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Members' Research Report Archive

Cézanne and Non-Arcadian Abstraction

Judit Geskó, Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest
Ailsa Mellon Bruce Visiting Senior Fellow, November 1–December 31, 2016

A row of structures and a massive weeping willow tree line the clay-orange riverbank opposite us in this horizontal landscape painting. The scene is painted loosely with long, visible brushstrokes. Taking up much of the right side of the painting, the tree has emerald, moss, fern, and olive-green leaves with brown and purple trunk and roots. It casts long, gently rippling reflections in the water. The structures to our left are enclosed behind a terracotta-colored wall with a square tower. A second segment of wall, to our left, is charcoal gray. Trees grow up behind the structures. The sky above is painted with mingled strokes of lavender purple, baby blue, and white.

Paul Cézanne, Banks of the Seine at Médan, c. 1885/1890, oil on canvas, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Collection, 1970.17.21

Following my work as curator of Cézanne and the Past: Tradition and Creativity, organized in 2012 by the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest, I have undertaken another exhibition focusing on the French artist, entitled Cézanne and Non-Arcadian Abstraction, to be shown in Budapest in 2020. Between the two events, thanks to a two-month fellowship at CASVA, I had the opportunity to pursue my research in the Cézanne-related materials in the library, image collections, and archives of the National Gallery of Art.

I focused my study and preparatory work for the upcoming exhibition on the most recent scholarship on theories of abstraction, taking into account that American, English, Australian, and Dutch scholars (Richard Shiff, Christopher Green, Terence Maloon, Hans Janssen) have recently raised new issues in this field. At the same time, thanks to the curatorial and conservation staff of the Gallery, I had the opportunity to observe work being carried out in the conservation division and in the collection of prints and drawings. Mary Morton, head of the department of French paintings, and Ann Hoenigswald, senior conservator of paintings, allowed me to examine two paintings by Cézanne then in conservation: The Artist’s Father, Reading “L’Événement” and Riverbank. Jonathan Bober, senior curator of prints and drawings, kindly invited me to study the holdings of Cézanne’s works on paper. Finally, chief of library image collections Gregory P. J. Most helped me find my way around his department.

Examination of Riverbank (generally dated c. 1894–1896) after the removal of yellowed varnish from half of its surface revealed that the influence of Claude Monet’s works from around 1880–1885 was almost palpable in Cézanne’s canvas, leading to reconsideration of its dating. The brushwork was indeed much more characteristic of Cézanne’s manner in the 1880s than that of the mid-1890s. At the same time, the examination of the two different types of brushstroke used in the painting seemed important from the standpoint of my research on the beginnings of abstraction.

I pursued my research in the John Rewald collection in the Gallery’s
department of image collections. Rewald, a major specialist in Cézanne, traveled to Provence in 1934 to study the Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals of southern France. Almost immediately, he was captivated by Cézanne’s oeuvre, and, following working methods advocated by medievalists, he started taking photographs of the sites represented by the painter. These pictures show the influence of early modernism, especially compositional methods of the 1910s and 1920s. In this regard, they are relevant to Cézanne and Non-Arcadian Abstraction, which, in addition to exploring De Stijl and the Russian avant-garde, will also focus on the Bauhaus in the 1920s and 1930s and Eastern European constructivism of the 1910s–1930s.

Details in the photographs led me fifteen miles from Paris, to the
banks of the Seine and the small town of Médan, which appear in Riverbank. Architectural elements visible in a postcard, also in the Rewald archive, and probably printed at the beginning of the twentieth century, raised further questions. Did Cézanne paint generic details of the houses and stone walls typically found along the Seine, or did he represent an actual site? A close examination of the waterside and the vegetation in the foreground of the work established that these elements were inconsistent with the previous suggestion of location (Lac d’Annecy) or the current title of the work (Riverbank). Google Views was a decisive tool not only in the exploration of the hillside of Médan but also in the identification of Cézanne’s exact viewpoint. The artist set his easel on a small island (Île du Platais) between two branches of the Seine. According to a communication of December 2016 from Henri Mitterand, president of the Société des Amis d’Émile Zola, on the island Zola had “had a little house built for picnics and bathing, which disappeared later.” Biographical research and stylistic examination lead us to think that Cézanne probably painted the work in July 1885, but a newly rediscovered letter from Cézanne to Zola also suggests that it was made in the second half of the 1880s. The identification of the painting’s subject also provided useful insight into a new acquisition of the Gallery’s department of prints and drawings, a watercolor (1880–1885), now retitled Banks of the Seine at Médan.

Cézanne and Non-Arcadian Abstraction aims to examine the intersection points and junctions that link the master of Aix to Russian, Dutch, German, and Hungarian constructivist and concrete artistic movements from the point of view of form, composition, and color. It is not, however, intended to focus on problematics of influence. Its intellectual approach stems rather from the discourse developed in “Excursus against Influence,” section 6 of Michael Baxandall’s essay “Intentional Visual Interest: Picasso’s Portrait of Kahnweiler,” which proposes a series of concepts that may serve as a base for the confrontation of some modernist movements with Cézanne’s legacy. According to Baxandall, “ ‘Influence’ is a curse of art criticism primarily because of its wrong-headed grammatical prejudice about who is the agent and who the patient.”

Considering that many aspects of Cézanne’s “influence” have already been analyzed in depth, new approaches and methods of analysis need to be found. The first milestones on this path are marked by the stages of Baxandall’s critical approach. This theoretical work can be achieved only through the kind of teamwork that takes place at the National Gallery of Art and CASVA.

Cézanne, Paul
French, 1839 - 1906
Paul Cézanne
Banks of the Seine at Médan
c. 1885/1890