Cézanne's Poker Face

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Paul Cézanne is one of the greatest artists of all time. And that's almost all there is to say about him. That may be what makes him so much greater than others.

Look at almost any Cézanne, in any museum (right now the Metropolitan Museum in New York is doing a focused show of his Card Players paintings), and you're struck by its power. And struck dumb by it, too.

I had my first Cézanne moment as a Eurailing teenager, in the old Jeu de Paume museum in Paris. It was just a bunch of fruit, painted around 1899, and I could also tell it was a picture I'd remember all my life. I couldn't say why. Decades later, I still can't.

You could say that good art speaks in a language we know: we get the message, then move on. Great art seems to speak in a foreign language we imagine we'll get with long enough immersion. And then there's Cézanne, who is like the sound of water dripping or the clank of a train. It's just there to be known, full of meaning and pleasure, somehow, but without a hope of translation.

Cézanne isn't ineffable in some swoony, aesthetic, double-rainbow sense that puts him beyond words. He's so effing effable, he's unparaphrasable.

When you're looking at an actual chunk of reality—a real card player, say, or a bowl of fruit—there's no storyline to sum it up, because there are too many things you could say. Looking at the card players at the Met one recent afternoon, I felt the same is true of Cézanne. Except that the pictures add an extra layer of bafflement, because we imagine that any man-made object as coherent, as structured, as fully willed as a Cézanne must exist to be doped out. Unlike nature, Cézanne himself demands we talk him through while rebuffing any conclusions.

Richard Shiff, one of our greatest Cézanne thinkers, sums up his lifetime of work on the painter: "I don't feel that my various explanations of what he was doing are all that essential to what he was doing." T. J. Clark, known for his game-changing readings of French art, waited until late in his career to embark on Cézanne. "You are haunted by the sense that you don't want to be definitive," he says. "No wall label will ever be sufficient to Cézanne."

With most of Cézanne's rivals, however superb, there are certain banalities we utter that also happen to be true: Michelangelo is about cosmic drama and heroic bodies; Monet is about light and brushwork and modern French life. With Cézanne, we don't have the backup of truisms. Or rather, the ones that do get trotted out are all simply wrong. "Cézanne reduces the world to a few geometric solids"— ludicrous to anyone who really looks at his stew of shapes. "Cézanne simply stared harder at the world than other artists"—absurd to anyone who recognizes how little looking at a Cézanne apple is like looking at a real one. "Cézanne is only about composition and color"—impossible, given how much he labors over getting his card players right as humans.

The crutches of style won't work for us, either. There's no "ism" to fit Cézanne into: he's no impressionist, although he's from that generation, and he doesn't belong to modernism, either, however much the cubists may have drawn from him.

There are other great artists who will puzzle us forever—James Joyce, Pablo Picasso, Arnold Schoenberg—but that puzzlement seems to come from their willful complexity. Whereas it seems as though Cézanne wants to keep things simple, and then can't. Tapping his head, he once said, "Painting … it's inside here." The glory of his art is that, no matter how hard we try, we can never quite see in.