ART REVIEW: Wanderer, Shadow, Cezanne

I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
-Tennyson, Ulysses

Shipwrecked, stalked by notions of harmony and clarity, seeking in exile something truthful, he wanders. Strange land, known to none, with its disjointed towns and broken kingdoms, his home somewhere beyond the sea. He seeks certain essences, forms he knew before coming to this shore. Nothing will suffice. With color, line, and shape he starts on a pilgrimage for an uncertain end.

He is in the south of France. Everything here defies him, confounds his vision. All vantages are lacking. There is much that is lovely. Glimpses of what he needs persist here and there: the window of a house, two walls out-folded, the color of a shadow at noon, pines of an unrepeatable dusk- but they are alone and without form: insufficient. He needs more than isolated fragments, more than the hills and the towns, more than even the cypress. He builds a new land, one made of different perceptions and different times. It fails as well- as it must- but still approaches something of the harmony he dimly recollects.

Cezanne drifts through his paintings. Pilgrims come from the hills to see a martyr’s tooth, the leaves of an oak above a spring, or a tomb. Even pilgrimage has an end. A man walks through the night, pausing before a maple alike any other. She went west for years, returning without even a story. Others joined Cezanne on his walk, hearing:

Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the specters in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.

-Song of Myself, 2

Most striking are the small studies. Pure blue drifts from a ridge, orange from a corner of the sky. Uncluttered and largely white, black takes to the edges of things. Unlike the larger, finished paintings they register but one perspective. A promise of simplicity and purity hangs over them like a pall. They are abandoned, almost melancholic.

The exhibit includes artists like Charles Demuth, who saw in them a distillation of Cezanne’s excellence, and more importantly a way forward. Small, crystalline instances, the studies spoke to him as different parts of Mont Sainte-Victoire spoke to Cezanne. And just as he built of his impressions a world governed by the laws of harmony and beauty, so Demuth built of scraps his own cathedral.

Cezanne’s mountains are broken, his cities beyond repair. Transience shakes the paintings: skies bleed into walls, trees twist into homes, different dawns wash side by side over the same ridge. Nonetheless he sunk the most solid pier, stranded as he was ahead of us. Colors and shapes sink to the frame, almost to the shelf- yet this was the only place to anchor.

The narrative of the exhibit runs from an initial perception of an insufficient world to the fruitful dissembling of Cezanne’s corpus by successive generations. In pursuit of pure, stable forms everyone retreats. Ellsworth Kelly, in his own study of Mt. Sainte-Victoire, has set his hopes on a single, brittle line cutting across two crudely-joined pieces of paper. It resembles a ridge. I love it. References to the world have almost entirely vanished. Cezanne too pronounced it insufficient, though he assembled his otherworldly landscapes from the land. We have almost completely renounced it. Our hopes are elsewhere, maybe. And so it is.

I am a sojourner on the earth, and a pilgrim like all my fathers;
Woe is me that my sojourning is prolonged;
I have dwelt with the inhabitants of Cedar.
My soul has long been a sojourner.

Perhaps future generations will fill the slopes with grass, ring the peaks with cedar, throw shadow on the streams, maybe even add veins and moss to the outcroppings of rock. They could do less. They will wander the hills seeking the same, leaping toward fulfillment, despairing of possibility, falling short. The mountain might come to resemble our own. This will signal that something has returned to the world. Until then our bewildered minds make little of all the beauty we misperceive.

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