The Camden Town Group in Context

ISBN 978-1-84976-385-1

Walter Richard Sickert, ‘Mesopotamia-Cézanne’

The New Age, 5 March 1914, pp.569–70.

By Walter Sickert.
Chatto and Windus have just brought out at five shillings a book of absorbing interest, by Mr. Clive Bell, entitled “Art.” No one who reads it will, I am sure, find the brief and somewhat comprehensive title either arrogant or misleading. It contains some of the profoundest, truest and most courageous considerations stated with connected and well-supported conviction. The book is not only racy and readable, but – rarest of all things on this subject – it is comprehensible. The book may be described as an endeavour to disengage, in the consideration of painting, that something, apart from representation, which makes of one canvas a work of art, and of another a still-born record of facts. Briefly summarised Mr. Bell suggests that this something is the creation of significant form.
Particularly happy is the place he assigns to colour. I doubt if this place has ever been more justly assigned in words than on pages 236 and 237. “Colour becomes significant only when it has been made subservient to form.” And so on. The analogies drawn from literature by a consideration of content and form in great poetry are suggestive. Whole movements are touched off with a lightness that must seem flippant to the ignorant. The justice of these summaries only proves Mr. Bell to be “Subtilissimus brevitatis artifex.” Witness the treatment of the Pre-Raphaelites, and the few lines on Whistler and the phrase “imposed design” as applied to Whistler.
Nor is the value of the book as an illuminant to thought on painting, henceforth impossible to ignore, sensibly lowered by the fact that it is written round a movement which is no movement, or that the prophet has got hold of the wrong end of the wrong Messiah. I can see poor Cézanne’s face at a “Cubist” exhibition! Never was a serious artist more shamelessly exploited than was Cézanne when his respectable name was made to cover the impudent theories of Matisse and Picasso, who, talented themselves, have invented an academic formula which is the salvation of all arrivistes without talent. I can see the bewilderment of Cézanne’s poor ghost if he could meet the countless officials and smart ladies who have swallowed him whole, theophagists of undeterred digestion. Most of them, as ill-luck will have it, give a Hamburg turn to their admiration by pronouncing “Cézanne” as if it rhymed with “Kahn.” So did the “belles, dear boy,” and “the swells, dear boy,” of the ’eighties, whom we succeeded in vaccinating with a knowledge of the existence of Monsieur Degas, invariably write and pronounce him “Dégas.” Converts are proverbially somewhat amateurish in their gestures of devotion.
I am not in any way disheartened when I find a brilliant critic and philosopher come down “wallop” when he touches concrete instances. Mr. Bell does not build his philosophy, like Lombroso, on tablifications of concrete instances. When we find Lombroso deducing immense and far-reaching laws on genius from tables in which Henner, and others still less consequent, stand for examples of genius in painting, we are inclined to suspect that Lombroso is perhaps only a high-class and extremely entertaining Mr. Gribble. Mr. Bell’s philosophy is to [sic] true, so lucid, and so intuitive that it seems in no way to depend, on the concrete propaganda that he gaily tacks on to it.
We like him the better for it. It is only human that, standing in the midst of it as he does, he should see the “Cubist” movement as more important and more permanent than it is. Mr. Fry’s irruption at the Grafton Galleries with his band of Cubist “wraughters,” striking terror into Sir William and Sir Philip, is too recent for Mr. Bell not to have a tenderness for the larks – Di magni! What larks! and how many! – of which he is one of the wittiest parts!
But the Cézanne question must be faced seriously. Now to us, born – in parts – of the Impressionist movement, Cézanne has always been a dear, a venerated and beloved uncle. We have known him all our lives. I who speak to you am filled with suppressed pages, respectful and attendri pages on what is beautiful in Cézanne’s painting, and lovely and admirable in his life. But when Dr. Kenealy-Bell “asserts without fear of contradiction” that Cézanne is Sir Roger Charles Doughty Tichborne we must really begin to examine the evidence!
“Cheer up, Sir Roger,” the old song ran:
Cheer up, Sir Roger, you are a jolly brick!
For if you ain’t Sir Roger, you are Old Nick!
Hear Mr. Bell:
“Cézanne is one of the greatest colourists that ever lived.”
“We feel towards a picture by Cézanne or Masaccio or Giotto. ...”
“Cézanne is the type of the perfect artist.” He is the archetype of the imperfect artist.
“What the future will owe to Cézanne we cannot guess.”
“Cézanne is the Christopher Columbus of a new continent of form.”
Form! Great heavens! The reader asks himself in presence of such statements whether it is the writer or himself who is what my friend Hubby calls “roofy.” Aristides was ostracised because the Athenians were tired of hearing him called “the Just.” But at least it appears that he was just. Suppose him a shifty, self-pitying person who had paltered with the public thing entrusted to him, who had not even the character to stand by his own apologies, there would have been no need for ostracism. He would have ostracised himself. The difficulties that a painter must always experience in dealing with the Cézanne cult are the very real beauty of the tiny percentage of Cézanne’s successes, and the immense respect and sympathy inspired by Cézanne’s character and industry. To criticise him is, morally, almost like criticising an artist without arms who has aroused the very proper sympathy and patronage of royalty. Artists with arms can take care of themselves, even without the patronage of royalty. And one of the functions proper to royalty is that of a public Sister of Mercy, who shall allot the prizes of encouragement so lamentably forgotten by destiny. The holders of the real prizes are in no way troubled by these graceful acts of prerogative.
The posthumous Cézanne-boom raises questions of more general interest. Owing to skilful operations by the international holders of picture-stock, Cézannes have succeeded in setting the Spree, if not the Seine, on fire. The keen eyes of speculation are now set on John Bull’s pocket. It is the story of the Emperor’s new clothes over again. “If you are really intelligent,” runs the mot d’ordre, “you will see that Cézanne is the greatest draughtsman that ever was.” It was a bold bluff, for he is perhaps the worst.
I am not suggesting, I may here say, that the critics who differ from me in this are the accomplices of the people who are holding Cézanne stock, I am suggesting that they are the innocent dupes of an atmosphere which has been created, more than anyone suspects, firstly, by speculative interests, and, secondly, by the fact that all the self-advertisers and all the incompetents among students have rallied joyously to the banner of Cézanne, and made of his reputation a “convoi d’opposition” as was exquisitely said of the funeral of General Lamarque. “We needn’t draw any more, thank God!” [“]Mr. Fry thinks nothing of accomplishment. How comfortable!” “Handicap us in a race? Compare us? You can’t. We defy you! We’re not horses any longer. We are hippogryphs.” I admit that a hippogryph withdraws himself safely outside the range of criticism as applied hitherto to horses. He places himself hors concours, indeed.
Cézanne, less than anyone, achieved significant form. What is the first gift needed to achieve significant [end of p.569] form? A sense of àplomb. I remember Degas once pointing out to me how Monet always got his masses d’àplomb intuitively. “Sacré Monet,” he cried with playful envy. All great draughtsmen have had this powerful sense of àplomb, Keene, Charles Jacques, Karel du Jardin, Rowlandson, and hosts of others. Cézanne was utterly incapable of getting two eyes to tally, or a figure to sit or stand without lurching. I admit he was looking for something else, for certain relations of colour. But the great painters get their objects d’àplomb, and get finer, richer and more varied relations of colour than Cézanne ever attained. My grandfather, Johannes Sickert, who was a painter and lithographer, used to end every letter to his son with this admonition, “Male gut und schnell.” And he was right. Owing to the tragic slowness of Cézanne’s procedure, he was practically limited to grey effects, a fault that I pointed out in the practice of Bastien Lepage, due to the same cause, twenty years ago. The often quoted saying of Cézanne’s that he wished to make of Impressionism something durable like the art of the Museums, has been quoted too often. I know he wanted to. But while he only wanted to, and tried to, countless others before and after him not only wanted to do so, but did it, and will do it when Cézanne is only remembered as a curious and pathetic by-product of the Impressionist group, and when Cubism has gone as lightly as it has come.
Quel che vien de tinche tanche,
Se ne va de ninche nanche.
I doubt if the critics of a decade even look at the work that their little fashions consider to have been ruled out. Ten years ago salvation was not to be found outside the New English Art Club. With its “centres” of Mr. Sargent’s less important, and Mr. von Glehn’s more important commissions, it was supposed to differ in kind from the Royal Academy, and to constitute a “movement.” The Royal Academy still remains the critic’s bugbear, and Sir Edward Poynter is cast, ex officio, for the rôle of Beelzebub. I wonder if Mr. Fry and Mr. Bell have really ever had a drawing by Sir Edward Poynter in their hands since they left Cambridge. They will not suspect me of academic prejudice. Would they be surprised to hear that I believe that the painters of the future are much more likely to turn for guidance to the excellent Ingres tradition that lingers in Sir Edward’s painting, and that I consider his drawings to belong to the rapidly diminishing category of real drawings? It is absurd that I should have to insist on this.
Monsieur Degas said to me in 1885 a thing I have never forgotten, a thing of the highest historical interest. He said, “I always urged my contemporaries to look for interest and inspiration to the development and study of drawing. But they would not listen. They thought the road to salvation lay by the way of colour.” In the acceptance of this essential faith I believe that Mr. Bell will agree with me.
© Estate of Walter R. Sickert

How to cite

Walter Richard Sickert, ‘Mesopotamia-Cézanne’, in The New Age, 5 March 1914, pp.569–70, in Helena Bonett, Ysanne Holt, Jennifer Mundy (eds.), The Camden Town Group in Context, Tate Research Publication, May 2012,, accessed 16 April 2024.