Julian Bell reviews the exhibition Cézanne and the Modern at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, on view through June 22, 2014.
"A tree trunk heads upwards, reaching for light. Cézanne’s pencil follows it. There is a line in nature and now there is a line on the sheet. But no, that won’t do. Stuff buffets the line sideways, Cézanne decides: here it will have to fall back, breaking like a rank under fire; and there, hatchings and dabs of wash must push the front forward. What stuff? ‘More nature’ might be one answer: the sunlight and foliage among which the trunk rises up. That would be an Impressionist answer, insofar as Impressionists believed in ambiences rather than bounded bodies. But with Cézanne, the sheet itself is trumps. Every challenge to the paper’s continuity must be checked. Clean verticals threaten its integrity: chop them, skew them. So much for the tree trunk and where it wanted to go.... The heart of this show is impossibility – ‘Will I reach the goal I’ve sought so hard?’ as Cézanne lamented – at its most mythically triumphant, a Mont Sainte-Victoire canvas painted shortly before his death. It’s a melodrama of the innocent eye – let nameless thereness become nameless paint! – and what it has to do with truth, I’m not sure. But certain myths prove too grand to resist for long."