If These Apples Should Fall: Cézanne and the Present 
by T.J. Clark.
Thames and Hudson, 239 pp., £30, August 2022, 978 0 500 02528 4
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T.J.Clark begins If These Apples Should Fall with a restaging of his first encounter with Cézanne, when as a 15-year-old in 1958 he was amazed by a reproduction of The Basket of Apples: ‘I think I can retrieve the feeling even sixty years later.’ This is one version of ‘the present’ in his subtitle, the summoning of a then of Cézanne painting and Clark looking into a now of his writing and our reading. It is a fiction of immediacy that Clark deploys, very effectively, to different ends. First and foremost it conjures Cézanne’s struggle to capture the ‘sensation’ of his motifs, including the still lifes, landscapes and portraits of peasants known as The Card Players, which Clark focuses on and frames with chapters on what Cézanne learned from Pissarro and what Matisse learned from Cézanne. ‘Putting aspects of the world into the same surface is, for Cézanne, putting them into the eye’ – yet ‘being in the eye’ is also ‘its being over there in space’. This is the crux of ‘the Cézanne effect’: it is how he makes a world ‘happen’, Clark argues, and ‘the present’ also refers to his own vigorous account of this painstaking process. In turn, this present opens onto a further sense of the word that qualifies the others: the present of our time, which is hardly one with Cézanne’s. ‘The world I saw there was so entirely familiar and yet so distant,’ Clark writes of The Basket of Apples, and ‘that basic uncanny’ – the word recurs often – is one of his deep subjects.

‘The Basket of Apples’ (c.1893)

The book’s primary emphasis is on perception – Cézanne’s, Clark’s and our own – and its distinct translations into paint and prose, but any phenomenological bracketing of society and history is only intermittent. Even if Clark found that bracketing desirable, our distance from Cézanne makes it impossible, and into this space he pours a near lifetime of research and reflection. The book is very discursive, with various interlocutors called up as needed. Some voices are expected, such as contemporaneous commentators on Cézanne (testimony of this sort is a staple of social art history). We hear, too, from exegetes like Roger Fry and Clement Greenberg, whose formalist approach Clark has become more patient with over the years. He also cites key figures in the Hegelian-Marxist line of critique, such as György Lukács, who have informed his thinking since his days as a young Situationist. More surprising are powerful statements from Ernst Bloch, who gives Clark his minatory title, and Samuel Beckett, who underscores the alien aspect in Cézanne that intrigues Clark. Above all, as Clark debates these others, he argues with himself, and though he often gathers his readers into the ‘we’ of his thinking, he sometimes imagines them as potential sceptics too. The conversation is orchestrated in this complex way because under no circumstances does Clark want his perspective to resolve or any account to settle: ‘The kind of writing that I find best gets me not to have a “view” of Cézanne, thus moving me closer to that first incomprehension [in 1958], is a narrative of repeated looking.’ Resistance to resolution is what he values most in Cézanne, and in this respect his prose is true to the painting, even mimetic of it. As Cézanne confronts his motif again and again, so Clark confronts Cézanne.

This art history also appears entirely familiar and yet so distant: familiar because it is of a part with the social art history that Clark did so much to reanimate in the 1970s and 1980s, and distant because his approach has undergone a sea change since then. In 1973 he published two companion volumes, Image of the People: Gustave Courbet and the 1848 Revolution and The Absolute Bourgeois: Artists and Politics in France, 1848-51, which soon became essential reference points in 19th-century art history. These were followed by his equally influential The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers (1985), a recasting of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism in Situationist terms as ambivalent responses to the becoming-spectacle of Paris and its environs during the Second Empire and the Third Republic. While the first two texts were written, as Clark later remarked, ‘in ignominious but unavoidable retreat from the events’ of 1968, the third could be read as an indirect attack on the neoliberalism of Thatcher and Reagan in the 1980s. In all three books, then, he worked to keep modernist art in critical parallax with contemporary politics. This tense connection was given a different twist in his next volume, Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism (1999), which claimed that, though modernism and socialism had belonged together as co-antagonists of capitalism, this uneasy rapport was rubbished by ‘the new world order’ after 1989. In fact, Clark argued, the very modernity that modernism had once engaged critically had now ruined it: modernism had become ‘our antiquity’.

Clark shifted his approach dramatically in The Sight of Death: An Experiment in Art Writing (2006), which recorded his responses to just two paintings by Poussin, Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake (c.1648) and Landscape with a Calm (1650-51), when they were hung together at the Getty in Los Angeles for a few months in 2000. Although Clark has always adhered closely to the work of art, here his attention became almost obsessive. In effect, he placed his own reactions to Poussin ahead of the comments of contemporaries that had long provided the source material of his social-historical accounts. Many of his followers were dismayed by his apparent apostasy, but Clark was forthright about what drove him to it. Social art history had re-emerged in reaction to the dominance of formalist and iconographic protocols; at the time it was almost scandalous to relate an artwork to its cultural conditions. Now, as Clark pointed out, this procedure had become accepted, almost rote. Who didn’t believe that art was part and parcel of the world? If Clark lost some supporters with his phenomenological turn, he gained others for whom his experiment became a template: The Sight of Death launched a thousand seminar papers.

While If These Apples Should Fall follows on from Farewell to an Idea in structure, and even more so from Picasso and Truth: From Cubism to Guernica (2013), it returns to The Sight of Death in style, since the new book is also sometimes diaristic and often essayistic. Here again Clark uses an informal mode of address in order to keep his thinking as lively and unfixed as possible. Social-historical forces and art-historical precedents aren’t ignored, but they are treated as ‘inherences’ in the work more than as ‘surroundings’ of it. At moments Clark is explicit: ‘The deeper the thinking involved in an artwork’s way with its sources, the more imperative it is that interpretation stay on the surface’ – a statement that many formalists and semioticians, with whom Clark once sparred, would happily affirm. Or again: ‘We have no choice … but to move between two sorts of concern’ – what Cézanne does with his material, and ‘other accounts of the world’. ‘Framing a better answer to questions of the second type,’ he writes, ‘will not displace those of the first … but rather, will sharpen the questions, refocus them, letting the critic see the material … more precisely – because the intentionality of the material has become clearer.’ This is an exacting procedure but not a controversial one, and at times the book is almost traditional in its concern with influences and techniques, often juxtaposing artworks to adduce both. ‘Cézanne came to Pissarro to unlearn his first style, and, seemingly, to change his mind about Courbet, Manet and Delacroix’ is not an atypical sentence.

Or, rather, the book might seem traditional if Clark weren’t such an active protagonist in his own argument. In part this self-staging comes with a phenomenological perspective (Clark counts Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s great essay ‘Cézanne’s Doubt’ as one inspiration), and it is accentuated by psychoanalysis as well. This isn’t new to Clark – his social art history often read its sources symptomatically too – yet here he is the analysand as much as Cézanne. This self-staging is engaging, and Clark has unquestionably earned it, but at times it comes across as cajoling. Like a passionate friend tugging at one’s sleeve in a museum, he constantly enjoins us to see, to compare, to reconsider, and the intensity of this viewing-and-reviewing can be a bit wearing. (‘Enough with the blue-black curtain!’ is one of my margin notes in the chapter on still lifes.) Ditto all the rhetorical questions and Socratic teases: ‘Is it the case …’, ‘Can we agree …’ and so on. At the same time If These Apples Should Fall is a very generous text. Clark invites us in on his reflexive meditations – a welcome relief from academic arguments that are almost paranoiacally designed to be bulletproof from first sentence to final footnote.

‘The fundamental wordlessness of painting’ is precious to Clark, all the more so in a world that seems to be subsumed by image technologies – an updating of the Situationist complaint about spectacle – yet remains, in his view, driven by verbal commands and brand logos (agree here, buy this, post that, just do it). The materiality of painting is also a prime ground of his own materialism; here as elsewhere Clark regards both the distinctiveness of the visual and the difficulty of picturing as almost intrinsically resistant. At the same time, like all art historians, he is tasked with translating pictures into words, and he embraces, even exacerbates, this difficulty. For Clark ekphrastic description is at once necessary and doomed to fail, a verdict he extends to his own poems, which, often based on paintings under discussion, first appeared in The Sight of Death and return here: ‘I think the two poems make an appropriate start to the book, above all because they try to suggest – almost to perform – the bewilderment of seeing a Cézanne for the first time.’ Clark worries at his terminology throughout: ‘The balance of oddity and accuracy’ in Cézanne is ‘hard to hold onto in words’; ‘What kind of language is appropriate’ for Matisse? That ‘language is under strain’ is underscored by the proliferation of italicised phrases and scare quotes, as well as ventriloquised eruptions when the pictures, as though frustrated with all this talk, speak their intentions directly. All this is so disarming because Clark is such an artful writer, with a lexicon as demotic as it is expert.

Clark is keenest on those moments when meaning, both in the paintings and in his own prose, breaks down or refuses to come together. This interest has led him to an affinity for deconstruction, and the work of Paul de Man in particular. Given the onetime fascist sympathies of de Man, this is a strange fellowship, which Clark almost begrudges: ‘The term “deconstruction” might really be technically appropriate for once,’ he writes at one point. But no other term accounts as well for another crucial aspect of the Cézanne effect, which is that ‘notions as seemingly basic as foreground and background may no longer apply … Maybe not even inside and outside. Nor experience and representation. Nor “now” and “then”.’

‘A de Manian reading would reveal the mismatch between meaning and image,’ the art historian Christopher Wood has written, ‘both the failure of the image to say what it means, and the way that image generates inadvertent and unexpected meanings in the very process of trying and failing to signify.’ For Clark, ‘this is the anxiety, and also the utopian horizon, that drives the fanatic process on’ in Cézanne. Much the same came be said of Clark: ‘Over-interpretation is just the name we give to the moment when criticism admits – gives a gasp at – the gap between form and content.’ Clark turns to deconstruction as a further defence against any fetishisation of the paintings and any reification of his thinking.

Perhaps this is also why Clark uses the term ‘uncanny’ as often as he does. It is his way of signalling the many moments in Cézanne when his ‘strangeness of vision … refuses to take anything for granted.’ Although the repetition of the word sometimes renders it a floating signifier, connoting ‘disquiet’ here and ‘unreality’ there, that may be just as Clark intends it. For many of us the uncanny is overdetermined by Freud, who defines it as the return of a familiar thing made strange by repression. For Clark, however, the uncanniness in Cézanne is a matter less of his psyche (there is no shortage of such readings) than of the world around him. The effect of estrangement may be psychological, but the cause is social, a corollary of the ‘uncertainty’ that modernity brings with it (the line about capitalism from The Communist Manifesto, ‘all that is solid melts into air,’ is in the background somewhere). In short, Clark pushes uncanniness in Freud towards estrangement in Marx to get at the particular weirdness of the Cézanne world: a piece of fruit that is a ‘non-pear [and] non-apple’, a surface in one of The Card Players paintings that is a ‘non-wall and non-window’, folds of cloth that are ‘liable to take on a life of their own’, landscapes that somehow get ‘familiarity and unfamiliarity, nearness and apartness’ to co-exist. It is a world of ‘deathly animation’, Clark insists, ‘and isn’t this the basic scandal – the aliveness and deadness entwined – that gives a Cézanne its power?’ As we may guess, what Clark detects in Cézanne is a world touched with the black magic of the commodity, a world in which (to cite Marx again, this time from Capital) ‘the fantastic form of a relation between things’ has begun to displace the ‘definite social relation between men’. ‘Vividness’ – a term Clark offers for this uncanny (in)animation of objects produced for exchange-value – ‘is one thing, availability – humanness, use-value – another.’ Although a Cézanne still life, landscape or portrait may appear to be ‘autarkic’, his ‘view of matter and space’ is thoroughly ‘social’. Cézanne’s art is directed at a culture in which ‘an entirely necessary, but utterly foreign, language for a new form of apprehension had come into being.’

‘If a piece of writing stays true to that basic uncanny,’ Clark proposes as his own test, ‘it passes muster.’ In this respect it is fair to say that Clark not only emulates Cézanne but also identifies with him, even (or especially) in his wilfulness. Certainly the prose in If These Apples Should Fall ‘tips’ and ‘tilts’ as much as any Cézanne still life, and its argument is punctuated by striking comparisons and stretched connections. Clark likes to jump from sensation to significance, from specific painting to general point, and back again. Often considered a theoretical flaw, this lack of mediation is, for Clark, true to looking at and thinking about Cézanne. ‘Je vois. Par taches,’ Cézanne remarked, which Clark translates freely as ‘seeing is patchwork.’ Saying what the art is ‘about’, Clark states in this same spirit: ‘I flinch from doing this.’ He is thus most mimetic in his desire to tarry in the antinomies of a Cézanne painting, as Cézanne tarries in the antinomies of modern perception. ‘No painter, I reckon, has ever risked conjuring space out of such a standoff between opposed realities,’ Clark claims of the truly bizarre landscape titled The Red Rock (1895-1900). And of a peculiar rendering of a favourite motif, Mont Sainte-Victoire, that is both ‘most like a body’ and ‘least like an organism’, Clark writes: ‘We are treated … to the spectacle of two kinds of understanding of the material world confronting each other nakedly, with no other mediation than the painter’s will.’

Clark also values this tolerance, even talent, for antinomy in Pissarro, who is less extreme than Cézanne, and in Matisse, who at times is more so. For instance, he describes the ‘Matisse effect’ as ‘the co-existence of hedonism and anxiety, or blandness and blackness’, in one and the same painting. In fact, for Clark modernism in general is antinomic, necessarily so because the modernity that it addresses is itself antinomic. After contrasting Matisse with artists as different as John Heartfield and Andy Warhol, Clark concludes: ‘The choice, however, is a false one. For it seems to be the very nature of the 20th century that it invites, in a sense prescribes, entirely opposite and contradictory art tactics in face of its enormities.’ For Clark modernity is not simply the condition of the best modernist work; rather, it is ‘the question the picture exists to put’: ‘The argument – the absolutism of the alternatives, the beauty of the either/or, the complete conviction that here, in the picture, at last one alternative or the other will be proven – is modernity.’

In this way ‘modernism’ and ‘modernity’ do a lot of labour in the new book, and sometimes they also border on mana words, signifying at once too much and too little. This is an occupational hazard for anyone who strives to connect modern art to its social conditions, and it cannot be avoided with Cézanne. ‘He knew – his painting was his knowing – what modernity felt like. And he understood that a very great deal – almost everything – about painting would have to be reconstructed if that knowledge was to be given form.’ Giving artistic form to modern formlessness: Clark has offered this thumbnail definition of modernism before, and he doubles down on it here. It draws on an old-school idea of modernity: Max Weber on ‘the disenchantment’ of a rationalised world, Georg Simmel on the ‘indifference’ of a money economy, and Lukács on the ‘homelessness’ of the modern novel. Clark sees a ‘no-whereness’ in Cézanne too: ‘Modernity is loss of world. Cézanne is the painter who makes that cliché draw blood.’ Yet Cézanne expresses ‘elation’ as well as ‘horror’ at this state of affairs. Clark carries this formula for modernist ambivalence about modernity over from Farewell to an Idea; it is how his preferred artists respond to the creative-destructive energies of capitalism. He sees these effects translated into pictorial terms in a typical Cézanne: ‘groundlessness, airlessness, absence of contact, lack of distance but also of proximity, lack of the sense of a palpable shared world, uncertainty and a strange false vividness’ (that synonym for uncanniness again). ‘Modern experience just is this evenness and disequilibrium in high tension,’ and Cézanne delivers it. At the same time Cézanne was no Marxist, and he was far more conservative than the anarchist Pissarro. Yet this very conservativism, when embedded in the paintings, may make them critical in another, romantic anti-capitalist way, even if this resistance necessarily fails: ‘The Basket of Apples hates the object called modernity. It sets up a whole impossible anti-modernity to stave it off … a peasant world, a natural world, a world of endurances and irremovables … But not for a moment does the painting ask us to believe that its set-up will stave off the reality of the 1890s.’

Clark wants art history to match the philosophical ambition of artists like Cézanne, Pissarro and Matisse, and his determination prompts exquisite insights. Of Landscape Near Pontoise (1872), for example, he writes:

Space is not distance, says Pissarro, not a journey to a horizon: it is here where we are, an immense proximity, a total intuition of place and extent. And Time is not becoming, not endless contingency: it is a Now that goes on being Now as we live it, a unique kind of permanence.

‘Every instant deserves to be monumentalised,’ Clark adds, dissolving in a sentence the old cliché about Impressionism. ‘It is not a “moment” fizzing by.’ Other claims may come across as excessive: ‘Greek philosophy and French painting (meaning the line from Corot to Matisse … ) may be seen as events of equal weight,’ since both ‘speak to a fundamental change in the conditions of representation in the cultures that gave rise to them’. Clark isn’t shy about comparing his favourite painters with the mightiest philosophers – Cézanne with Plato and Kant, Picasso with Nietzsche, Pollock with Hegel – if that is what it takes to make the art count. He understands that such analogies may embarrass other art historians, but believes that such embarrassment often ‘functions as an alibi … for not exposing oneself to what painting is capable of, and not pushing language to follow in painting’s wake’. (Clark launched a similar critique of the discipline in the TLS as early as 1974.) Sometimes his drive to equal the ambition of the art leads him to hyperbolise and hypostatise. But this is a risk he is willing to take (‘outlandish’ is a compliment in this text), and he is not the first (or, hopefully, the last) art historian to do so.

Not long ago, Clark writes, ‘the very nature of modern art, and the nature of writing about art, ancient and modern, had seemed to turn on the Cézanne problem.’ This is hardly self-evident today (if it ever was): Cézanne is so ‘remote from the temper of our times’ that it is unclear whether he can even be ‘written about any more’. This, finally, is why Clark works so hard to make Cézanne matter; his value across time and culture can no longer be assumed. Of course, both contentions – everything turns on Cézanne, nothing does – are overstated. Here Clark seems charged by the urgent warning issued by Bloch in The Spirit of Utopia (1916) that serves as the book’s epigraph: ‘The apples of Cézanne are not fruit any longer, nor fruit made over into paint; instead all imaginable life is in them, and if they should fall, a universal conflagration would ensue.’ This threat to ‘all imaginable life’ speaks to the catastrophe of the First World War, which many Europeans – not only the Oswald Spenglers of the time but also art historians such as Heinrich Wölfflin and Aby Warburg – did see as the end of all civilisation. Clark asks where we are now in relation to this fall (yet one more sense of ‘the present’ in his subtitle), with the implication that the most disastrous thing might be not to feel any loss at all, to be past caring about those odd apples.

‘We are no longer part of a world’ in which Bloch’s line holds, Clark argues. ‘Some will consider this a pity, some a relief.’ Several questions are in the air here, most of which he anticipates. First, is ours still a modernity of disenchantment and homelessness, or are we not, as Clark suggests in If These Apples Should Fall as well as in Heaven on Earth: Painting and the Life to Come (2018), deep into a massive re-enchantment of the world, at least for people who, consumed with consumption or religion or both, do not feel so estranged? Second, does the modernism of a Cézanne speak to that vast constituency now, if it ever did? Third, who is this ‘we’? – a question that today is almost a reflex and often accusatory but cannot be bracketed. For whom is this projected loss a ‘pity’? This seems clear enough; aficionados of modernism like Clark are only first among that number. Who might feel ‘relief’ at the loss isn’t so obvious. ‘What would it be like (here is the question) not to have a view of Cézanne? Not to have a sense of his meaning for us, in other words, his lesson, his largeness – not to have his art “fit” anywhere, least of all in a history of modern art?’

This is a scary notion for us modernists, since it broaches not only the historical obsolescence of modernism and its study but also their sheer irrelevance. These ‘viewless’ others are not only the philistines of old whom the avant-garde needed as a foil, or the pragmatic students of today whose parents shoo them away from art as though it were economic suicide. They are also people who are as deeply committed to innovative culture as any modernist, but who come with questions and commitments that simply don’t pass through the modernist gate. In short, modernism may not be the central event, the quasi-universal necessity, that many of us have long believed it to be, and perhaps modernity has to be rethought too. For many people modernism is just a distracting sideshow in the outrageous spectacle that is modernity – modernity understood above all as the history of imperialism and colonialism, the primitive accumulation, labour exploitation and wealth inequality that are still inscribed in, among countless other places, the collections in which all these Cézannes hang. If the demise of socialism put paid to a particular idea of modernism, the contemporary politics of decolonisation may call in a far greater debt, one that modernists are in no position to pay. Some will see this demand as a form of blackmail, if not of barbarism, yet Clark knows that most of these questions are serious and most of the claims are legitimate. Palliatives that come to mind – such as ‘art history is not a zero-sum game’ or ‘seeing well, painting intensely and thinking hard is the best revenge’ – won’t cut it.

‘Everything in the painting is falling – and where it falls to is where we are,’ Clark writes of The Basket of Apples at the outset. Is this book, then, a truly final farewell to an idea of modernism? It arrives 23 years after the original Farewell to an Idea, and at a time of disaster exceeding that of the 1990s. Yet the tone of If These Apples Should Fall is not ‘melancholic’, as Clark admitted Farewell to an Idea might seem, and neither is it a collection of fragments shored against his ruin, as the earlier book could also be understood. Clark once called the young Greenberg an ‘Eliotic Trotskyite’, and Malcolm Bull referred to the Clark of Farewell to an Idea, also oxymoronically, as a ‘Greenbergian Situationist’. Neither term applies to this book, but an equally contradictory formulation is needed. If These Apples Should Fall follows Farewell to an Idea chronologically, but it seems to come before it in the sense that the fate of Cézanne, of modernism, isn’t yet sealed here. Perhaps Clark never did bid farewell to modernism, or maybe the ‘falling’ in this book qualifies the end suggested in Farewell to an Idea. Clark gives us a clue to this complicated, somewhat inchoate thought when he cites a line, attributed to Nietzsche, about late 19th-century art being ‘the last metaphysical activity within European nihilism’, and comments that since this ‘assumption is a thing of the past’ (he means the phrase in its original Hegelian sense that an activity must be completely concluded before it can be fully understood), writing on Cézanne exists ‘in a strange, maybe fruitful, limbo’. This signals that ‘the Cézanne problem’, the modernist question, isn’t over and done with but waiting to be – what exactly? Not solved, let alone redeemed, but maybe kicked around and tripped over à la Beckett. We can’t go on, we go on.

These reflections give the book’s finale a boost of intensity, which suggests an ultimate point of affinity between Clark and Cézanne. Clark deals mostly with late Cézanne, and taken together these pictures might qualify as a ‘late style’ (at one point Clark invokes an analogy with the last quartets of Beethoven, the locus classicus of the notion). Some of the paintings possess the contradictory mix of asperity and excess that is characteristic of this style; also typical is how others return to first principles in a way that renders the devil-may-care attitude of old age difficult to distinguish from the rashness of youth. And much the same might be said of this book. It is ‘late’ not only in its embrace of the non-human in Cézanne (Clark cites with relish Beckett’s description of a Mont Sainte-Victoire painting as ‘incommensurable with all human expressions whatsoever’), but also in its refusal to resolve any and all contradictions. Less melancholic than Farewell to an Idea about the loss of the past, still contemptuous of any bromide concerning the future (Clark is the author of a blistering text, ‘For a Left with No Future’, that calls for a renouncing of technological pipe dreams), and very alert to ‘the present’ as riven not only by antinomy but also by possibility, it too is distinctive of late style at its most bracing.

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