September 26, 2023

There is Paul Cézanne, the artist, and Paul Cézanne, the godfather. There are the unbalanced, heavy apples and pears; then there is her legacy, even more important.

With just your eyes you can fall into his painted still lifes and card players, into the crowded bathers, the blocky views of Mont Sainte-Victoire. Look, his broken perspectives reveal his scrutinizing intelligence at work. But just look: ehh, it’s not that simple. Not when the taciturn painter became a master teacher and his distorted rooms became the starting signal for modernism. The Museum of Modern Art in particular has treated Cézanne as a passed / failed entrance exam for most of its history – at the opening of his collection galleries he put up his dejected “Bader” from around 1885, a withdrawn guard who guards Picasso, Matisse and the Rest.

It is difficult to hold on to these two Cézannes; I am definitely fighting. He was the first painter I ever loved when I was a teenager. Nowadays, however, I have a bad habit of treating Cézannes like math problems, summarizing their heavy brushstrokes as so many milestones on the way into the 20th century. Among the many surprises of “Cézanne Drawing”, the huge and extremely important exhibition of the summer at MoMA, one spans everything: she returned Cézanne to me on a human scale, unaffected by what is to come.

This forefather of modern painting – “the father of us all”, as Picasso and Matisse supposedly said – also drew. Almost every day for 50 years. The dense masses of fruit that we think we know only appear here as shadows. The solid bodies of the bathers dissolve into trembling outlines. In his less sublime drawings (as well as paintings on paper), rough markings and unfinished areas become testimony to how a new kind of art must be forged day after day.

The concentration on the drawings – around 280 of them are here, which the curators Jodi Hauptman and Samantha Friedman have meticulously sorted according to topic – opens up Cézannis perspectives that we (MoMA and I?) Have bricked up for too long. “Cézanne Drawing” adds individual gaze moments to the multi-layered perceptions of the paintings. To move forward, it adds classic inspiration. To color it adds a back line. It was all here, in and around Cézanne-the-modern-godfather, but it took this show to remind us. In all these gray pencil strokes, these sparse watercolor stains, you will find less a Cézanne here that we do not know than the Cézanne that we have forgotten to see.

Where in the world do you start Start with yourself. Around 1880, when he was in his early 40s, Cézanne looked in the mirror and sketched himself in three-quarter profile: the eyebrows were raised, the lips slightly pursed, the beard lifted off the bald part. On the same sheet, about the same scale as his forehead, he made another drawing. It’s a dimpled apple that’s slightly shaded at the bottom where a table could stand. The person and the object, the perceiver and the perceived explicitly feel equal.

How can this little sheet of paper with such a nondescript subject have such authority? To scream out loud, it’s just an apple!

Well it’s an apple and it’s not an apple. What Cézanne shows us in this drawing, and what you see during this exhibition, is that the apple itself, or even the face of the artist itself, does not have much significance. What matters is his perception of the apple (and its face) and the style with which he reproduces those perceptions. For centuries before Cézanne, the greatest European art was the art that most accurately depicted the world, with precision, illusionism, elegance, and sprezzatura. Cézanne threw it all away. Instead, he used art to give shape to the process of individual seeing this world with the eyes and the brain.

That was what made an apple such an exciting subject as the Rock Madonna – and even more than through painting, Cézanne made his understanding of the subject of art clearest. In another sheet here, the strict Madame Cézanne is also equated to produce; her disembodied head is dented and solidified, like the round fruit with which she shares one side. A small plaster putto that Cézanne had in his studio – known from one of his largest fruit still lifes in the Courtauld Gallery in London – appears here several times as a lumpy, unwieldy structure. Day after day, with pencil or watercolor, in the Louvre galleries or outdoors in Provence, his senses solidified objects and people into a shallow, perspective-free mass.

It was an eager approach and a pretty cold one. In “Cézanne Drawing” faces and bodies have the dispassion of the still life. (“Be an apple!” He said notoriously to his models.) The bodies of the bathers in particular harden. Torsos like clay. Buttocks like pears. More classically proportioned figures could be paired with crouching, lumpier piles of meat on the same side.

Based on the Impressionists, Cézanne wanted to capture the lighting effect, the play of angles, the individual and non-ideal perspective with his bathers. But against the fleeting perceptions of Monet or Degas, these acts of looking have gained in weight. Its mass becomes a mechanism by which Cézanne could invent a new art without abandoning tradition – and drawings of classical sculpture throughout this exhibition confirm that what turned out to be a revolution in representation did not have such destructive goals. “You don’t replace the past,” he wrote to a friend in 1905. “You just add a new link.”

This is a process and practice show, and you may not like Cézanne Drawing as much as I do if your in search of refinements. Even compared to his Post-Impressionist colleagues – for example van Gogh or above all Seurat – Cézanne was not particularly skilled in line drawing and did not even get much better at it over the decades. A drawing of Hercules and another of a farmer are not so easy to distinguish. A bather in a true-to-scale drawing is not much more finesse than a bather drawn on a billing slip. His friend and colleague Émile Bernard called Cézanne’s drawings “documents without contrivances” as if they weren’t art at all.

And yet it is this lack of artificiality, the feeling of watching Cézanne at work while drawing, what makes the sheets so modern. Spend some time examining “Mercury After Pigalle,” dating from 1890 or so, one of myriad drawings the artist made based on neoclassical sculpture. The wobbly lines twist into one another, the contours are trembling and awkward. No eraser marks, little sense of finish. Nothing of the heroism of the classical act. In these lines, however, a whole artistic consciousness is manifested – and with it a new kind of art, the focus of which is consciousness.

The watercolors have more elegance that feel more familiar than the pencil drawings. (Though I think these are “drawings” too; lines sometimes overlay watercolor in these sheets, the pencil and brush work together.) Still lifes with apples, pears and the like are among the most elaborate compositions in this exhibition, although white give their masses an extra tension. Even more white penetrates the leaves of Sainte-Victoire, the Provencal peak that Cézanne distilled into layered blocks of color and jagged, broken lines.

The leaves that I’ve looked at the longest are Cézanne’s plein-air watercolors of rock faces in southern France, washed out and open, barely recognizable as geological formations. This show has 10 of them on a single wall, and the whispering contours of the stones come as close to abstraction as this perceptual artist would ever allow.

In one of several drawings he made of rock walls outside a grotto next to Sainte-Victoire, he leaves block by block of white space and uses the blank paper to compose the rock wall. Small blobs of green and orange line the edges of the boulders, but the centers remain barren. Cézanne was an avid geology student, and among his drawings, these rocks are the only motif that looks lighter rather than heavier under his eyes. The stones seem to sublime. Solids melt in air.

“An apple is not very interesting,” said Canadian photographer Jeff Wall once, justifying his own Cézannesque doubt that an artist’s subject matters a lot. At the moment, of course, everything is a topic in contemporary art. No work is complete without a justifying statement attached to it; Shape and color and line are hardly anyone’s business.

But here in Cézanne’s watercolors of the cliffs of Provence – flowing landscapes, rocks turned into liquid – there is still a master class for artists who work in a culturally and ecologically completely changed climate. Aix’s keen eye paved the way for a century of modern artists who wanted to change the world, but you can’t change anything, either in your society or in your atmosphere, unless you first shape it. Form are weddings and funerals, form are marches and movements, form is the difference between what you scroll past and what goes on. Shape is how things you see become important things, endowing even the greengrocer’s daily loot with the power of truth.

Cezanne drawing
Until September 25th at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, Manhattan. (212) 708-9400,