A confession: I have spent five years writing a life of the painter Paul Cézanne (1839-1906). Another confession: it is another damn’d thick, square book, 500 pages long, though weary readers will have the consolation of forty pages of colour plates, the ringing endorsement of Julian Bell in the Guardian and the knowledge that it is Book of the Week in the Independent.
Why is the life of Cézanne worth writing? Or perhaps more to the point, worth reading?
Cézanne is now recognized as the most important artist of the modern age. He should properly be seen as a world-historical figure, a climate of ideas, and a part of the culture. If in the final analysis a great artist is a man who has lived greatly, as Albert Camus proposed, Cézanne seems to embody what was required. He shows what human beings are capable of. His life story is the exemplary life story of the artist-creator in our time. Countless artists take Cézanne as their model. And not only artists – poets and philosophers, writers and directors, thinkers and dreamers.
Cézanne created a new world order. His way of seeing radically refashioned our sense of things and our relationship to them. He once said of his mighty Woman with a Coffeepot (illustrated above) that a teaspoon teaches us as much about ourselves and our world as the woman or the coffeepot. The revelations of Cézanne are akin to those of Marx or Freud. The transformational potential is as great. The impact on our selves and our world is as far-reaching.
Put another way, he was a revolutionary. The successor generation knew this well enough. Braque: ‘He was not a rebel, Cézanne, but one of the greatest revolutionaries; this will never be sufficiently emphasized. He gave us a taste for risk. His personality is always in play, with his weaknesses and his strengths. With him we’re poles apart from decorum. He melds his life in his work, the work in his life.’ Picasso: ‘It is not what the artist does that counts, but what he is. Cézanne wouldn’t be of the slightest interest to me if he had lived and thought like Jacques-Émile Blanche, even if the apple he painted had been ten times as beautiful. What is of interest to us is Cézanne’s inquiétude, that is Cézanne’s lesson … that is to say, the drama of the man. The rest is false.’
Inquiétude – restlessness, anxiety – is his signature condition, in life and afterlife. Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s celebrated essay, ‘Cézanne’s Doubt’ (1945), made the point in slightly different terms, discoursing freely on his morbid symptoms, his psychological disequilibrium, his ‘schizoid make-up’. Cézanne the musical has yet to appear – no one has dared – but the opera is Cézanne’s Doubt (1996).
The anxiety and the eccentricity have been overdone. The salient thing about Cézanne’s condition was that he had purpose – moral purpose – he was inquiet de vérité: hot for truth. ‘He is inquiet,’ said one commentator, ‘but only to know if his values are true, and the humanity in his paintings rests on the value of a value,’ a pun on moral values and colour values. Cézanne was a Nietzschean revaluer of all values. It was entirely characteristic of him to write to one young artist that he owed him the truth in painting and that he would tell it to him; or to another that he would speak to him more truly than anyone, and that in art he had nothing to hide. Cézanne the revelator could do no other. Painting was truth-telling or it was nothing.
Cézanne was a curious mixture of pride and humility. According to his son, he would say: ‘Politicians, there are two thousand of them in every legislature, but a Cézanne, there is only one every two centuries.’ Who is to say that he was wrong?