Adam Heardman

Drawing Blood: Why T.J. Clark Still Thinks Cézanne Can Save Us 

If These Apples Should Fall: Cézanne and the Present. T.J. Clark. London: Thames & Hudson, 2022.

“Cézanne…cannot be written about anymore”, wrote T.J. Clark in 2010, reviewing a London exhibition in which three of the Card Players paintings were reunited for the first time in decades. A dozen years later, Cézanne is back in London with a blockbuster show at Tate Modern, and Clark has once again written about the painter in an equally blockbuster (at least, in the world of art writing) publication, If These Apples Should Fall: Cézanne and the Present (2022).  

Of course, as his regular readers will know, claiming an inability to write about Cézanne, in the thick of a decades-long career of doing exactly that, is vintage Clark. As is the moment in If These Apples Should Fall where he directly addresses that earlier statement, which has become, he admits, “my most-cited remark. And among my most unpopular”.  

“Obviously”, he writes with a sort of warm exasperation, “I did not mean by the aphorism that writing about Cézanne would now, or even should now, literally come to a halt”. Instead, “what I wanted to suggest was how it now stood in relation to a previous century in which the very nature of modern art, and the nature of writing about art…had seemed to turn on the Cézanne problem”. 

Negating something while you’re bringing it into being, a kind of weighty kenosis which both affirms and throws into doubt the thing at hand, is, as we shall see, crucial to the material of Cézanne’s pictures, Clark’s writing, and what’s at stake more broadly in both (you are never more aware of the weight of water than when you’re emptying a bucket out of a boat). But first it’s important to specify what Clark means by ‘the Cézanne problem’ and, perhaps more to the point, what is meant by the term ‘modern’ (and, indeed, ‘modern art’) in this context. 

Cézanne is endlessly touted as the artist who ushered in Modern Art proper. Actually, ‘ushered’ is too quiet a word – Cézanne’s most ardent admirers, from Picasso to Samuel Beckett, rather see him as having wrenched modernity forth, violently altering aesthetic and social perspectives as the mechanical age dawned. For Clark, the history of the modern mindset goes much deeper (throughout his career, he’s read ‘the modern’ into Pissarro, Jacques-Louis David, Giotto, and even earlier painters), but is crystallised in Cézanne. What constitutes modernity, for Clark, is the tension between epochs, the death of one era encapsulated in the birth of the next, but haunted still by an enormous feeling of loss. 

In Farewell to An Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism (1999), Clark borrowed a phrase from Max Weber to describe modernity as “the disenchantment of the world”. Writing “after the fall of the wall”, and to a moment in which he declares that “the project called socialism had come to an end”, Clark elaborates: ““Modernity” means contingency. It points to a social order which has turned from the worship of ancestors and past authorities to the pursuit of a projected future – of goods, pleasures, freedoms, forms of control over nature, or infinities of information. This process goes along with a great emptying and sanitization of the imagination”. In his 2018 book, Heaven on Earth, Clark doubles down on this passage by quoting himself in full, but inserting a new description of Weber’s phrase (“the disenchantment of the world”) as being “gloomy yet in my view exultant, with its promise of a disabused dwelling in the world as it is”. 

The pre-modern mind, in Clark’s conception, is alive with belief, backward-looking and pregnant with traditions, engaged in a socio-cultural language of symbols where every object (whether a work of art or not) has an unbroken link to a collectively agreed-upon lineage of meaning. The modern mind becomes violently disenchanted with all that. Progress tears down monuments and with them the cultural (spiritual) hegemonies which gave structure to the imagination. Everything, from the market to the media, turns its mind to what Clark calls “merely material, statistical, tendential, “economic” considerations”, which are at the same time weirdly non-material, based on futures-trading, projected into an empty, immaterial zone.  

It’s not that Clark uncomplicatedly supports the institutions – on the contrary, he often advocates violent anarchism and iconoclasm in the cultural and political spheres. It’s just that his characterisation of the modern mind involves the transition of ‘meaning’ from something non-physical yet easily identifiable (the differently-shaded area of crops behind the woman on the right in Pissarro’s Two Young Peasant Women (1892) looks like wings, therefore she’s an angel and this scene stands for the Annunciation) into a new zone of commodified uncertainty (what are the two women in the same painting saying to one another, and how are they arranged with relation to the ground or the picture plane? Is the painted surface an object or an illusion? What is its value?).  

Clark writes in 1999: “without the past living on (most often monstrously) in the detail of everyday life, meaning became a scarce commodity”, echoing, of course, Marx’s fear that capital divorces an object’s value from its material existence: “Turn and examine a single commodity by itself, as we will, yet in so far as it remains an object of value, it seems impossible to grasp it”.  

Where does the modern locate ‘value’ in the sense of ‘meaning’? How does an artistic heritage rooted in symbolic tradition respond to a disenchanted world? Clark’s Cézanne does so with a violent dialectic which, we’ll see, holds in productive tension the illusory and the material. Cézanne’s pictorial surface shoves disenchantment up into our face until we’re enchanted with it. The more Cézanne says “look, this is just paint on a two-dimensional surface”, the more assuredly it’s not. The apples, the quarries, the rooftops, the lips of a conch shell, are all flush with ‘red pigment’ and also ‘blood’. “Modernity is loss of world”, writes Clark in 2022. “Cézanne is a painter who makes this cliché draw blood”.  


If These Apples Should Fall looks at first like a typical piece of Cézanne writing. It details the friendship and mutual influence between Pissarro and Cézanne, comparing their paintings of the same scenes (such as the town of Louveciennes) to highlight what makes Cézanne the more powerful and revolutionary painter. This is the familiar art-historical argument that Cézanne functions as a “bridge between Impressionism and Cubism” (to lift a phrase from the wall-text of the current Tate exhibition). Clark then moves on to examine, chapter by chapter, Cézanne’s still-life paintings, then his landscapes, his depictions of peasants, his relationship to the apolitical aestheticism of Henri Matisse, and finally concludes that Cézanne remains a painter of curious force, having had a profound effect on Picasso, Rilke, and more. He’s even still relevant today! 

But of course Clark adopts this mode of teleological art-history exactly so that he can expand beyond its bounds. What differentiates Clark from other writers on Cézanne, even those he admires greatly such as Meyer Schapiro or the painter’s contemporary critics like Georges Lecomte or Félix Fénéon, is twofold. Firstly, whereas most writers pick a side between Idealism and Materialism in Cézanne, Clark argues that his picture plane – holding in tension a successful illusion of representation whilst at all times reminding us of its two-dimensionality, always allowing the created world to appear created, crashing like waves up against the screen of the painting – is an inherent dialectic between the two.  

Secondly, Clark uses his prose to enact this same dialectic – he insists that paintings can do things words can’t, but then sets about doing those things in words anyway. The book on Cézanne is perhaps his most complete enactment of this vision so far, and it allows him to answer the ever-present question, “why is Cézanne still important?” or, even more fundamentally, “why is looking at paintings important at all?”. 

In the aforementioned review where Clark claims that Cézanne “cannot be written about anymore”, he goes on to say that “The mixture of seriousness and sensuousness in the paintings – I am tempted to say, in the best of them, of lugubriousness and euphoria – is remote from the temper of our times”. If These Apples Should Fall, subtitled though it is “Cézanne and the Present”, does not back down from this diagnosis of temporal ‘remoteness’. Indeed, it keeps ‘the painter’ apart from ‘the present’ to examine the epochal concept of time which Cézanne has often been co-opted to typify – the idea that the past moves into the future through some crucible or crux which produces exemplary figures at the threshold (Robespierres, Napoleons). Contrarily, in order for Cézanne to speak to ‘the present’, to our time, Clark needs him to be feverishly out of place in any time whatsoever. 

Clark has, in the past, rejected the efficacy of, for example, the Jacobins immediately after the French Revolution, who embraced and proliferated the religious cult of the martyr, Jean-Paul Marat (in many sans-culottes homes, crucifixes were replaced with effigies of Marat: as Robespierre eventually said, they were simply “battling fanaticism with fanaticism of a different kind”). 

Clark also rejects, on similar terms, much of the late 20th-century left for whom “Marxism became a grisly, secular Messianism”. If These Apples Should Fall is the latest episode of Clark’s long project to rid left-wing thought of didactic religiosities in favour of a pictorial dialectic which holds many aspects of thought together without cancelling any of them out. Clark is aiming for totality, but a continuous one. He has always needed the peculiar case-study of Cézanne to achieve this. 

The book begins with a characteristic Clark move. He recalls the “so powerful, so distinct” feeling of seeing Cézanne’s apples for the first time. “And if I hadn’t had the feeling back then, persisted in it (cultivated it) through the years, I reckon my life would have been immeasurably poorer. I wouldn’t have fully known what it was to be modern”.  

But then he immediately turns around and close-reads himself, even contradicts himself: “Maybe that opening paragraph moves too far too fast: it seems to end up equating ‘knowing what it is to be modern’ with some special, indispensable intensity. Part of me recoils from just such an equation – I remain an ‘anti-modern’ through and through. (Of course, I know that this anti-modernity is part of the modern package)”. 

So in his opening salvo, Clark embraces, rejects, then re-embraces the ‘intensity’ of ‘the modern package’, which is complicatedly wrapped up in his experiences with Cézanne. Clearly, we’re being asked early-doors to expect a layered thesis, folding back upon itself repeatedly, much like the creased fabrics in Cézanne’s still-life paintings. And, like the apples which by turns hide and emerge between (indeed, seem to achieve their entire existence in relation to) the folded textiles in the paintings, Clark hopes that his meaning will be somehow contained within his doublings-back.  

Clark devotes the book’s longest chapter to ‘Cézanne’s Material’. By ‘material, he means specifically a particular patterned blue curtain which reappears in several of the ‘apples’ paintings, but also allows the word to stand for “a whole ontological state”. To elucidate his thoughts on why this fabric is so crucial, he returns to a reference he has used before in Heaven on Earth: 

“I am fond of the moment in Dante when the poet, looking for a way to explain why his language has to admit defeat in the face of heaven’s ineffibilities, reaches for a metaphor from painting. ‘Because our speech, not to say our imagination, has no colours / To match folds like these’”. Folds unfold colour, Dante is saying; but they also trap colour, or at least tie it down; they are, in painting, what makes colour adhere to – belong to – a world we can be part of. Yet there is always the possibility, Dante realizes, of an unfolding that leaves the object world behind”. 

Clark likes this moment because Dante essentially captures ‘the heavens’ in writing by claiming that they “cannot be written about anymore”, and also because it reflects something of Cézanne’s world, which is somehow both heavily material and also always ‘leaving the object world behind’. He spends the chapter looking closely at the apple paintings from the 1890s, comparing them with earlier pictures like The Black Clock (1869-70), agreeing with many commentators that the tabletops tilted towards the viewer, the blank, impending spaces of the backgrounds, give a heavy materialism to the pictures, bringing everything up into an almost unbearable proximity (with that insistence on “the world as it is” which characterises ‘the modern’), but noting that the relation between object and colour gives a sense of near-symbolic significance, too. Ernst Bloch’s description of Cézanne’s apples, from which the book’s title and epigraph are taken, looms large: “all imaginable life is in them, and if they should fall, a universal conflagration would ensue”.

However, Clark takes a crucial change in tack away from this viewpoint. “I use the sentence from Bloch as the book’s epigraph, but this does not mean I endorse it”. He distances himself from “This world of writing – this world of belief” so that he can revivify Cézanne as continuously potent, to preserve and perpetuate “that first incomprehension” of seeing the painter’s warped reality for the first time. Clark keeps Marx and Rilke close while diagnosing Cézanne’s paradox of unreachable proximity, his folding of space-time, his strange, fluid, socially-determined material. 

But then Clark switches up again, deciding that this reading is “beckoning me in a too comfortable, too predictable, direction”. He asks, “Isn’t there a side to Cézanne’s materialism that disdains the social – that looks through the sugar bowl or the bourgeois-blue to something in our experience, some form of being, some thing-in-itself, that shrugs off the very idea of the human?”  

Clark says of Cézanne’s painting, that “The totality it offers is unique – contingent…A picture, to be true to life, ought to be full of the sense that things could have been otherwise”. In other words: the present exists as the cancelling of infinite other possibilities, but still contains them. Looking at Cézanne we have Weber’s “disabused dwelling in the world as it is” but in a way that’s somehow still “exultant”, a modern world that’s both ‘disenchanted’ and full to the brim. For Clark, this sense, more than religious fervour about Marx, Marat, or any other martyr, is an activating energy for social principles. And it’s this sense, this sensation, of embodied contingency in Cézanne that compels us to do exactly what Clark wants us to do: look again. “But look”, Clark concludes, “look at the touches of green and pink on the mountain face, look at the pooling of blue, look at the lines just holding the mountain’s right edge. Look at the mountain’s whole shape. ‘Vision’ is the wrong word for it. It is the thing itself”. 


Looking again at Cézanne’s The Francois Zola Dam (c.1877-8), alongside The Railway Cutting (1870) and Mont Saint-Victoire Seen from Bibemus Quarry (1897), I remember Clark’s assertion that, for Cézanne, “representation is intervention”. These pictures, from the dam to the quarry to the sheer face of rock cloven into the hillside in The Railway Cutting, are full of other flat surfaces, parts of the landscape looking as though they have been shoved up against other picture planes. The landscape is “full of the sense that things could have been otherwise”, seen from a different perspective, but also full of the sense that they are not. Cézanne’s materialism contains material impossibilities. Replete with the forms it has foregone – from religion to revolutionary cults, from Impressionism’s shimmer to Pissarro’s anarchist politics, – Cézanne’s world holds within it an all-at-once alterity, one that’s both uncannily recognisable to, and entirely at odds with, any time in which it appears.  

Looking again at Still Life With Apples (1893-95) from the Getty Museum, I’m struck by the sugar bowl, front and centre, not so much teetering as hovering, not supported by any surface. Is it leaning out against the picture plane, presenting itself to us but at the same time calling attention to the unbreakable screen that separates us from it? Is it in freefall, and do my muscles fill with blood as though I want to lurch forward and catch it? With freefall in mind, I can’t help but see the floral pattern on the bowl as an upside-down human figure falling downwards. Is it possible Picasso remembered this shape when doing his UNESCO mural The Fall of Icarus (1958)? Is it possible Matisse flipped Cézanne’s falling floral design into his own upright Icarus (1947), and that they all echo the indifference of Bruegel’s disenchanted modern world as myth disappears from it? But, crucially, Cézanne paints no such drama. His shaken, warping world is somehow both emptier and more full, holding in tension modern materialities and Romantic spiritualities in a forever-pertinent moment of sensation. 

Better than any oration, repeated looking at Cézanne can bring about the flush and fervour of epochal modern feeling, and encourage the kind of social upheaval that a crisis demands. His drawn world draws blood in a way that can help us rediscover that ‘scarce commodity’: meaning. Can Clark’s writing do the same? To an extent, yes. But, most importantly, by writing continuously ‘at the end of writing’, where nothing more can be written, Clark gives us a space in which we can keep looking, and keep looking again. 


Adam Heardman is a poet and writer from Newcastle upon Tyne living and working in East London. He writes regularly for Art Monthly and elsewhere, and his poems have appeared in PN Review, The North, SPAM, The Moth Magazine, and more.

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