Paul Cezanne, The Artist’s Father Reading L’Evenement,1866, Oil on canvas, 78 x 47 inches, National Gallery of Art Washington DC

Crude primal catastrophes from a limited talent.  So might seem the paintings in the first rooms of the exhibition of Paul Cezanne’s portraits at the National Gallery in Washington —  portraits of his uncle Dominique and his father, Louis Auguste, reading the newspaper with one klutzy foot crossed over the other — all raucous likenesses slathered on with reckless abandon. Using only an intrusive palette knife, Cezanne applies the paint like a plasterer in a hurry to finish the job. These emboldened mishaps of expressive energy, much like his early narratives of revenge, rape, and murder, are at odds and so quarrel with the righteous legacy of this artist.

Paul Cezanne, Portraits of Uncle Dominique, 1866, Oil on canvas

Cezanne was part intellect, part animal; a stern contradiction buried deep in his character made the resolution of his paintings nigh impossible. Yet, right from the very beginning, all of his paintings are stamped with the same raw gruff power that constitutes his voice and authenticity as an artist.  As Merleau-Ponty pointed out in his essay, “Cezanne’s Doubt”: the Catholic (as Cezanne preeminently was) argument between Free Will and Predetermination held sway over his entire oeuvre. Regardless of whatever anguish and indeterminacy daily plagued his paintings, they were all nonetheless fated to have a stubborn inevitability, this overall consignment of persona: Cezanne could not avoid being Cezanne. Like Clifford Still, who once revealed about his painting process, “I paint like I mean it”, Cezanne’s paintings have a fierce intentionality, a clear identity, an insistency of self like a flexed muscle.

The opposite of this is Picasso.  He could mimic anything — Greek, Renaissance, African, You Name It — a veritable parrot. Sometimes tender, sometimes brutal, forever a flaneur of styles. And, yet, the central who of him was always up for grabs. His was a protean career of exploitation, a buffoonery of con and irony that set the tone for Modern Art. He stole from art history only to give it the metaphorical finger. In one engraving of the head of a Greek Goddess — done in a continuous line so skillful as to challenge the very idea of perfection — the burin winds up, in the last sweep of its arrogant imposture, cruelly slashing through the eye of the Goddess, not only destroying the serenity of her gaze but the entire pretext for its braggadocian engagement. Only in his last etchings — where looming mortality, lust, and impotence locked arms to fuel his anguish — did he suffer a crisis of authenticity that forced him to finally admit, in old age, of his failure to ever fully express a singular vision; and this admission alone became his triumph, tantamount to his vulnerability, his truth of self.

Paul Cezanne, Seated Man (Detail), 1905-6, Oil on canvas, 25.5 x 21.5 inches

Unlike Picasso, Cezanne was not so fabulously talented. He had to earn the respect of his modest genius by hard work and long hours, and the niggled progress of his work came to him slowly.  An admirer of the 17th Century artist Nicolas Poussin, from whom he incorporated a whole intellectualized system of geometrics, comprising a rhythmic interplay of cone and cylinder, Cezanne endeavored to stabilize the flux and bustle of his paintings, and thus to enhance the tension between the flatness of the picture plane and its volumetric intrusions. His design finally surfaced as an altogether new language of painterly synthesis, tautly held together in its phrasing as if by a Latin grammar — a simultaneous presentation of a logical progression, the beginnings and endings all perceived at once, a continuous reciprocity of a fractured universe juggled into balance.

In 1873 Cezanne joined Camille Pissarro to paint landscapes around Pontoise and Auvers-sur-Oise.  They painted side by side and shared the same motifs.  Under Pissarro’s influence, Cezanne thinned his paint and lightened his palette, tracing the escaping shapes of the motif with shimmering lines of ultramarine blue.  This became a long apprenticeship for Cezanne, the harnessing of his basic temperament to a classical restraint by painting small patches of color to record his “sensations” prompted by the landscape. For thirty years he persisted in this discipline, humbling his inner malaise to a strict accountability of what was directly before him, the thereness of the scene. He daubed on a swarm of parallel strokes derived from Nature, all mainly the same size with the same slant, thus imposing upon the canvas a grid-like uniformity to entrap the chaos of a fleeting and unruly Nature, in the effort of unifying all that turmoil into some kind of Transcendent Absolute.  The desperate flurries of brushwork in the later landscapes, however, such as those of Mont Sainte-Victoire, seem to vibrate with a kind of cosmic nervousness. His was a struggle to dominate this disjointed landscape, not only the ambiguities of its space, or the shifting prism of its light, but the very soul of its presence.

What Cezanne wound up actually painting were his ontological skirmishes with the nature of reality itself.

Paul Cezanne, Seated Peasant, c.1900-4, Oil on canvas, 28.3 x 23 inches, Musee d’Orsay, Paris

When Cezanne finally got back to painting portraits, he cut loose from a strict diet of classical infringements. The contemporary radicalism of these last paintings is owing to the almost irreconcilable fusion of two antithetical circumstances: one, the increased ability of his painting chops to manipulate the language of painting; and two, a belated return to the original ham-fisted expressionism of his early years. “Temperament”, which for Cezanne seems to have meant “Passion”, took over in this abrupt return to the first blunt instincts of his talent.  For instance, in the Soutinesque “Boy in a Red Waistcoat”, the ballooning ear and the way-out-of-proportion arm — expressing perhaps the awkwardness of adolescence — are indicative of an intrinsic wacky outlook. The same goes for “Seated Peasant”, c.1900-4, where the enormous hands and tiny head challenge the conventional credulity of outward appearance; or the giddy tilting of a sullen Hortense in the Metropolitan Museum’s version of “Madame Cezanne in a Red Dress”.

Paul Cezanne, The Gardener Vallier, 1902-6, Oil on canvas, 42.3 x  29.8 inches, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

By far the most dramatic evolvements in this return-advance were the portraits of Vallier, the Gardener.  In an outdoor sketch of the seated gardener, the distinction between figure and ground is all but eliminated.  The dark tonality of the surrounding verdure of the garden takes over not only the jacket of the sitter but his entire presence in the painting, leaving only his one cyclopean eye to stare back at the viewer, as if this was the audacious gaping of Nature, intruding as a third eye upon the neutrality of otherness. And even more bizarre are the last two crusty paintings of Vallier, painted in the heavy blues and greens of his earliest paintings.  Whenever the old beggar was unable to sit, Cezanne would dress himself up in the gardener’s garb and take his place in the paintings. The hand lying in Vallier’s lap makes a vacant grasping gesture, a hole or salient gap in the painting’s progress, left bereft and inconclusive, a deferment of functionality. Lets say it could be filled-in by either Vallier’s pipe or Cezanne’ palette. By amalgamating the vestiges of the old beggar with the old artist, Cezanne has painted, surreptitiously perhaps, his last great self-portrait. In his uncanny pairing with this peasant in his employ, Vallier, conceivably a symbol of Everyman, Cezanne (who abhorred human contact and disliked being touched) has outrun the reach of his paranoia to forge a new paragon of humanistic expressionism. However roughhewn and blatant, Cezanne’s final statements insist upon an almost sculptural tactility, an impasto of brushwork where subject is one with pigment and touch. In this way he became, in these monumental late portraits, the unforeseen precursor of Soutine as much as Cubism.

There is almost a metaphysical postponement of finish throughout these portraits, a hesitation as if waiting for an informant of the future to complete them. Only a lifetime on the edge, riddled with doubt and uncertainty, coupled with an allegiance to the problematics of Art, could explain this anomalous lack of resolution. It is this fraught threat of a leap into The New that confers upon this unlikely genius the soubriquet “The father of Modern Art”.

Raoul Middleman, Gallery wall from 2015 MICA exhibition: Selfies: Over 50 Years of Raoul Middleman’s Self Portraits, Photo by Robert Salazar

Raoul Middleman is an artist living in Baltimore, Maryland. He is on the faculty of The Maryland Institute College of Art.