In 1900 Maurice Denis painted a large canvas titled Hommage à Cézanne, which shows the esteemed master next to one of his paintings and surrounded by a crowd of admiring younger artists. The scene is set in the gallery of Ambroise Vollard, in which Cézanne had attained instant celebrity through a in style than the painting by Cézanne that it depicts, which is marked by certain stylistic eccentricities that divided the Parisian art world into two camps–those who found his work crazily inept, and those who found it stunningly original. Cézanne’s Nature Morte au Compotier is a still life featuring a fruit dish–a compotier–with a circular lip. The lip does not look the way a circular form would appear in normal perspective. Cézanne shows it instead as a kind of compressed, awkward ellipse. And Denis, in picturing a painting by an artist other than himself, needed to show it the way it really looked. So his painting had to be academically impeccable. It was crucial that he demonstrate that he was accurately depicting a painting that was awkward and “wrong.” It was precisely because of the compotier‘s eccentricity that the important and advanced artists in Hommage à Cézanne were showing their respect. Denis’s painting shows why Cézanne, in his advanced years, had become the hottest artist in Paris.
Not everyone who first saw Denis’s tribute to Cézanne would have understood why the artists–Bonnard, Vuillard, Redon and others, including Denis himself–found Cézanne someone to admire. In the early phases of Modernism, viewers were hard-pressed to decide whether paintings that departed from accepted academic standards were innovative or simply incompetent. Were the artists in Denis’s painting sincere in their praise of Cézanne, or were they secretly mocking him? (Think of the ambiguity of a famous dinner party, a few years later, that Picasso and his pals threw for Henri Rousseau, the great primitivist.) But even if one were prepared to accept Cézanne’s seeming idiosyncrasies as innovative, the question remained of why his style was admired. It is the great merit of this fascinating book that it explains what the figures in Denis’s painting, including the dealer Ambroise Vollard himself, appreciated Cézanne for. Their reasons, it turns out, were strikingly different from our own. In her deeply researched and utterly convincing study Cézanne and Provence: The Painter in His Culture, Nina M. Athanassoglou-Kallmyer argues that what gave Cézanne’s work its great éclat was connected with the prevailing politics of taste. Cézanne and his work were believed to embody values and virtues antithetical to those for which Paris stood. He was believed to be, borrowing a title from Louis Aragon, Un paysan à Paris–a defiantly regionalist artist. The Cézanne portrayed in her book is almost the antithesis of the Cézanne upon whom the whole spirit and logic of Modernist painting was erected:
In the late 1880s and early 1890s, symbolist critics in the capital had already begun setting the foundation of…a portrait of Cézanne as barbaric, naïve, unsophisticated, and “primitive,” in a word, as the opposite of everything civilized and Parisian. His paintings were exalted for their naïveté, simplicity, severity, and lack of naturalism (such as realistic rendering of proportions, perspective, or color).
The notorious lip of the compotier would have been a case in point.
Like Gauguin, the author writes, Cézanne was “possessed of an ambiguous identity–part modern master, part primitive eccentric, insider and outsider all in one, known to some but a mystery to most–his persona as much as his works were surrounded by an aura of outlandishness.” In France at the time, as indeed today, there were deep tensions between Paris and the provinces, many of whose inhabitants resented the prevailing policy of cultural centralization, which treated Paris as the luminous capital and everyplace else as more or less the sticks. Thus, when the Universal Exposition of 1900 was conceived as a showcase for France’s industrial and cultural achievements, the decision to hold it in Paris wounded provincial pride. “Paris absorbs everything, Paris confiscates everything,” an editorialist complained. As Athanassoglou-Kallmyer observes, “The times were well primed for the promotion of a regional artist in the capital. It was primarily because Vollard saw Cézanne in these terms that he gave him the exhibition that made both their reputations. “Vollard sensed the timeliness and advantage of a show that would bring a rustic artist from the provinces into the orbit of the capital while regionalist debate over the Universal Exposition raged.”