The watercolors of Paul Cezanne rank high among the wonders of Western European art. For this reason, the chance of seeing 46 of them at the Acquavella Galleries is not to be missed.
The most remarkable thing about Cezanne’s watercolors is not so much what he did as what he didn’t need to do. He never manipulated the medium. The white of the paper was an equal partner, not a dance floor on which Cezanne would come on like Nijinsky.
There are landscapes in the Acquavella show — among them ”The Bellevue House on the Hill” (1885-1890) and ”The Mill at the Pont des Trois Sautets” (1890-94) — in which Cezanne almost seems to stand aside while the paper does its full share.
He does not spell out the wooded hillside that leads up to the Bellevue House, but the house itself rides high and steadily. We can read it floor by floor and sense just how much of a climb it would be to get there.
There is nothing ”clever” about what Cezanne does, here or anywhere else. He just leaves it to us to marry the extensive untouched white of the paper with his own perfectly judged touches of color, here and there.
With the ”Mill House,” we know from a photograph taken around 1934 by the Cezanne scholar John Rewald that this was a dreary place in scruffy country. But the artist once again let the white of the paper do much of the work.
The mill house, as he showed it, is light enough to dance in the air, almost. The everyday industrial chimney shoots upward toward the sky, changing color as it tops the tree line. The image as a whole has balance, form and proportion. This is a white world, flecked with yellow and green. Maybe it was never like this (the mill no longer exists), but he makes us feel that this was a place to treasure. He shows us how to look, but he also shows us where to live.
Cezanne was the only man who could paint a rose without describing it and leave us convinced that we have seen it. He did this in the ”Rose in Greenery” in the present show. The greenery is an upward oval of pale green leaves, nuanced with blue and purple.
We never see the rose, but we know that it is there because of the touches of pale pink that surround a white center. We do not see it, but we smell it.
The show also has a magnificent wall of still lifes, some of the grandest of the artist’s evocations of rocks, a very fine group of single-figure portraits and some views of the countryside around Aix-en-Provence (including Mont Sainte-Victoire).
There is also an affectionate little ”Game of Love” in which men and women carry on like puppies. But Cezanne’s erotic interests could come out even where they are least expected, as for instance in the ”Two Melons” (circa 1885). What are those two melons doing, one asks oneself, if not making love?
For the colossal sensuality that Cezanne usually kept private, the great drawings of the rocks above the Chateau Noir are the place to look, no matter how indirectly he showed his feelings. There are two such drawings in this show. Rocks are rocks, and we don’t usually think of them as having feelings. But in their tender conjunctions, an undeclared love has its place.
Something that we may never see again on a single wall is the group of eight still lifes that all date from 1900 until 1906 (the year of Cezanne’s death).
So far from leaving things out, in these complex constructions, he continually raised the stakes against himself, as in the ”Still Life With Apples and Inkpot” (1902-06).
The great intruder in this watercolor is the massive inkpot. Everything else echoes the red and the gold of the apples.
Not only are the red and gold present in the apples, on the surface of the table and on the walls, but they also give themselves an encore in that, as Mr. Rewald said, ”the contours of some objects have been repeated so often that they almost seem to be vibrating.” As for the inkpot, it has something weighty to add that is all its own.
Mr. Rewald, in agreement with his longtime colleague Lawrence Gowing, went on to say that ”those strange staccato outlines that Gowing aptly called ‘vibrating edges’ somehow integrate themselves perfectly into the sea of washes which surrounds them, so that — whether this was intended or not — they pulsate in unison.”
Throughout this astonishing wall, Cezanne takes his repertory company of household objects — bottles, a decanter, a skull, a patterned rug, a spirit stove, seasonal fruits and kitchen essentials — and he makes them do something new every time. Never do they look like the last work of a dying man.
As William Rubin reminds us in his foreword to the show, Cezanne wrote to his dealer Ambroise Vollard in 1903: ”I am working doggedly, for I perceive the Promised Land. Shall I be like the great Hebrew leader, or shall I be able to enter it?”