Once you start thinking about something, you start noticing examples of it everywhere. I seem to recall there’s a word for this phenomenon, but I can’t remember what it is.

In this case I’m referring to the possibility of constructing alternate histories of Modernist painting, on which topic I wrote a post a couple of months back. Subsequently I made reference to it in the context of a series of book reviews I’m writing, and it seems to me the same impulse is evident in some commentary over at Painters’ Table, namely a post entitled “Justice to Pissarro” by Dana Gordon. It appeared on PT a year ago, but was originally published in 2005 in the journal Commentary.

In fact, the editor’s note that leads off the piece sums it up pretty well:

Painting is a conversation, and talking about the future always involves new ways of discussing the past. As inspired by our canonized masters as we may be, we must recognize when their influence begins to hold us back as much as it once spurred us on and look beyond the old heroes to previously unrecognized or overlooked models.

So there you go. I couldn’t agree more.

Paul Cézanne 025.jpg
Paul Cézanne 025” by Paul Cézanne – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH.. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Gordon convincingly makes the case that Pissarro is just such a model. He appears in the history books as a second-string Impressionist, but it turns out he had a heck of a lot more influence on the development of modernist painting than he is typically given credit for, in contrast with his contemporary Cézanne of whom the opposite might be said.  Cézanne in fact, though still hugely important in his own right, owes a sizable debt Pissarro which he himself acknowledged: “Pissaro was like a father to me … ”

One of the main reasons for Cézanne’s prominence is that he was acknowledged as a big influence by many of the most famous painters of the 20th century, including Picasso and Matisse. For Picasso, Cézanne apparently did double-duty in the parental role:

He was my one and only master! … Cézanne! It was the same with all of us – he was like our father. It was he who protected us … [1966]


For us, Cézanne was like a mother who protects her children. [1961]

With press like that it’s easy to see how, over time, Cezanne’s reputation as the progenitor of all things modern became firmly cemented. And also it’s pretty easy to see the visual connection between the late landscapes of Cézanne and cubism, whereas the connection with Pissarro is a bit less obvious.

In fact Cézanne and Pissaro worked together, not infrequently painting the same views, of which several are reproduced in Gordon’s article. It’s fascinating to compare and contrast the approaches of the two masters, and makes me wish I could see the works in person. But alas, the MoMA exhibit that prompted Gordon to write the piece took place seven years ago. Cézanne’s approach was a lot more improvised and abstracted, in the sense that the formal elements of his works relate more to each other than to their ostensible subject. But that doesn’t make it better, necessarily, and Pissaro’s formal apparatus was at least as developed as Cezanne’s, just in a different direction, as Gordon makes clear.

Camille Pissarro 011

One other thing about Gordon’s piece that intrigued me was the observation:

As far back as 1953, the abstract-expressionist painter Barnett Newman complained that the Museum of Modern Art, the temple of modernism in art, had “dedicated itself” to the proposition that Cézanne was “the father of modern art, [with] Marcel Duchamp as his self-appointed heir.” In so doing, Newman declared, the museum was perpetuating a “false history.”

Again, note how history is up for grabs. And although I’m not a huge fan of Newman, I’d have to agree with him here. In fact, the history he’s talking about is not only false, it’s just plain bizarre, since in no way can Duchamp be considered the “heir” of Cézanne (two more unrelated artists would be hard to find). It completely elides a huge schism in the development of modern art, between the constructivists on the one hand (the disciples of Cézanne) and the surrealists on the other (the disciples of Duchamp).

I guess the impulse to reduce a complex and conflicted discussion to a single narrative celebrating the triumphant progress of Modern Art was too strong to resist, and probably served to advance and entrench a particular agenda at the time. But Newman didn’t believe it then, and we don’t have to now.

Comments are closed.