The greater the artist the greater the doubt; perfect confidence is granted to the less talented as a consolation prize. "As a painter, I become more lucid in front of Nature," Paul Cezanne wrote to his son in 1906, the last year of his life. "But that realization of my sensations is always very painful. I cannot attain the intensity which unfolds to my senses. I don't have that magnificent richness of coloration which animates nature."
As Picasso famously said, it's Cezanne's anxiety that is so interesting. But not only the anxiety. There are anxious mediocrities too. It's the achievement that counts. If Cezanne was not a heroic painter, the word means nothing. This was evident to some of his friends and contemporaries, such as Emile Zola. They saw, as later generations have seen, that his painting was also a moral struggle, in which the search for identity fused with the desire to make the strongest possible images of the Other--Nature--under the continuous inspiration and admonishment of an art tradition that he revered. He compared himself, not quite jokingly, to Moses: "I work doggedly, I glimpse the promised land. Will I be like the great Hebrew leader, or will I be able to enter it?"
He was indeed the Moses of late 19th century art, the conflicted, inspired, sometimes enraged patriarch who led painting toward Modernism--a deceptive Canaan sometimes, not always flowing with milk and honey, but radically new territory all the same. The essential point, however, is that just as Moses died before reaching Canaan, so Cezanne never lived to see Modernism take hold--and he might not have liked what he saw, had he lived. It used to be one of the standard tropes of art history that Cezanne "begat" Cubism, and it is a fact that no serious painter since 1890 has been able to work without reckoning with Cezanne. But the idea that Cubism completed what Cezanne began is an illusion. It may be that Cezanne was reaching for a kind of expression in painting that did not exist in his time and still does not in ours.
Instead of theory, he had "sensation," the experience of being up against the world--fugitive and yet painfully solid, imperious in its thereness and constantly, unrelentingly new. There was painting before Cezanne and painting after him, and they were not the same. But Cezanne's own painting matters more than its consequences. Inevitably, this deep innovator claimed he invented nothing. "In my opinion one doesn't replace the past, one adds a new link to it." Yes and no.
The Cezanne retrospective that opened at the Philadelphia Museum of Art last week is beyond question one of the greatest shows that has ever been held in America, or anywhere else. (It opened in Paris in the fall of 1995 and then was seen at the Tate Gallery in London; this is its last stop.) Eight years in preparation, it contains 112 oils and 75 drawings and watercolors. The last Cezanne retrospective was held 60 years ago in Paris. In size, in scholarship, in the magnitude of its subject's achievement, this new one is a truly epic event. God help any fool who is not humbled by it.