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Book Review: Cezanne

Cezanne: A Lifecezanne

by Alex Danchev

Pantheon Books, 2012

“Countless people have had a Cezanne epiphany,” Alex Danchev writes in his stunning, fittingly surrealist new biography of the painter, and it’s clear from the outset that Danchev himself has had one of those epiphanies – perhaps a whole assorted-box selection of them. If so, he’s certainly in heavily populated company: a whole gamut of writers, directors, movie stars, students, art connoisseurs, and fellow artists have had those epiphanies and made ample record of them. Danchev has sniffed out virtually every one of those ecstatic records and included them in his book. It’s enough to make the benighted Landseer fan feel quite excluded.

Danchev covers the facts of Cezanne’s life – his Aix-en-Provence boyhood and youth, his presence as an unknown in Paris in the early 1860s, his climb to fame, etc. But his book is fundamentally more ecstatic than that: he’s far more interested in the reaction of the world to Cezanne than the reaction of Cezanne to the world. His favorite anecdotes revolve around befuddlement and wonder:

The story was told of a client who stood amazed before a Cezanne landscape amid the marble and onyx of the Galerie Paul Rosenberg. He had never seen anything like it. Paul Rosenberg put him right. “No, Monsieur,” he interposed grandly, “it is not a landscape, it it a cathedral.” Stories of this sort were common currency.

But it isn’t a cathedral, that aggrieved Landseer-fancier will respond, almost involuntarily; it’s a landscape, and not a particularly good one. Danchev is at least sympathetic:

Coming to terms with Cezanne was not easy. The work itself gave ample grounds for offense. On first acquaintance, it ranged from the inexplicable to the intolerable. What it more, it was unfinished, and apparently unfinishable.

“His creations have colonized our consciousness,” our author maintains, in one of the serial overreaches that make his book so unexpectedly charming. Cezanne himself, a dutiful student of the old masters, used to refer to the Louvre as “the book from which we learn to read,” thus very carefully designating tradition as a starting point, before “time and reflection modify our vision, little by little, and finally understanding comes.”

Cezanne once told Van Gogh, “You paint like a madman!” Perplexed Landseer-fanciers will see little reason not to apply such a judgement to the works of Cezanne as well, and as beautifully written and passionately conceived as Danchev’s great biography is, it unlikely to change that. It doesn’t want to – and why should it? Cezanne, as Julian Barnes points out in an excellent review of this book, is invariably seen as “the point where modern art began” – and Danchev is celebrating the painter expressly for the legions of admirers who agree. Who cares about dumb old Landseer anyway?

 

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