O Pioneers!

John Haber
in New York City

Pioneering Modern Painting: Paul Cézanne and Camille Pissarro

Camille Pissarro found his way from the Caribbean to Paris, from Judaism to Socialism, into every Impressionist exhibition, and through pretty much every art movement of the nineteenth century. Without Paul Cézanne, art of the next century becomes incomprehensible.

Two volatile centuries of painting may sound beyond the reach of a single exhibition, and both artists already had excellent retrospectives barely a decade ago. Yet the Museum of Modern Art's pairing of Cézanne and Pissarro exists for a reason. That may not sound like much, but amid a museum fashion for piggybacking artists at the expense of their best work, it matters a great deal. It supplies an intimate history of just a few years in the lives of two artists. At the same time, it has one darting back and forth, between painting's past and future. Paul Cezanne's House of the Hanged Man (Musee d'Orsay, 1873)

It begs one to ask just what "modern painting" these artists were "pioneering." In turn, that invites one to see the show as the record of a friendship, a collaboration, a classroom, a chess match, the break-up of a rock band, or the march of history. Most viewers, in effect, see either the interpersonal side or the impersonal side. Those glad to see Pissarro in the same show and, presumably, the same league as Cézanne may emphasize the close rivalry. They may relish the chance to watch every move in the game. Those exhilarated by fresh perceptions of Cézanne may emphasize the future instead.

I shall argue that the entire fashion for treating art as a contest has problems. It subordinates the past to current metaphors of rugged individualism, treating painters as rock stars and successful, luxury consumer goods at precisely the moment when the art scene and the market are doing exactly that. Fortunately, the exhibition also allows just the kind of close examination that brings art alive, along with the recognition that individuals best come to life a larger context. If that includes a context in the history of Modernism, one truly can call these artists pioneers.

Two by two

The Modern's earlier pairing of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque had a reason, of course, if only the straightforward one of bringing textbook accounts of Cubism and the origins of Modernism to life. Its exhibition of Picasso and Matisse definitely had a reason, only not the ones that MoMA actually gave. One could better grasp Modernism's multiple paths and continued self-questioning, even if the museum had to play fast and loose with chronology to outline a simpler narrative of a common enterprise. The Met's pairing of Manet and Velázquez had reasons, too—so many, in fact, that it all but split off into separate exhibitions or dissolved in incoherence. Worse still, these shows, like some recent books on Renaissance rivalries, can only further a pop-culture version of art. They reduce history to titanic individuals and their psychological needs.

Paul Cézanne and Camille Pissarro rarely painted side by side. Cézanne's solitary nature and obsessive working methods would not permit it, just as the latter's sense of art as a common, progressive enterprise would soon take him other places. However, they painted in front of and in direct response to each other's work. Besides a friendship, they also shared a peculiar space all their own, at the edge of Impressionism. Geographically, that meant Pontoise, twenty-five miles northwest of Paris, although Cézanne begged his friend to follow him to the south of France—where he would one day be leaving Madame Cézanne in Paris. By disposition, it meant two restless artists poring over Impressionist techniques and subject matter in search of a more lasting future.

The Modern keeps related work together, to underscore their learning from and, just as often, consciously revising one another. It can afford to center on a key decade or so, mostly the 1870s, when the painters stood more or less on a par. Pissarro had just passed his peak, and the younger artist had come nowhere near his. The curators quote Cézanne's praise: if Pissarro had always painted as he had in 1870, no one could surpass him. One can hear the implied subtext—that Pissarro had not and that Cézanne would.

This time out, the museum falsifies chronology only rarely. Similar subjects by the artists invariably date to within a year. Two Cézannes from the late 1890s do slip in, the Modern's own Pines and Rocks and an even craggier forest from Los Angeles. Ostensibly, they show Pissarro's continued influence. In practice, they provide the frisson of realizing where all this would lead.

Wall text only occasionally distracts from individual works, and then it adds pertinent explication of the subject matter. I had not thought to ask why a man as conservative as Cézanne's father is portrayed reading a leftist newspaper. The paper, the museum explains, reports on the artist's work, and the early portrait implies a guarded acceptance of his career that his father at best grudgingly afforded. One wonders right away about a stubbornly insecure painter's need for an older man's encouragement—and perhaps to assert his independence as well.

This tale of startling similarities allows one to appreciate growing differences and to ask, too, how they began. One can see Pissarro breaking up the scene and the light, while aligning objects and shadows. He is imagining the everyday and the act of looking on it as the scene of something firmer and more essential. Cézanne, meanwhile, interweaves foreground and background, objects and reflections, as if to place every conceivable obstacle to plain sight.

Taking the lead

Their friendship in fact predates Impressionism. The artists met as early as 1861, two years before the Salon des Refusés, where Impression: Sunrise by Claude Monet lent its name to a movement. Both Pissarro and Cézanne exhibited with the rejected works, making them present at the quasi-official birth of the avant-garde. Cézanne was still painting a wild and wooly narrative art, as he would throughout the decade. That includes a hallucinatory takeoff on Déjeuner sur l'Herbe, the painting by Edouard Manet that helped give the scandal of the Salon des Refusés heroic proportions.

Strangely enough, none of these shocks disturb the Modern's opening room. Rather, one sees a more sober side of Cézanne, an art already in conversation with Pissarro, along with all his other father figures. One sees the physical presence and inner focus of Cézanne's uncle in the guise of a monk. One sees dark, almost monochrome still lifes from both artists, laid down with the solid marks of a palette knife and can almost imagine what it would have meant to Giorgio Morandi reproduced in black and white. Yet one hardly sees the younger artist's freer strokes of those years, the thicker impasto and glaring whites barely broken by black and red. Cézanne had made the plane of the canvas a thick slab, like an anxious cover for the white heat of his imagination.

This may sound like cheating from square one, and it is. How strongly can one sense an artist's influence, if it leaves untouched all that the museum must omit? However, the omissions already convey Pissarro's influence. Before anything else, he is not so much giving his friend confidence as calming him down and bringing him back to earth. He is convincing the other to turn his struggles inward, through the subtler motions of paint, and outward, in observation of the natural world.

Besides, the cheating stops the moment one turns to the next room. One faces two large and almost identical villages, one painted after the other and not from the scene itself. From here, one encounters side-by-side representations of pretty much the artists' entire repertory, including landscape and still life. They try their hand at portraits of each other, although never with the excitement of Cézanne's late portrait of his dealer, Ambroise Vollard. Depictions of studio walls make clear that one another's paintings literally stood watch over them as they worked.

Pissarro could pride himself on taking the lead at every stage, and he must have loved the feeling. He gave his friend a mentor and more than a few models. He convinced him of the relevance of Impressionism and painting outdoors. He first varied the texture with a dry brush, then discarded the palette knife all but entirely. He flattened the surface and allowed a bit of canvas to show at the edges between colors, well before Cézanne used bare surface as a weave of parallel strokes vibrating through the paint. He lightened their range of colors more than once, first convincing Cézanne to accept green, then increasingly heightening the yellow and blue.

In a final room, the artists go their own ways. Pissarro seeks the rigorous fragmentation of Paul Signac, while Cézanne, now in his 40s, returns to his Provençal roots. Even then, one can see Pissarro as the innovator who knows when to take leave of his mature pupil. He has decided before Cézanne to press for a Post-Impressionism, long before Vincent van Gogh even knew it existed. Cézanne, in turn, now accepts Provence not as a primal scene, but as a setting with its own light and its own majesty, in the multiple reflections of sky and sea. He is going to stick to studio and landscape subjects until he gets them right.

The cutting edge of paint

All that gives Pissarro only his due, and the Modern does. However, the artists really went their own ways from the start. If ones seems the perpetual teacher, he had a weakness for certainties his entire life, even though each certainty soon gave way to another. And if Cézanne seems the perpetual student, always with another question, he makes each canvas an arena for questioning.

In their very first shared subjects, he shows at best limited faith in the latest thing. Where Pissarro never looks back, Cézanne's loaves of bread have the palpable texture of Dutch still life. Like Pierre Bonnard, Pissarro is struggling with the paradox of his own belief, that modern life embodies the only firmer reality. Cézanne distrusts equally the present and anything firmer, even as he grapples with both. I wonder if he at first piled on so much white because the pigment lasts all but forever.

Pissarro tries one strategy after another to pin down the scene before him, and Cézanne dismantles every one. Pissarro softens Impressionist lighting, often with a yellowish soft focus, and hardens its all-over brushwork. Even when he comes to Pointillism, he tightens individual marks and raises their texture. Cézanne deepens colors, especially in reflections and in the thin shadow at the edge of things. It creates a surface in constant motion.

It also confuses foreground and background, carrying both alike toward the eye. Pissarro uses village streets as central elements to map three dimensions. The road might pass houses in the middle ground, perhaps ending with a bridge in the distance, parallel to the picture plane at upper right. The branches of a tree and the shadow they cast, cracks in a wall and the space between paint, the threads of canvas itself—with Cézanne one can hardly know where one begins and another ends. In his hands, the clear, white path rises, dips, veers, and breaks outright. The traditional repoussoir, the foreground element that sets a scale, becomes an almost physical bar between the viewer and the landscape, like the harsh granite and tracery of trees cut off at the top in his late Pines and Rocks.

The cutting off—of the composition, of things, or of the eye—can leave a scene both that much more immediate and strikingly empty. Pissarro likes to feature people on his streets. They accord with his rustic Socialism, that insistent identification with others. They also give the scene a moment in time, amid everyday life, and they supply a stand-in for the viewer in navigating space. Cézanne includes that peasant element exactly once, not in painting from life but in his early copy after Pissarro. The very scene I have described of cracks and branches depicts a serious absence, The House of the Hanged Man.

Clearly Cézanne's trickery turns heavily on edges, as well as on the confusion of surface, objects, and art itself. In still life, too, Pissarro's quiet adjustments add clarity and stability. The reflection on a tabletop follows a composition's main diagonal, as does the doubling of a knife blade with the shadow on the cloth below. The space between knife and shadow also precisely measures the scene's depth. Cézanne confuses shadow and color, just as he builds the naps of a tablecloth into mountains that defy any sense of scale. His knife becomes little more than a black line balanced on nothing at all, as if the cutting edge of paint itself risks tumbling onto one's lap.

Beyond the spectacle

Exhibitions of rivalries all claim to give individual artists a firmer context. Like Pissarro's own reaching for the firmament, however, they all reinforce some very unhistorical prejudices. What else could keep them coming, in an age when museums compete for crowds?

They remake art in terms familiar from professional sports and music. Even sensible critics end up sounding like fans of the home team or their favorite Beatle. In The New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl focuses on some of the same illustrations as I have and comes to more or less the same conclusions. Still, he cannot help speaking of a contest—or rather "no contest"—and calling it, of course, for Cézanne. He quotes Joachim Pissarro's catalog essay, proposing the exhibition "as a spectacular chess game."

Both Schjeldahl and the painter's descendant mean to defend close examination, rather than simply reducing works of art to ideas and to moments in the progress of history. As the former observes, once Modernism ratified Cézanne's doubt, it became hard to see the artists again with a connoisseur's care. However, the chess game can just as easily defeat any appreciation of ideas or vision, not to mention the interdependence of the two. For Schjeldahl, the pairing of Picasso and Braque leaves Braque a poor second, a painter regrettably limited by and to Cubism rather than a great Cubist. Pissarro and Cézanne become the story of a chicken and a far braver observer, where I want instead to puzzle out the chicken and the egg.

Cézanne and Pissarro, Picasso and Braque, or Picasso and Matisse respected each other as professionals. Cézanne had at least one father to work past, although I may never tease out exactly who. Compared to athletes or members of a rock band, however, the artists work both relatively alone and in a wider context of movements and ideas. Revisionist accounts of art's crossroads lose both.

This show necessarily does not represent its subjects at their best, which is not to say less than delightful, and visitors may even prefer it this way. At their closest, Cézanne and Pissarro came nearest to the comforts of Impressionism that so attract museum lines. Thankfully, these limits and connections allow one to follow the show in multiple directions. Take it painting by painting. Take it as a jumping-off point for two individuals and the unstated others whom they emulated or rivaled as well. Take it as two ways out of Impressionism.

Take it, too, as two paradoxes that will not go away. Both Cézanne and Pissarro did have it both ways. Each wrote a quirky history of Impressionism and its aftermaths. Pissarro got to show off plein-air painting and the sturdier, often greeting-card version a little too familiar now. Cézanne got to have his doubts, but also a surface with the vivid colors and shudder of perception that one recognizes from life.

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"Pioneering Modern Painting: Cézanne and Pissarro, 1865–1885" ran at The Museum of Modern Art through September 12, 2005.


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