HISTORIES of modern painting conventionally start with Paul Cézanne (1839-1906); and yet his relation with subsequent avant-garde artists is charged with contradiction. The Budapest exhibition “Cezanne to Malevich” (the gallery and the artist’s descendants prefer the spelling of the artist’s name without the conventional accent, reflecting his own use of dialect) reminds us that it is less he who influenced them than they who reinterpreted him.
The story of (mis-)appropriation is usually told in terms of discordant visual philosophies. Where Cézanne dialogued freely with classical tradition in paintings of classical Arcadia, such as The Large Bathers (1898), subsequent modernists simply ignored it. Where Cézanne used geometric accentuation to anchor perception of real objects, Cubists used real objects to celebrate geometry, and Mondrian dispensed with external referents entirely in favour of mathematical abstraction.
The exhibition relates this familiar revisionist account of Cézanne well, while extending it geographically to cover the less familiar topic of the artist’s reception in Central and Eastern Europe. The display culminates in an exploration of the work of the Russian “Suprematist” painter Kazimir Malevich (1879-1935).
© photo MASP João MusaPaul Cézanne (1839-1906), Madame Cézanne in Red, 1888-90, Collection Museu de Arte de São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand, São Paulo, Brazil
The enthusiastic early avant-garde reception of Cézanne in Moscow was typified by Malevich, who wrote that “In the personality of Cézanne our history of painting reaches the apogee of its development.” In Self-portrait and Portrait of Piotr Konchalovsky, (1910), Ilya Mashkov (1881-1944) placed a work entitled Cézanne beside the Bible on the shelf behind him.
Nevertheless, for others, the response to this new stimulus from France was, paradoxically, a turning away from Western pictorial tradition — and even from Cézanne himself. “Long live the splendid East! . . . Long live nationality! We stand against the West. . . Today it is Cézanne and Picasso against whom we must fight!” thundered Mikhail Larionov (1881-1944) in a 1913 manifesto.
Larionov and his sympathisers would proceed to dig deep into the traditions of Russian decorative art and Orthodox iconography, provocatively drawing the vernacular into the gallery and the sacred into the secular sphere. Those currents combine in Larionov’s Venus of 1912, where, scandalously, the erotic mythological subject appears on an icon-like ground of golden yellow, while the scenery is suggested by using sparse motifs from Russian folk tradition.
There is a certain irony here. Larionov sought to escape Cézanne by, unwittingly following his own path of ressourcement. The exhibition reminds us that Cézanne was equally inspired by domestic ecclesial tradition. His extensive study of figurative bosses in the medieval parish churches of Aix-en-Provence shaped his own remoulding of facial representations, as evident from portraits of his son Paul (1885) and wife, Hortense (c.1890).
Malevich, conversely, stayed closer to Cézanne in his proclaimed sympathy, but, ironically, moved further from him in the loosening of representational convention. His work evinces a complex negotiation with both Cézanne’s legacy and Christian belief.
In White Square and Plan for Dissolution (1918), the subject seems to be a grave, and the dissolving upper rectangle spreading beyond the edge of the sheet might (as the catalogue suggests) “be taken for a mystical substance, as if it were a soul leaving a body”.
Collection Stedelijk Museum AmsterdamKazimir Malevich (1879-1935), Mystic Suprematism (Red Cross on Black Circle), 1920-22, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam
Mystic Suprematism (Red Cross on Black Circle) (1920-22) suggests the death of faith itself more than that of one of the faithful. Leaning crosses are a familiar sight in Orthodox graveyards, but the violent red recalls the 1917 Soviet Revolution, whose force has detached the minor cross bars, which lie scattered round about. The black halo suggests the eclipse of metaphysical belief itself.
What the exhibition might have explored more thoroughly is the contrast between Cézanne’s view of art as a gateway to the spiritual (in a proper sense iconic) and the tendency of his exponents and followers to see the artistic process and its fruits as spiritual in and of themselves.
In his pioneering 1913 study Cézanne und Holder (quoted in the catalogue), Fritz Burger wrote of Cézanne in terms that speak of a spirituality beyond theism, arguing that he “shows us the grave, solemn face of the cosmos everywhere behind the trivial details”, and speaking even of “a darkening veil of mystery spreading over the luminous freshness of vitality”. The Dutch abstractionist Van Doesburg would go further in 1915, asserting: “The new style . . . represents the absolute, the eternal, God. As such, the new practice of art is a priesthood in the universal sense of the word.”
These interpretations, however, ignore Cézanne’s own biography. He first learned drawing under the supervision of his high-school instructor, the Spanish monk Joseph Gilbert. Though Cézanne’s adult Catholic practice was intermittent, he returned to it from 1891 with ardour — sustained throughout his last 15 years.
The significance of these facts for understanding his art is evident from his own claim. “When I judge art, I take my painting and put it next to a God-made object like a tree or flower. If it clashes, it is not art.”
Contemplating this background will help us to appreciate better why Cézanne never himself slipped fully across the line from Arcadia to abstraction.
“Cezanne to Malevich: Arcadia to Abstraction” is at the Museum of Fine Arts, 1146 Budapest, Dózsa György út 41, Budapest, until 13 February. www.mfab.hu