laubmassen und die Rundung ihrer Wölbung, und hieraus gewinnt er die künstlerischen Formelemente.” Max Raphael, Von Monet zu Picasso: Grundzüge einer Ästhetik und Entwicklung der modernen Malerei (Munich: Delphin, 1913), 85.
41. See Erle Loran Johnson’s previously cited essay, “Cézanne’s Country.”
42. See Maurice Le Blond on Émile Zola’s L’Œuvre in Zola, Œuvres complètes (Paris: F. Bernouard, 1927), 14:404ff.
43. Julius Meier-Graefe, “Vertreibung des Menschen aus der Kunst,” Frankfurter Zeitung Reichsausgabe, October 24, 1931, 9.
44. José Ortega y Gasset, “Enthumanisierung der Kunst,” in Die Aufgabe unsere Zeit, trans. Helene Weyl (Zürich: Neue Schweizer Rundschau, H. Girsberger, 1929), 111–62.
45. “Expressionismus, Kubismus usw. waren Versuche in dieser Richtung. Von der Darstellung der Dinge ist man zu Darstellung der Ideen übergegangen: Der Künstler verschließt die Augen vor der äußeren Welt und wendet den Blick auf die subjektiven Landschaften seiner Seele.” Ortega y Gasset, “Enthumanisierung der Kunst,” 145.
46. Ortega y Gasset, “Enthumanisierung der Kunst,” 117ff, 131ff.
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