If These Apples Should Fall: Cézanne and the Present by T J Clark - review by Tom Stammers

Tom Stammers

Making Modernism

If These Apples Should Fall: Cézanne and the Present

By

Thames & Hudson 240pp £30
 

Fans of T J Clark will be fascinated by this latest stop on his sometimes unexpected intellectual journey. A pioneer of the ‘new art history’ in the 1970s, his studies of Courbet and Impressionism electrified by anti-capitalist critique, Clark has in the past two decades revealed himself as a master of patient, attentive looking. His melancholy book The Sight of Death (2006) exemplified this new direction: in it, Clark recorded over several weeks his changing perceptions of two canvases by Nicolas Poussin hanging in the J Paul Getty Museum. Since then, he has wrestled with Picasso’s Guernica, while also extending his engagement with the old masters, offering an idiosyncratic analysis of changing visions of paradise in Heaven on Earth (2018). In this latest publication, on Cézanne, we are back on core Clark terrain, but it is approached with new eyes. Among other things, If These Apples Should Fall is another bravura piece of writing about the experience of looking at paintings. Clark’s heroes among earlier art historians in this very crowded field are Meyer Schapiro and, revealingly, Roger Fry: he is full of admiration for their ‘triumphs of plain style’. In this book, perhaps, we can see Clark’s comfort in reviving discussions of form, structure and pictorial quality familiar to an earlier generation of critics. He even pens poems in response to what he sees.

Of course, Clark knows the historical context extremely well. This is pivotal when it comes to establishing the sequence of works produced by Cézanne during his apprenticeship with Camille Pissarro in the 1870s, and he alludes to issues of class when thinking about the cult of the peasant or the gestural codes of bourgeois portraiture. But such appeals to facts beyond the frame are infrequent and do not resolve issues of pictorial interpretation. That is because Clark’s engagement with Cézanne is far closer to epistemology than to cultural history. Even the citations from Das Kapital do not relate to class struggle but to the bizarre ‘all-one-thingness’ of commodities in capitalism, the reality of which is a kind of fiction rooted in purely symbolic exchange. The quotation points to one of Clark’s chief insights about Cézanne’s art, in which mundane objects can appear at once familiar and impossibly strange, vivid and near but also ‘on the other side of something’. It is not enough, he insists, to describe Cézanne as destabilising the world or throwing everything off kilter; it is the curious interplay of instability and ordinariness that demands explanation.

The book is built around five essays, the central three of which allow Clark to draw out the significance of Cézanne’s interventions in the genres of portraiture, landscape and still life (the last a particular highlight). The first essay explores the genesis of Cézanne’s mature or second style

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