Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 21, 2020
Carol Armstrong Cézanne's Gravity New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018. 296 pp.; 108 color ills.; 18 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780300232714)

Virginia Woolf recalled seeing a small Cézanne still life of apples at the home of John Maynard Keynes, as Carol Armstrong recounts in Cézanne’s Gravity. “What can 6 apples not be? I began to wonder. There’s their relationship to each other, & their colour, & their solidity” (34). It was a dozen years after Paul Cézanne’s death, but the spirit of the painter was very much alive among the Bloomsbury circle of artists and intellectuals viewing the work. The assembled company, which included the painter Vanessa Bell (Woolf’s sister) and the critic Roger Fry, “carried it into the next room, and Lord! how it showed up the others there, as if you put a real stone among sham ones; the canvas of the others seemed scraped with a thin layer of rather cheap paint. The apples positively got redder & rounder & greener” (34).

The allusive anecdote opens onto some of the best features of Cézanne’s Gravity: twentieth-century readings of Cézanne that are artistic but not overt emulations of Cézanne; put another way, instances in which Cézanne, or a Cézannian form of thinking, appears in unexpected places, whether artistic or not. Armstrong does not concern herself with Cézanne’s heirs in a traditional, art historical sense but rather pairs the painter with figures in a variety of disciplines, including literature, philosophy, psychology, and physics. Although some of the artists and thinkers she treats, such as Fry, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, were explicitly writing about Cézanne, others, such as Albert Einstein and R. D. Laing, were not. Armstrong’s book opens the door to a new kind of art history that she calls “heterochronic” (20; referring to nonlinear time), as traditional notions of influence and legacy have been cast aside in favor of multidirectional movements in time and relationality.

“Pairings” emerge as a model of Armstrong’s project: “The pairing enacted in each chapter is also meant to serve as a kind of two-way mirror, in which each half of the pair reflects on and serves as a screen through which to look at the other” (20). Like pairings on a tasting menu, the choices sometimes show off the wine and other times allow the food to call attention to itself. Thus, Cézanne as a subject emerges more distinctly in certain chapters (notably “Cézanne’s Divided Self,” in which Armstrong spends forty-five pages on Cézanne before getting to the other half of the pair, R. D. Laing), whereas in others, a discursive concentration on a writer like Rilke becomes the driving force of the chapter—even if the poet was writing about Cézanne, the painter becomes secondary. Lest it sound as if the setup were structured around binaries, with many males in the lineup, let me add that third and fourth figures frequently interact with the couplings, including the writers Virginia Woolf and Clara Westhoff Rilke, painters Vanessa Bell and Helen Frankenthaler, and thinkers who take on the role of interlocutor for Armstrong, such as Luce Irigaray.

However intellectually stimulating it may be to follow Armstrong’s intricate readings of her interdisciplinary pairings, my own bias pulls me toward the chapters that have more to say about Cézanne (as opposed to, say, Merleau-Ponty’s Cézanne). In this regard, I found “Cézanne’s Gravity” (the Einstein chapter) and “Cézanne’s Divided Self” (the Laing chapter) to offer the greatest rewards. In the Einstein chapter, Armstrong lays out six principles limning what she takes to be Cézanne’s physics: for example, that “objects come before . . . and help to determine the space around them”; and that objects move and change, “unfold in time and thus are as temporal as they are spatial” (60). The principle that objects come before space in Cézanne is one that many art historians might arrive at intuitively or could deduce from the artist’s interest in a past master such as Rubens; however, the sixth axiom that Armstrong proposes could only be postulated within the unique parameters she has constructed for this project. As Armstrong puts it, the presence of objects in “space-time” (as she defines their temporal movement in Cézanne paintings) “predicates, and is predicated upon, the curve, or rather, the mediation between the curve (of the object) and the rectangle (of the ‘picture plane’), or better yet, the warping of every straight edge into curvature, or every roundness into a stretched ellipse, and of every symmetry into an asymmetry” (60). Armstrong’s conception of the physics of objects in Cézanne paintings tackles one of the most intractable problems of his art, namely: how do we reconcile Cézanne’s avowed (and evident) concern with structure—with Nicolas Poussin, classicism, and order—with the bending, misshapen character of his objects, the precarity of his apples on a table, the recalcitrant irregularity of nearly everything? She quotes John Archibald Wheeler’s 1973 book, Gravitation (W. H. Freeman): “Space acts on matter, telling it how to move. In turn, matter reacts back on space, telling it how to curve” (65). These distillations of Einsteinian gravity become a brilliant analogue for a Cézanne still life, for its rigor and awkwardness, with the clotted, materialized space impinging on the objects’ stability, and the curvature of the objects in turn willing an expansion of the space around them. Cézanne’s apples, for Armstrong, “suggest a contest between matter and geometry,” and it is her bold heterochronic reading of Cézanne in Einstein that produces this insight (68).

Merleau-Ponty’s remark that “to be schizoid and to be Cézanne come to the same thing” opens onto a long journey, in “Cézanne’s Divided Self,” into ways of grappling with the paradoxical character of his art and, ultimately, of Cézanne himself (157). His late Mont Sainte-Victoire series exemplifies for Armstrong “the incommensurability of linear and coloristic ways of proceeding” (169), and I for one could not agree more. Armstrong is to be commended for articulating this incommensurability as a problem in and for Cézanne. From the late landscapes, she moves on to the paintings of Hortense Fiquet Cézanne (the artist’s wife) and their “fundamentally unknowable” character, as they ultimately embody the “‘ontological insecurity’ of a self that had never quite managed to establish itself in relation to other selves” (178, 184). Armstrong distances herself from the possibility of putting forward a psychoanalytic view of Cézanne the person, but at times the theory of “the divided self” points like a compass toward the psyche more than the art. Armstrong then takes on the Bathers series, as these works “constituted Cézanne’s only way of conceiving of the corporeal ground of sensation,” of the body he “inhabited with such a sense of estrangement that he had to try to look at it from the outside-in rather than from the inside-out” (192). With the Einstein chapter, the Laing chapter is perhaps the most intellectually ambitious, but unlike the Einstein chapter it is replete with in-depth analysis of numerous paintings. I found myself wondering, however, whether Armstrong really needed R. D. Laing in order to wrestle with the paradoxes of Cézanne’s art.

An epilogue pairs Cézanne with a couple, Clement Greenberg and Helen Frankenthaler, as the former declared of Cézanne that “every brushstroke . . . recalled the shape and position of the flat rectangle that was the original canvas,” and as the latter created her first Color Field paintings (213). Armstrong, having argued for Cézanne’s “non-flatness” in the previous chapters (it was Roger Fry who had spoken earlier of Cézanne’s “gravity”), pushes back against the Greenbergian doctrine. Frankenthaler may not seem like an obvious test case for Armstrong’s thesis, but the painter invokes Cézanne for Armstrong through the fluidity of her colors and spaces. For Armstrong, Frankenthaler’s billowing forms echo the swelling of clouds in Cézanne’s Bathers or the textiles in his still lifes. Since Cézanne’s Gravity does not attempt to map paintings seen, books read, or influence documented, it is fitting that the conclusion inverts the usual search for Cézanne’s legacy in Cubism or other movements concerned with structure and instead finds him in the floating world of Frankenthaler. That Armstrong can use Frankenthaler’s own “non-flatness” to refute the modernist credo of Greenberg, the artist’s sometime partner, is just the type of icing on the cake one would wish for in the conclusion of this unconventional book.

Like Armstrong’s earlier books, Cézanne’s Gravity is fiercely intelligent at every point. Each chapter plunges into the discursive world of a different figure even as the author creates links among the chapters via particular paintings. Armstrong demands much of her readers—it is not unusual to wade into a sentence that for many other writers would be a paragraph—but in the end her movements forward and backward in time offer new takes on Cézanne’s afterlives. What Armstrong calls the “immersive, recursive time of painting”—and compares productively with the “undulating beat of waves” in Woolf’s The Waves and To the Lighthouse—brings to mind the kind of cerebral reverie reminiscent of Woolf (44–45). That Armstrong’s evocative prose will help the reader see Cézanne inhere not only in Roger Fry but also in Virginia Woolf is one of the book’s signal accomplishments.

Nancy Locke
Associate Professor, Department of Art History, Pennsylvania State University