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Reviewed by:
  • Cézanne's Gravity by Carol Armstrong
  • Lucy Whelan
Cézanne's Gravity. Carol Armstrong. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018. Pp. xii + 280. $65.00 (cloth).

If there is a single artist who defines the tendency of histories of Western modern art to cling to a teleological timeline—in which art evolves steadily from realism towards the freedom of abstraction—that artist is surely Paul Cézanne. In the decades after his death in 1906, artists, art historians, and critics such as Clement Greenberg placed him at the origin of that lineage, dubbing him the "most copious source of modern art."1 For Greenberg especially, this status was primarily due to the apparent emphasis Cézanne's tactile brushstrokes gave to the flatness of the [End Page 204] canvas support, that Greenberg retrospectively cast as the primary origin of modern painting's self-reflexive way of pointing to itself and the specific conditions of its medium. According to this narrative, Cézanne's flatness would eventually find its teleological endpoint in the rectangles of color produced by (overwhelmingly male) abstract expressionist artists after the Second World War. This account of modernism has been critiqued and disrupted over the last four decades, yet still it seems indelible: modernism in its paradigmatic form, with Cézanne at its head, remains as temporally linear as it is spatially flat.

Carol Armstrong's stimulating and beautifully written study offers a bold reappraisal of this rectilinear view of modernism, insisting on alternative possible folds in its history while simultaneously recovering the warped strangeness of Cézanne's work. It does so primarily through a series of pairings, sometimes groupings, of Cézanne with various twentieth-century writers, painters, and thinkers that followed him: Roger Fry, Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, Albert Einstein, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Rainer Maria Rilke, R. D. Laing, Greenberg, and Helen Frankenthaler. The reason for these pairings is not simply in order to trace Cézanne's reception, but rather in order to see him refracted by a plurality of perspectives, all of which reveal a different painter from the one shaped retroactively by art history's desire for linearity.

In this way, Armstrong advances a "heterochronic" model for approaching art through multiple and overlapping timelines that builds upon recent work in the field (20). Art historians countering traditional linear chronologies with more complex temporalities include Mieke Bal, Michael Ann Holly, Alexander Nagel, Amy Powell, and, most pertinently here, Keith Moxey. Yet Armstrong's book is to my knowledge the first to bring this approach to modernism. By focusing on such a complex painter as Cézanne, she offers a powerful demonstration of how taking a heterochronic approach to time enables us to treat artworks as agents, rather than products, of history. For as she shows, Cézanne's works have more than enough material and intellectual presence to be capable of eluding linear, pre-ordained art historical narratives.

Armstrong's quest to retrieve Cézanne's strangeness likewise expands and builds on a wealth of writing on the artist produced in recent decades. Art historians have explored his work's curious form of sensitivity to the visual world, its sensuous physicality, its peculiar erotic charge, uncanny non-humanity, and apparent lack of "finish," and these and other topics weave lightly in and out of this study. That said, it would be possible for readers approaching this book from outside of nineteenth-century art history not to realise how much authors such as Yve-Alain Bois, T. J. Clark, Tamar Garb, and Aruna D'Souza have already successfully refocused discussions around Cézanne away from the Greenbergian model that Cézanne's Gravity positions itself so assertively against. There is nothing inherently wrong in this, however—indeed Armstrong's own beautifully observed study of Cézanne's watercolors from 2004 is among the best of this literature—and as the first study to counter Greenberg's emphasis on the artist's flatness so directly, Cézanne's Gravity merits positioning itself as transformative in this sense.

In any case, writing on Cézanne already forms a large part of this study, in that its first, third, and fourth chapters...