With Watercolors, Cézanne Knew When to Stop Painting

There is a passage in William Rubin’s text for the catalogue of the Cézanne Watercolors exhibition, which is currently on view at Acquavella Galleries, that every visitor to this extraordinary show would do well to keep in mind as a guide to the esthetic discipline that governs the artist’s work in this difficult medium. Mr. Rubin, director emeritus of the Museum of Modern Art’s painting and sculpture department, is discussing the question of “finish” in Cézanne’s watercolors-a question that was vexing to Cézanne himself and would prove to have immense consequences for much of the modernist painting that followed in the wake of his example.

“Let us try to imagine Cézanne sitting at Les Lauves, his white sheet of paper reflecting the remarkably clear, crystalline, post-Mistral light, in which the artist particularly loved to work,” writes Mr. Rubin. “Given his incredible reverence for the materials of painting, what pleasure Cézanne must have taken from that pristine, unmarked, luminous white rectangle. How much this modest, self-deprecating painter must have felt the danger of ‘spoiling’ this picture of midi light with his brush. The question posed by each of its marks would be, ‘will this stroke enhance, or detract from my picture?’ With relatively few strokes Cézanne was often able to build structures of remarkable complexity and pictorial meaning. Is it, therefore, surprising that he frequently stopped his watercolors early? There is some unpainted paper on virtually every mature Cézanne watercolor, and a great deal of white paper on well over half of them. Rarely do such ‘incomplete’ pictures as the latter seem any less good-if at all-than the more elaborated ones.”

To comprehend the significance of this question of “finish” for Cézanne, it is important to know, too, that the artist had often spent hours every day in the Louvre, studying and sketching from the paintings of the old masters as a kind of “warm-up,” as Mr. Rubin writes, for his work on the watercolors-as well as on the oil paintings that came to be influenced by the methods he had developed for the watercolors. What he aspired to in his own work was a pictorial monumentality akin to that of the old masters but achieved by very different, more modern, and one might even say more modest means. It was this, above all, that set him in opposition to the established taste of his day, the taste of the official Salon where academic standards of finish remained an inviolate touchstone of achievement.

What Cézanne opposed to this academic idea of finish, which he dismissed as ” le fini des imbéciles ,” is what Mr. Rubin describes as “Cézanne’s open-ended improvisational method [that] was one of his greatest contributions to modernism, and is utterly alien to the practices used for premodernist composition.” Yet what Cézanne achieved by means of this “open-ended improvisational method” cannot itself be fully understood if we are not also aware of the artist’s steadfast attachment to the old masters. The improvisations of a mind saturated with the pictorial precedents of the old masters operate in a very different universe of creative discourse from those of minds that remain unburdened by a firm knowledge of the past.

It is, in any case, in Cézanne’s watercolors that the artist’s methods and aspirations are most vividly and intimately apprehended. This is one of the reasons why the current Cézanne Watercolors exhibition at Acquavella, which consists of 47 works and includes some of his greatest pictures in this medium, is such an extraordinary event. Another, of course, is that we rarely get to see so many of the watercolors brought together for temporary exhibition. There hasn’t been a show of Cézanne watercolors in New York in more than 40 years, which means, among much else, that at least two generations of American painters have come of age without an opportunity to experience at first hand both the variety and the profundity of an oeuvre that is pivotal to any really comprehensive understanding of modernist painting itself. That goes for a couple of generations of American critics as well.

If only for the wall of late still-life pictures in the middle room of the exhibition-the wall containing Bottles, Pots, Spirit Stove and Apples (1900-06), Dessert (1900-06), Still Life With Green Melon (1902-06), Still Life With Apples and Inkpot (1902-06), Still Life With Blue Pot and Bottle of Wine (1902-06) and Still Life With Bottle of Cognac (1906)-this show is not to be missed. Don’t be misled by the banal titles or the commonplaceness of the subjects, or motifs. As painting, they achieve a level of pictorial drama and complexity that we might expect to see in the depiction of a battle scene or some other human spectacle. They are indeed a summing up of a great artistic mind in the fullness of age and experience. Cézanne died in 1906, and in pictures such as these we are reminded of why it was he lived on in his work to remain such a crucial presence for so many of our major artists for the remaining years of this century.

Most of the other familiar Cézanne themes-the bathers, the portraits, the landscapes (including several versions of Mt. Sainte-Victoire), the skulls et al.-are represented in the exhibition. There are two particularly fine portraits of the old gardener Vallier, also painted in the last year of Cézanne’s life. No wonder that Mr. Rubin speaks of the “transcendent” character of Cézanne’s watercolors, and quotes French modernist painter Robert Delaunay as similarly speaking of a “supernatural beauty beyond anything we have ever seen.”

In Mr. Rubin’s text for the catalogue, which is written in the form of a dialogue the author conducts with himself, we are also given quite the best single account of Cézanne’s watercolors I have read. If you have wondered about the relation of Cézanne’s watercolors to those of Turner, for example, you will find all your questions answered in this text, as well as answers to questions it might never have occurred to you to ask about other aspects of this amazing oeuvre.

Because Cézanne Watercolors has been organized as a benefit event for the Department of Ophthalmology of the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University, there is an admission charge: $10 for general admission, $5 for students and seniors. The exhibition remains on view at Acquavella Galleries, 18 East 79th Street, through Nov. 24, and will not be shown elsewhere.