If one thing comes clear from looking at the Barnes Foundation's great collection of post-impressionist and early modernist art, which goes on view tomorrow in a new building in downtown Philadelphia – and which I reviewed in today's Daily Beast – it's that Paul Cézanne is its inescapable force. Picasso's a genius, Matisse is great and Renoir has fabulous moments (if not in the mass of pink nudes at the Barnes). But Cézanne has a complexity that none of them match. And what's most remarkable about his pictures is that, for all their fathomless depths, they don't seem to need explaining: People of all stripes, with and without an art education, seem to be stopped cold by his work. (As I remember being, as a kid, coming across his apples for the first time.) Cézanne's canvases put flesh on the otherwise abstract notion of a pure visual intelligence.
By that I don't mean, as Barnes did, that Cézannes are about smartly configured shapes and compositions and colors; they are equally about the worlds they reveal, whether social or material or mythic. It's just that their aboutness can't be translated into non-visual terms. As I've argued before, even the best verbal account of Cézanne's paintings – and especially his own words – will fall far short of the works' visual reality. It's still a phenomenon I just can't explain. Maybe I should try painting it.
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