In the account of modernism he has produced over the past fifty years, T. J. Clark has emphasized ‘limit-cases’: extremes at which the systems of representation intended to give modern life a shape and a logic (one it never possessed) began to break down. Paul Cézanne occupies a special place in this history. He was the painter of antinomies: at once the image of single-minded inquiry into the visual world, of mad, positivistic belief in the fruits of that inquiry and, at the same time, of the lurching string of uncertainties—visual, sexual, social, political—that emerged, uncontrollably, as a result. The apples in his still lives may well sum up this oscillation. Outlined, often in black, they are as vivid and immediate—as simply there—as anything one will find in painting. But their contours are also provisional, prone to veer and scrawl, to cross out and rewrite form as they go. ‘In Cézanne’, as Clark put it in The Painting of Modern Life (1985), in words that have rung through his writing ever since, ‘painting took the ideology of the visual—the notion of seeing as a separate activity with its own truth, its own particular access to the thing-in-itself—to its limits and breaking point’.

It is thus—standing for modern art at its most lucid and deranged, its most antinomic—that Cézanne matters for Clark. His art was an extreme attempt to resolve a basic contradiction in modernism, the ‘two great wishes’ Clark identified in Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism (1999). These were bound up with revolutionary politics and its failures. Like socialism, modernism wanted to reground the conditions of experience. It ‘wanted its audience to be led toward a recognition of the social reality of the sign (away from the comforts of narrative and illusionism, was the claim); but equally it dreamed of turning the sign back to a bedrock of World/Nature/Sensation/Subjectivity which the to-and-fro of capitalism had all but destroyed’. Clark found this unresolved dialectic embedded in artworks like the three large paintings of bathing women Cézanne worked on towards the end of his life. On the one hand, in figuring naked women with ambiguous sexual characteristics, Cézanne’s Bathers tried to visualize the play of psychic phantasy as materially present in the world (in this, Clark compared them to another great extreme of late nineteenth-century materialism, Freud’s Project for a Scientific Psychology). On the other hand, the surface of each picture was stretched and emphasized via innumerable dabs of paint. These were endlessly retouched, at the expense of the scene depicted, as if subject to some infernal algorithm. As Cézanne’s process went on and on, as his women were pulled apart and remade, the pictures announced the impossibility of fixing psychic play in any ultimate recasting of human experience. The large Bathers were grand failures, addressed to a public that did not exist, for lack of a revolution that never took place. In them, materialism encountered its own limits. Picturing walked a tightrope between new intensities of experience and empty mechanics. ‘I look at the Barnes Bathers’, Clark wrote then, ‘and hear a hurdy gurdy playing’.

Clark’s new book, If These Apples Should Fall: Cézanne and the Present, remains preoccupied with Cézanne’s antinomies. ‘No painter’, he writes of The Red Rock (1895–1900),

has ever risked conjuring space out of such a standoff between opposed realities. To call the realities in question—the bristle of green and orange in the mid-ground, the Euclidean figure set apart from it to the right—‘organic’ versus ‘geometric’, or ‘animate’ versus ‘abstract’, or even ‘perceived’ as opposed to ‘invented’, seems to me to avoid the absoluteness of the to-and-fro, and the final effect of the absoluteness. All identities and categorizations are swallowed by the machine of depiction. The mid-ground foliage is a system of gears: objects are pulled into it as if into an abyss. The so-called rockface is facelessness immortalized—a sign come from elsewhere, fastened insecurely to the picture corner, saying ‘here no picturing takes place’. This is a world—a set of antinomies—with no descriptions to match.

The last sentence is crucial. Clark insists, not only on the irreconcilable differences conjoined in Cézanne’s paintings, but also on their resistance to description (at least to the kind of description that reduces meaning to a set of clear definitions). This goes against the grain of contemporary art history, where the meaning of Cézanne’s work is assumed to be perfectly legible, slotted into a narrative of modernist innovation and purification. Whatever end this process is taken as leading towards—whether it be ‘flatness’, ‘truth to materials’, ‘immediacy’, or something else—matters little. The descriptions have seemed self-evident. For Clark, interested as he is in the contradictions and failures of Cézanne’s painting, this assumption of self-evidence is a problem. He argues that the past century of exegesis has left us, on the other side, with a collection of iconic images, and hollow truisms to accompany them, but unable to recognize either the force of this art or the questions it still has to ask of modern life.

This book has a difficult task, then: to cut through the accretions of a century. ‘What would it be like’, Clark asks of the Getty Museum’s Still Life with Apples (c. 1893–5), ‘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?’ These are difficult questions to ask of such a painting. Cézanne’s apples are among the most theorized images in the history of modernism. Every detail of the Getty still life has been written over: the bright fruit tilted forwards on their porcelain dish; the neck of the ginger jar with its flattened ellipse; the anthropomorphic tablecloth; the squashed blue fabric with its ghostly patterning; the shadows and catchlights that seem both to fix their objects in place and, at the same time, to float free. A world of distortions and impossibilities, each parsed and defined. For Roger Fry, the objects on the table revealed ‘an architecture and a logic’ that lay beneath the dispassionate observation of optical phenomena; Maurice Merleau-Ponty thought they visualized prelinguistic ‘primordial experience’ that refused to differentiate between seeing and touching; Ernst Bloch, whose musings on Cézanne in Spirit of Utopia (1916) are paraphrased in the title of Clark’s book, saw in the vivid strangeness of the apples—their ‘mystical gravity’—premonitions of a utopia to come, of ‘a yet unknown, nameless mythology’. ‘If they were to fall’, Bloch wrote, ‘a universal conflagration would ensue’.

Clark does not abandon these perspectives. Fry’s cool scientism and Bloch’s chiliasm are parts of the meaning of Cézanne’s painting that will never go away. They stand for poles of his practice. Even a ‘non-view’ needs to take them into account. But the assumptions these writers drew on, those of art writing in the first half of the twentieth century, have vanished. Regardless of their differences, Fry, Bloch and Merleau-Ponty thought Cézanne looked forwards. They turned to him to confirm their faith in modernity, in the power of representation to remake humanity for the better: whether that meant a purified sensorium or perfected social relations, what matter? Things would improve. The apples’ intensity stood witness to this. Clark has no such faith in modernity—‘the time of human smoke’, he calls it elsewhere. He does not miss the irony of Bloch’s utopia unfolding as artillery pulverized the Somme. For him, something altogether darker is at work behind the uncanniness of the objects in the Getty still life.