Cezanne to Malevich

Arcadia to Abstraction

28 October 2021 – 13 February 2022


Richard Shiff

introductory statement, October 28, 2021


Along with colleagues around the world—in Europe, in Asia, in the Americas—I’ve devoted many years of study to Paul Cezanne’s art. Despite the years, his painting always seems new to me. Today, in the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest, my experience becomes all the more rewarding. It’s a privilege to see this remarkable exhibition, and a very special honor to introduce it to its public.

I’m amazed at what Judit Geskó and her curatorial team have accomplished, all at a time when the global pandemic has made every task more difficult. Each element of the exhibition—its conception, its materialization, its installation in the galleries, as well as its extensive, scholarly catalogue—each of these parts of the whole can only be called brilliant, though commentators overuse this word. “Brilliant,” because every aspect—every work, every comparison, every hint at a connection—illuminates Cezanne’s art in revelatory ways. “Brilliant,” because the exhibition directs such a clear beam of light into what became Cezanne’s future in the twentieth century. We can perceive how his art affected a diverse range of talents, from those who appreciated its evocation of a primeval, Arcadian past to those who were inspired by it to create a new art of abstraction. And it’s fair to call this exhibition “brilliant” for yet another reason: because it casts the light of Cezanne’s future into our own moment, into our own lives of experience.

Now, 115 years after Cezanne’s death, the meaning of his art continues to evolve. But what, precisely, is this “meaning,” this effect that each of us feels as his art transfixes our senses and moves us so emotionally? The exhibition demonstrates that Cezanne’s meaning can’t be generalized in a formulaic statement. Today, as his art touches people around the globe, it can’t be the same for everyone, just as, in 1910 or 1920, it wasn’t the same for a Picasso, or a Malevich, or a Mondrian. In her introduction to the catalogue, Judit Geskó states that Cezanne “summoned all his power to render adequately that which could never be completely known.” Perhaps this is the lesson shared by those who followed—that the most powerful art, Cezanne’s art, is the art that reveals the limits of our understanding. When understanding extends to its breaking point, we acknowledge the possibility of a spiritual or mystical dimension, which in fact characterized many of the artists who developed early forms of abstraction from their study of Cezanne’s technique.

Surely, there’s much that can’t be known in its entirety, yet we do quite well in controlling and knowing what we ourselves invent. We control the world of our own making. If I develop a theory of painting, or a fantasy of painting, I will know my theory or my fantasy better than I understand my act of painting, especially while I’m performing the act. A theory or fantasy is utterly familiar to the person who invents or imagines it. But the active experience of painting can never be known with the same degree of assurance.

Why? Because painting has its foundation in the boundless physical world, connecting us with what exists externally. Painting—at least Cezanne’s kind of painting—is not entirely of the artist’s own making. On this issue of control, the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote that an artist cannot know “who paints and who is painted.” The experience is immersive and reciprocal. Recognizing this human condition, Cezanne hesitated to complete his paintings. He seems to have been more comfortable when moving from one canvas to another, as if all were part of a single, continuing process without termination. He could never catch up to his own sensation. It represented his life at the same time that he was living his life.

In this sense, yes, Cezanne was seeking to render what “could never be completely known.” If he were to bring his project to an end, the result would be untrue to his aim to pursue living sensation. Although you can’t know what can’t be known, you can take your understanding to the very edge. I like to imagine that when Cezanne left a heavily worked canvas lacking a final stroke to resolve the whole, it was precisely then that he reached the edge of his understanding. Faithful to his experience, he could proceed no further.

No matter how precisely Cezanne set his touches of paint into a rhythmic order, no matter how firmly he established an emerging structure, each of his marks of color appears to have been left suspended in the air—hovering in a fathomless void. Cezanne’s marks represent the moment at which possibility becomes actuality. This is the edge. This is where time is arrested and yet—by Cezanne’s magic—it seems to keep advancing. As we live, we pass from one moment to the next, as our possibilities become actualities. Cezanne represented this living movement. His paintings capture the passage from one fundamental state of being to the other, from possibility to actuality, without losing the feeling of the crucial, fleeting moment of transition. Think of Cezanne as an artist who, rather than depicting appearances, revealed acts of appearing.

An early critic claimed that Cezanne’s pictures needed no isolating frames, that the canvases could be linked together like a continuous woven tapestry. His vision did not divide into self-sufficient segments. He laid down separate strokes of color, one after another, passing from the scintillating greens of a mass of foliage, to the solid red tiles of a roof, to the atmospheric blue of a sky, as if these diverse features of a scene were constituted of a single substance. This was the substance of Cezanne’s experience. Think of his little rectilinear touches of paint as moments of sensation in time, rather than as facets of a stable form in a stable space, removed from the temporal flow. Cezanne preserved the form of his experiential perspective, abandoning the artificial perspective of academic doctrine. We encounter his painting at the origin of perception, as sensation itself—both our sensation and his.

When art touches on the very edge that divides the knowable from the unknowable, it matters little whether the forms are representational or abstract. This we learn from Cezanne’s art and from the exhibition, Cezanne to Malevich: Arcadia to Abstraction.

Thank you.