Biography 26.3 (2003) 475-479
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Steven Platzman's lavishly illustrated study of Cézanne's self-portraits, based on his doctoral dissertation, is a welcome addition to the Cézanne literature. As Platzman observes, although the self-portraits have frequently been reproduced, their apparent simplicity has tended to foreclose critical discussion (14). By their very nature, self-portraits raise complex issues of interpretation. Why did the artist represent himself? What role, if any, does iconography play? To what extent does a painted self-portrait function like literary autobiography? What aspects of his or her identity or inner self is the artist divulging or masking? In this ambitious study Platzman insists upon the autobiographical dimension of Cézanne's self-portraits, which, he argues, constitute a unique narrative of his physical and mental life (20).
I first became intrigued by Cézanne's relentlessly analytical, oddly reticent self-portraits two decades ago. 1 Thanks to a spate of recent publications—John Rewald's revised biography, the definitive catalogue raisonné of the paintings, and exhibition catalogues—Cézanne's life and art are now more fully documented. Yet the perplexing interpretive and chronological problems his art poses have proved difficult to resolve due to the paucity of evidence. (Cézanne rarely dated his works, and often reworked them over a long period, and his letters reveal little about his art.) That is especially true [End Page 475] of the self-portraits, where there is little to go on except the visual evidence offered by the works themselves. Not coincidentally, the apparent detachment and psychological indeterminacy of Cézanne's portraits and self-portraits have given rise to widely divergent readings.
Cézanne's sustained preoccupation with self-representation was virtually unique among his artistic contemporaries. Over four decades he created roughly twenty-six painted self-portraits, twenty-five drawings, one lithograph, and a series of ambiguous narrative scenes that include self-portraits. 2 Yet Cézanne's self-portraits remain something of an anomaly within the history of self-portraiture, and it is difficult to see him as Rembrandt's successor, as Platzman proposes (13). However, he is right to stress Cézanne's debt to the old masters, and the art historical significance of the self-portraits. Platzman's study is almost entirely devoted to the painted self-portraits. That is regrettable, since painting and drawing were closely linked reciprocal processes for Cézanne. Moreover, the self-portrait drawings, which are generally independent works, are especially intriguing because of their greater intimacy and spontaneity. Although the book is organized chronologically, Platzman does not construct a linear narrative around the self-portraits. Rather, he seeks to contextualize and complicate them by investigating how Cézanne utilized self-representation to project his artistic identity and reconstruct and explore the self.
The first chapter focuses on the 1860s—the years when Cézanne was struggling to develop a personal style and establish his artistic reputation. 3 Platzman argues that Cézanne sought notoriety in the 1860s by fashioning a deliberately provocative, self-assertive artistic identity in opposition to Manet. That claim is complicated by the fact that Cézanne's early works are clearly influenced by the example of Manet. 4 Cézanne's earliest self-portrait (c. 1861-62), a highly dramatic transformation of an innocuous photograph, although arresting, is atypical. In other self-portraits from the mid 1860s he experimented with a forceful, heavily impastoed technique indebted to Courbet. It is hard to know whether Cézanne's hirsute appearance is merely descriptive or, as Platzman argues, emblematic of his confrontational persona and radicalism. At times Platzman tends to stretch the evidence, as when he cites Antoine-Fortuné Marion on Cézanne's need to come up with an audacious means of self-promotion (25-26). For Cézanne, who was timid and socially awkward, provocation may also have served as a defense mechanism.
In chapter two Platzman provides...