It’s intimidating and kind of pointless for a painter to write about Paul Cézanne. It’s like trying to describe or explain God. Why bother? No words suffice. It just is and what I do couldn’t exist without what this guy did over a hundred years ago. It’s not a debt that can be repaid or even adequately grasped.

A Cézanne retrospective opened the day before I returned from my East Coast drive. I made it in on the last day of members-only previews, before the unwashed masses were to be let in. I made that joke to a guy I recognized in the galleries from going to movies and he wanted to debate who exactly these unwashed masses were and whether we were washed in comparison. Glad I didn’t go into comedy.

There are some entities and influences we take for granted. Like they were always there and it’s impossible to conceive of a world without them. I felt that way at the Chicago Theatre over a decade ago listening to Leonard Cohen. The idea that the old man in the sharp suit on stage wrote all those songs was a circle I had trouble squaring. Same with Cézanne. For anyone involved with perceptual painting, he’s like a giant boulder blocking the path. No way to ignore it, pretend it’s not there. No turning back either, unless you’re content playacting an alternate reality. What he did was figure out how to render the act of looking.

It’s a vision that centers subjectivity, motion, and change, rather than stability, hierarchy, or order. Probably no coincidence that he worked out his methods the same time when Nietzsche was killing God. Nobody who believes in a benevolent creator fashioning and guiding the universe could see their surroundings in the slippery, undependable way Cézanne saw his.

And yet he was also very flawed as an artist. His figures—especially when unclothed—are hopelessly clunky and wooden. They rarely relate in any convincing way to their environment. The bathers are the worst. It’s some sort of ersatz Eden that he keeps trying to evoke, but what comes out is more like the cheapo decor of a Greek eatery. 

Like many of the innovators of his time, Cézanne came up in the French academic system and utterly failed its dogmatic, leaden course of study. Had he excelled, he’d likely be forgotten. It was his inability to make bacchanales, formal portraits, or history paintings that forced him into finding another way. Yet the remnants of that staid education reverbrate throughout his career. The Art Institute has chosen to reproduce the lousy epic last bathers painting across three flags attached to its façade. I left the show to get an iced coffee at Starbucks across the street and noticed them and was really disappointed. What draws art professionals to those lumpy ladies? They’re featureless and often have two left legs. They look like they were cut-and-pasted into a fantasy forest without much bother about reconciling figure and ground.

It’s reassuring that Cézanne was such a bad figure painter. Makes him almost human. When people are clothed and he knows them well, he does much better. There’s one really good self-portrait in the show that underscores what a taciturn, disagreeable man he must have been. The expression on his mug wonders why the viewer has intruded on the man’s privacy, except that he himself is also the viewer! Not a guy I would ever want to meet. Best to leave him alone to paint his mountains, trees, fruit, and bottles and marvel at the results.

Despite the members-only restriction, the galleries are packed. I go back and forth through the rooms a few times, noting the four or five pictures I know I’ll return to on future visits. The only major series I miss is his card players. Only one sketch of a single card player is included. The biggest surprise is an earth tone picture of Paris rooftops. It feels like the kind of composition I’ve attempted many times. I didn’t know Cézanne had tried it too. He’s mainly a village and nature guy, rather than a city creature. This one almost looks like a Marquet. Marquet is a big influence, but much more manageable and human-scale than Cézanne. Strolling through, I remember what Barnet Newman said about Cézanne’s apples. That they were like super-apples, that they oppressed him. Newman was a blowhard and a mediocre painter, but he had a point. There’s this ascetic remove in the best Cézannes. Like they were assembled by a being either beyond or incapable of everyday emotions. It can be offputting sometimes. But when these pictures connect, they alter the way you see the world with your own eyes. 

The shifting perspectives, the jagged horizon line, the endless retries to capture the same motifs that will always elude him. Cézanne’s whole thing is about conveying how it is to be, day to day. hour to hour, moment to moment. It’s often not a comforting or welcoming world that he shows, but it’s one I recognize all too well.