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A Wonderful Reserve

"A Wonderful Reserve" by Robert Linsley, Summer 2010, pp. 88-93

The medium of watercolour has the reputation of being both too easy and very difficult. To put coloured stains on paper is pretty straightforward, but it’s widely understood that to make a really good watercolour is surprisingly hard. I have lately become a fanatical watercolourist, and for help and encouragement I’ve been looking at the greatest modern watercolourist, Paul Cézanne. Luckily, in the last few years two beautifully illustrated in-depth studies of his watercolour work have appeared: Cézanne’s Watercolors: Between Drawing and Painting, by Matthew Simms, and Carol M. Armstrong’s Cézanne in the Studio: Still Life in Watercolors. Both books are full of close-up views that reveal how the paint went on and, more importantly, the pencil underdrawings.

The importance of Cézanne goes far beyond his highly original use of a minor medium, and I couldn’t help but be intrigued that a year ago the Philadelphia Museum of Art mounted a show about Cézanne’s contemporary relevance, “Cézanne and Beyond.” The show included modern and contemporary artists who have been inspired by the cantankerous old master. Fortunately, the editor of this magazine shares my devotion to the medium, and he was open to my ruminations on the father of modern art, but he also asked me to look at the watercolours of David Milne as presented in a 2009 show at Mira Godard Gallery in Toronto. Milne, as it happens, is also an artist whose work lies within the problematic dialectics of ease and difficulty.

The main technical problem of watercolour is the “reserve,” the use of the white paper as an element in the design, and of course Cézanne is famous for his unfinished works. But the revelation for me was the extreme usefulness of pencilled contours, and to explain this I find David Milne very helpful. The Mira Godard show spanned almost his entire career, from 1910 to the late 1940s. The earliest piece in the show is Impressionist, but by 1912 he had become a skilled Post-Impressionist, having learned from Gauguin, Matisse and perhaps the Fauves. Milne, at that time, was the cleverest and most forward-looking painter in Canada. His only peer was Emily Carr, and he outclassed her both in painterly skill and in wit. In the first half of the last century, genuine modernism was hard to find in Canada. Outside of Quebec, it never really took hold in this country, and until very recently Milne was likewise a peripheral figure, however distinctive. That has all changed thanks to the new hanging of the Art Gallery of Ontario’s collection in its renovated building. Dennis Reid, Chief Curator, Research, at the AGO has effected a major historical re-evaluation of Milne; with three rooms of his works hung shoulder to shoulder, Milne is now central to the history of Canadian art. The Mira Godard show took place against the backdrop of the AGO rehang—in which watercolours do not play a prominent role—and it provided an opportunity to look closely at Milne’s methods.

In works such as Pink Hills, from the Post-Impressionist phase, all the depicted objects are made up of flat coloured planes. One can clearly see the pencilled contours that fix the composition and act as guides for the placement of coloured areas. Then, from the 1920s onward, Milne reverts to drawing objects with thin dry brush lines of black paint, adding colour as a secondary element, and the pencil lines disappear. His pictures become coloured drawings rather than compositions in coloured planes, and that more radical modernist project is only recalled through the occasional use of coloured rather than black contours.

Of course it is quite difficult to render both objects and space in an attractive arrangement with areas of colour alone, and a preliminary pencil outline helps a lot. But Cézanne’s use of the same technique gives very different results; he doesn’t use the pencil outline as a crutch, but as a way to make a better picture. He uses a quick, scribbly sketch to help him visualize the volumes of the objects, and the brush strokes are then all modelling strokes; he need merely place the strokes like a kind of skin on volumes that already exist as vivid illusions in his own mind. The work is done in his head before he makes the stroke, and so the blank areas paint themselves. This is true of his landscapes but it is especially clear in his still lifes, as can be seen in Armstrong’s exhibition catalogue Cézanne in the Studio, published by the Getty Center in 2004. This book contains close-up photographs that set a new standard for usefulness in art books, revealing every layer of transparent paint and every wandering pencil line.One might object that since Milne did not paint volumes during his Post-Impressionist phase this is not a legitimate comparison, but I would disagree. It has to do with the question of difficulty in watercolour painting, and the artist’s task to find that difficulty, master it and then make it look easy. For the workaday illustrator the problem is precisely the “reserve”—since the lights cannot be painted, as they can with oils, the artist must think backwards, and paint by not painting, ensuring that the blank paper remaining at the finish of the work is fully functional. Of course without a preliminary contour drawing, the chance that the end product will be a mess is pretty high. The modern artist must scorn this elaborate method on principle, and Cézanne did precisely that by starting with a ludicrously imprecise sketch, but in the process he solved the technical problem by making it more a matter of conception than of execution. In other words, he modernized it. But then a further consequence of his method is that modelling becomes bolder, stronger, independent in a new way, produced directly by the colour and less an aspect of a predetermined form, hence less conceptual. It’s really a paradox. His work innovates by being less reliant on technical method— hence more modern because more a matter of conception—but also less conceptual—hence more modern because less beholden to pre-existing abstract models. Ease and difficulty are here found in a new combination. The rejection of technique makes the execution of the work much harder, but the strong grasp of form makes the work seem clear, obvious, in fact much simpler than any other watercolour. From this point of view, Milne’s flat Post-Impressionism is too easy to begin with, but then he makes it even easier with an illustrator’s technique. The pictures would be better attempted without guidelines.

The comparison of Cézanne and Milne is just even if their goals are different, because what is at stake is what painting techniques are to be used for. In Cézanne’s case the best guide is Richard Shiff, who has been thinking about Cézanne for more than 20 years. In his contribution to the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s exhibition catalogue, Shiff has shown how Cézanne developed a technique of originality, drawing on existing conventions that signified the authentic, the individual and the sincere. Cézanne’s achievement was to push those conventions so far that he made things that no one had ever seen.

A discussion of Cézanne’s originality is always a discussion about hismany supposed technical failings. The myth of Cézanne is that he couldn’t help himself, that his feelings were so strong that drawing, composition and spatial coherence had to give way. Like everyone else, I have always believed that Cézanne could not make an academically correct drawing, and that his achievement lay in transforming his personal incapacity into a whole new set of standards by sheer force of will, application and genius. Until now no evidence to the contrary has been available, so I can’t overstate the shock I felt when I opened Simms’s Cézanne’s Watercolors (published by Yale University Press in 2008), which again features copious details and close-up photographs, to find a very competent academic drawing from Cézanne’s youth. This one reproduction is worth the price of the book. The shock of Cézanne’s academic drawing is the realization that he made a choice—that there was nothing to stop him from following the path of a Degas or a Fantin-Latour; he had the skill. He also had the wit to see that there was no point in going that way, and so he took a different path. He had a choice, and he took a risk. The risk was maybe a greater one than most of his contemporaries were willing to take, but it paid off commensurately because he changed history, thereby ensuring his place within it. What Shiff has shown is that the same risk was available to anyone, that it was within the range of recognized possibilities at that time.

For Cézanne, the “mistakes” and incongruities in his works had to stay because they were signs of his honesty and the work’s truth. This is apparently what he believed, so he was in the peculiar but typically modern position of knowingly allowing his work to fail. But it is precisely the question of a conscious deployment of skill that raises the largest shadow over Milne’s work. Milne is deft, Milne is facile; he has an agile mind and a dry, reserved Protestant wit, but though his work is full of elegantly deliberate missteps—slipped boundaries, wobbly edges, too summary descriptions, reversals of light and shade, accidental compositions—they don’t register the presence of a great artist. This might be because by 1912 they are also not very original.

Milne couldn’t hide his illustrator’s skill, and probably didn’t want to, but as Cézanne shows, it is this dissimulation, which means the creation of a new identity, that is the real task of modern art. The insouciance of modernism is not supposed to be a mannerism. But then Milne is of interest to us today precisely because of the fact that the devices of modernism now are mannerisms. He was ahead of his time and, to paraphrase Baudelaire on Manet, advanced in the decline of his art.

I have to say that I appreciate as never before that Milne was a true sophisticate. Like any artist of superior intellect, he could act the clown. In the Mira Godard show a piece from 1942, The Encounter, includes two stuffed animals. It’s hilarious, but in a way that perhaps can only be appreciated today, and is the more deserving of respect for that. But Milne’s real originality is found in certain mangled forms that appear in the foregrounds of his paintings. An example from the Mira Godard show would be Young Maples in Spring, from 1938, in which an orange blob could be many things, but hardly a maple. But however distorted some of Milne’s objects may be, they don’t even come close to the still-unassimilable horrors of Cézanne’s late bathers. In these works we might distinguish a threefold character of formal originality, grotesque humour and conscious ugliness, which might be three descriptions of the same thing. Milne has dashes of the first, but sadly lacks the other two.

Milne always seems to be just too good, and the medium of watercolour is treacherous for those who master it too well; the deft are rewarded with easy victories followed by historical oblivion. But Milne survives and now has his moment precisely because of his unfortunate professionalism. Today we are even willing to appreciate commercial illustration precisely for its skill, which doesn’t seem as empty as it used to, and I think that Milne’s clean and consistent virtuosity has a new glamour.

Most of the essays in the Philadelphia catalogue that address Cézanne’s successors stick to the conventional modernist line—that Cézanne’s work led the way to a self-referential art of painted surfaces. But while such a mainstream position might do justice to Brice Marden, Ellsworth Kelly and Jasper Johns, it doesn’t apply well to four of the most recent artists included: Luc Tuymans, Francis Alÿs, Jeff Wall and Sherrie Levine, all of whom are definitely postmodernist. Since the theme of the show is Cézanne’s continuing relevance, this component should be the most important, and yet of two reviews that I’ve seen, one in the New York Review of Books and the other in Artforum, only the latter has anything to say about these four, and Jeff Wall is mentioned only in passing. Because Wall’s work does nothing but reference Cézanne’s imagery, its engagement with the master is apparently superficial. I think that a more nuanced reading is called for.

Wall’s piece Card players is an obvious citation of Cézanne’s late series on the same theme, but his treatment of it is completely different. In the art and literature of the 19th century, provincial life appears narrow, dull and oppressive, and I think that Cézanne, an artist who chose to stay in the provinces, who made a virtue out of provinciality, really did capture the suffocating dead air of provincial life. The card players are the most inert people, engaged in the most boring pastime—at least the most boring pastime to watch. I’ve never been convinced by the claim that uninteresting subjects are redeemed by brilliant paint handling, but in any case, in my view the card-player works are not his best paintings—the surprising conclusion is that in Cézanne’s work the style matches the subject. It seems that the arch-modernist is literary in a very unmodernist way. The result is an irony that may be Cézanne’s most profound response to the work of his older contemporary Édouard Manet. The irony of Manet’s great works of the 1860s, such as Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, is the incongruity of historical art and contemporary life. Cézanne has transformed this into another irony, one as prophetic of Warholian blankness as of the furthest reductions of 20th-century abstraction, namely the utter incompatibility of the people depicted in the work and the people who will be its viewers. The flat quality of his painting leaves those sophisticated viewers no place to retreat to in search of aesthetic satisfactions.

Wall belongs to a different realist tradition, one in which the most banal details of everyday life have intrinsic interest; there is no such thing as an uninteresting detail, and no mask is only a mask: there is always a story behind it. Wall is in the company of those great realists who have expanded the scope of art by rescuing the ordinary for aesthetic contemplation. But since the universe so presented is a continuum from the grain of dust swept out the door to the mountain peak shining in the distance, there can be no irony in its presentation.

I think that the indifference to Wall shown by the reviewers is symptomatic of a failure in the general understanding of painting, one that poses a real risk to the future productivity of this art, namely a fixed idea that painting has to involve paint. Wall was the only non-painter in the show. Actually, Levine also showed a photograph, but it was a photo of a work by Cézanne, so that’s another, more familiar problem. Yet Wall’s works are paintings, in the tradition of Flaubert, Degas, Ibsen, Munch and Hopper, not to mention the numerous cinematic equivalents. Literature, cinema, photography and drama become vehicles for painting to expand its expressive range, but only because there are literary, cinematic, photographic and dramatic possibilities already inherent within the medium. The narrow critical focus on paint, brushes and the hands that wield them amounts to a kind of lobotomy of painting’s memory and self-knowledge. The medium is reduced at the very moment that 2,000 years of practice have piled up the richest store of possibilities. They may not be the paintings everyone wants to see, but Wall’s pictures represent a valid position within the history of painting nevertheless.

This brings us to the reason Cézanne is still alive for us today, and back to watercolour. See a loose arrangement of coloured stains, scattered asymmetrically across a sheet of paper. Some of them come together to indicate trunks and branches—strong lines that give structure to the composition without setting limits—others collect in flickering masses to signify foliage— fields of coloured light—others speak to each other across empty areas to model rocks—the folding in and out of space. You could call it an abstraction. But all is surrounded and penetrated by blank paper, by the reserve. The reserve in Cézanne’s work is all the possibilities of painting, but not any particular, familiar one. In the continuous universe, completely filled with facts from beginning to end, he finds the blank, the open space, where an unknown future emerges even now. Such is the fantasy we call art.

This is an article from the Summer 2010 issue of Canadian Art. To read more from this issue, please visit its table of contents

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