Poker Face

Cézanne’s Card Players
Metropolitan Museum, NYC
Through May 8, 2011

The Metropolitan Museum of Art's small survey of Cézanne's Card Players series highlights three versions or variations of the seminal painting. Although it is indisputable that much of Cézanne's concerns in this group of works -- indeed in much of his painting -- were formal ones, here we see into these pieces something of the psychology that Picasso and Giacometti called "Cézanne’s anxiety."

We might see this as his anxiety over trying to depict the human figure, from the point of view of The Modern Artist. Making and unmaking at the same time; taking apart elements of the body and reassembling them in much the same way that the Industrial Age began to compartmentalize and utilize a growing human workforce. Man might only be created once, yet in the Machine Age, once formed, could be endlessly modified.

Cézanne's project from the outset had been to take the rational and scientific elements from the Impressionists’ School and elaborate on them, with his own idiosyncratic notions of form. The Impressionists had taken ideas from contemporary scientific theories, which had analyzed sunlight, discovering that instead of being a single ray, consisted of a complex wavelength spanning a spectrum from red to violet, like a rainbow. For them this had opened up new systems of color, and many artists, like Seurat and Signac, devoted their careers to capturing the nuances of how light envelopes and describes the objects we see. In order to achieve these effects they set down small patches of pure hue, simulating the fleeting effects of light on surfaces outdoors. In doing so, they ameliorated 500 years of studio-constrained painting by working directly from nature.

Cézanne developed these ideas further; his Card Players reject the received notions of the time, such as accepted false theories of perspective and composition. He believed that the Impressionists lacked a certain amount of discipline and could not build a strong enough aesthetic to rival schools of the past. Color alone was not enough for his project; Form would also have to be attacked in order to restructure the feeling of shape in a pictorial space.

The three variations of Card Players don’t represent three distinct persons at the table. Nor do we get much of a sense of an impending drama or event occurring or about to happen. In fact, in much the same way that the cards are presented turned away from us, the personalities of these men is kept in check, largely hidden like a hand of cards. There is, as in much of Cézanne’s work, particularly when the subject matter includes women and bathers, a persistent, embarrassed concern with the figure on display. In the paintings here, Cézanne shows such reserve that we begin to see the figures less as peasants at play and more as abstract forms. This, in large part, allows the sense of painterly space to open up, giving us a fresh view, a new way of seeing. By taking apart the elemental aspects of a traditional figure–ground composition, with its perspectival illusionism, Cézanne has shown us that we might better see into his painting by following its elements piece by piece through the work, like Hansel and Gretel chasing a trail of breadcrumbs.

Eugène Delacroix, writing on the works of Shakespeare, could have just as easily been describing Cézanne's methodology: "He adds or subtracts, adapting his material to suit his purpose, giving you people created out of his imagination, but real for all that. This is a sure sign of genius . . . his inventiveness is inexhaustible, he knows how to combine the true with the ideal."- Bradley Rubenstein

Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.