IT TAKES A STRONG STOMACH for paradox to write that Paul Cézanne “cannot be written about any more.” When art historian T.J. Clark began a 2010 London Review of Books article on the painter this way, he meant no insult. The post-Impressionist and proto-modernist Cézanne was one of the keenest observers of the industrial disenchantment of late 19th-century Western Europe. In the 21st century, Clark argued, his paintings had become “remote to the temper of our times,” ergo, a tough subject. Accordingly, Clark’s new study of the painter, If These Apples Should Fall: Cézanne and the Present, is a book about Cézanne, but also about the difficulties of writing such a book.
Clark accepts that Cézanne’s paintings communicate some fundamental quality of modernity, and he is willing to risk almost anything to hunt down what it was. His worry, sometimes more palpable than his overarching argument, is that Cézanne can’t be caught. Many mysteries are solved in these pages. Others are answered only with more mysteries. It is one of the most consistently strange studies of an artist I’ve ever read.
For Clark, Cézanne felt the modern condition as an intermingled banality and strangeness. Older artists (like Pissarro and the Impressionists) had mixed the two already, and younger ones (like Matisse) would go on to rearrange them in a number of novel ways. Cézanne’s unique achievement was to balance banality with strangeness so precisely that neither one predominated. His still lifes, landscapes, and portraits are familiar, but not comfortingly so—they’re as vivid and intangible as a hologram, bright but unnourishing, and not even in a stark, grand way that can be dignified into tragedy. And because this is all apparent at a glance, there is no secret waiting to be uncovered, none of the delights of decoding to sweeten the deal. Everything is on the surface in these paintings, yet just out of reach.
For at least a century, art critics (Roger Fry and Meyer Schapiro appear frequently in these pages) praised Cézanne for the solidity and indelibility of his images, for giving walls and apples and tables a thing-ness more realistic than conventional realism could manage. For Clark, this is only half the story: Cézanne tried to convey something solid and indelible about modernity, and he fell short—not for lack of talent but because everything solid in the modern world melts into air. Instead of assuming emptiness, Cézanne stumbled upon it. It was a fitting achievement for his era, in which bourgeois alienation had sunk in but alternatives were still within living memory.
THAT, AT LEAST, IS MY UNDERSTANDING: Clark seems remarkably reluctant to draw explicit conclusions in If These Apples Should Fall, so much so that it’s worth thinking more about why. In his recent work, Clark has written at greater length about the challenges of converting pictures into words; his analyses of paintings are at least in part (this time around, it’s often the bigger part) analyses of what it means to analyze paintings. A passage from his previous book, Heaven on Earth: Painting and the Life to Come (2018), seems to loom over his latest: “Paintings are not propositions: they do not take the form of image-sentences. They are not even like propositions. That is, they do not aim to make statements or ask questions or even, precisely, to seek assent.” A painting does take “a view of things,” as Clark writes, but “it is an ordering of things more open and centrifugal—more noncommittal—than grammar can almost ever countenance.” Words and pictures aren’t the same and never will be. It’s an unanswerable problem, infuriating in its obviousness. Small wonder so many art critics ignore it.
Clark tries to be as precise as possible about a painting but doesn’t smooth over his own efforts at precision, so that the final product displays a dapple of successes and failures. For every dazzling insight, there is a half-step backward as Clark senses a phrase pulling him slightly too far one way or the other. Pissarro’s landscapes seem to happen “all at once,” but those three words “can be about simultaneity as much as suddenness.” Cézanne’s apples and pears are “vivid,” but the adjective doesn’t necessarily imply tangibility, and in his still lifes it implies exactly the opposite. Straining for a phrase to describe this ungraspable vividness, he writes that “the one I would opt for is ‘object of the exercise,’” but then immediately concedes that his own phrase is “over-neat.” Judgments tend to begin in a hesitant first-person before they rise to the third. A good chunk of the book’s second chapter consists of entries from Clark’s journal. The introduction finds space for not one but two of his poems.
It sounds self-indulgent, but even before we get to Chapter One, the ends are justifying the means: Clark is an astonishingly good judge. He can bend language around an image until the two are only millimeters apart, which is why his awareness of language’s limits carries real weight. There are bold observations on almost every page of this book: the color in Montagne Sainte-Victoire Seen from Château Noir (ca. 1900–04) is “crystalline . . . not resistant to light, not reflective or refractive”; and a single snippet from one of the poems—“It is the floor of the earth / emerging after the flood, with colours stacked in a small neat pile to one side, / Waiting to be used”—somehow manages to be a better description of Hillside in Provence (1890–92) than any prose handling I can recall. Clark can do aphorism (“There are no secrets in Cézanne”) and allusion (The Black Clock, a stuffy still life, is “out of Madame Bovary or The Turn of the Screw”), and he darts nimbly through a century of Cézanne criticism, disputing here and there without displacing entirely. In maybe the most telling moment in If These Apples Should Fall, he quotes a 1910 passage from Fry about the certainty, deliberateness, and absoluteness of Cézanne’s still lifes, and then declines to explicitly rebut this trio with his own “list of implied contingent negatives,” writing that “I want them to go on unappeasedly haunting Fry’s positives.”
It’s here, I think, that Clark comes closest to spelling out why he chose to write about Cézanne in an indirect, self-questioning way. He wants to write about Cézanne the way Cézanne painted the world; he wants to model, not just make, an argument. His late prose style, with its strange blend of doubt and authority, finds its match in Cézanne’s technique: vivid observations collect one by one, but the result is to make their subject perpetually seem one more vivid observation away, sowing unease about the big picture.
And maybe there is no big picture, only many pictures: Clark writes that Cézanne defined the modern condition by balancing not only banality and strangeness, but also “plainness and hyperbole,” “seriousness and sensuousness,” “lugubriousness and euphoria,” “evenness and disequilibrium.” He can’t decide if Cézanne painted “reality or phantasmagoria,” nor if the way he painted them feels “consoling or enraging.” This endless swerving dizzies at first, but after a while it comes to seem like an essential piece of Clark’s argument. He offers brilliant description after brilliant description of Cézanne’s paintings, close approximation after close approximation—none of which quite does the trick. As late as the penultimate page, we find him confessing, “A voice in my head, looking over this and assenting, is almost ready to change its mind about the argument—the affect—of the book as a whole.”
Clark doesn’t change his mind, amusing though that might have been. But—and this is the really trippy part of If These Apples Should Fall—the possibility haunts unappeasably, and in so doing, it conveys things that sentences alone never could. I don’t think Clark finds the right words for Cézanne. He’s superb on the paintings’ emptiness, remoteness, lugubriousness, banality, and other negatives; he’s slightly but noticeably less good on their positives: their sensuousness, fabulousness, euphoria, lushness. He can’t compete with Cézanne’s perfect balancing act. Emptiness is permitted the last word as it is not in the paintings themselves, where last words don’t exist. But by struggling to find the right language for Cézanne, as Cézanne once struggled to find the right brushstrokes, Clark could almost be said to fail in the same fabulous manner as his protagonist. Even stranger: by mirroring the failure so exactly, he could almost be said to succeed.
This article appears under the title “Apples to Apples” in the October 2022 print issue of Art in America, pp. 30-34.