Cézanne, whose work was the touchstone for critical thinking and writing on art for more than a century, cannot be written about any more. After a few minutes in the exhibition at the Courtauld (until 16 January), surrounded by Card Players and Smokers, one understands why. The mixture of seriousness and sensuousness in the paintings - I am tempted to say, in the best, of lugubriousness and euphoria - is remote from the temper of our times. So too is the quality of grim, eager pursuit of perfection within a narrow range: 'the difficult thing is to prove what one believes,' Cézanne wrote to one correspondent, 'so I am continuing my researches.' The work has a 19th-century flavour. The 20th century revered it, but did the reverence do much good? (Artistically, that is, as opposed to art-critically.) I would fool nobody if I pretended not to be one of Cézanne's worshippers - unreconstructed, and all the more fanatical for knowing that the cult is dead - but I have no way to answer the contemporary shrug. I almost prefer it to the residual symptoms of Cézannoia, especially the English variant of the condition. There's a bit of all this about in the room at the Courtauld. Well-bred pagans hanging on to the old gods in face of Christianity (or postmodernism), exchanging glances in the deserted temple. My grey beard had company.
LRB 2 December 2010 | PDF Download