One Work: Paul Cézanne’s “Rocks near the Caves above Château Noir”

“Cézanne Drawing,” the enthralling exhibition currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, features something for everyone: longtime favorites, new discoveries, works on paper more finished than the artist’s paintings, in-depth explorations of motifs, and highlights from all phases of the Post-Impressionist’s career, which stretched from the 1870s until his death in 1906 at the age of sixty-seven. Deep into the show, past galleries displaying self-portraits, fantasy scenes, sketches of statues by Pierre Puget, still lifes, bathers, and landscapes, is a wall dedicated to rocks. These delicate renderings in watercolor and pencil depict the vast Bibémus quarry as well as the ledges, caverns, and outcroppings above the imposing Château Noir nearby—both of which the artist, raised in Aix-en-Provence, explored as a youth with future novelist Émile Zola and budding scientist Jean-Baptiste Baille.

Executed by Cézanne sometime between 1895 and 1900, likely while he was storing art supplies in the Château Noir, these formations are the most abstract works in the MoMA survey. Two vertically oriented sheets, both titled Rochers près des grottes au-dessus de Château Noir (Rocks near the Caves above Château Noir), record horizontal slabs above and beside a triangular element. Faint graphite strokes outline the rocks, parallel lines suggest shadows, and patches of blue, green, and brown watercolor enliven the compositions. One includes the branch of a tree; the other is just an agglomeration of geometric shapes centered on a piece of white paper. What astonishes is how these detailed pieces verge on abstraction without becoming nonrepresentational; the site is so distinctively rendered that the artist’s fervent champion, legendary art historian John Rewald, was able to locate and photograph it in the early 1930s.

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It’s rare that an older artist masterfully revisits childhood haunts. Unlike the dark scene replete with a blue sky, slender trees, and massive boulders in a robust and related oil painting of the same title (ca. 1904) that Henri Matisse once owned, the gray limestone and reddish claystone limned in these drawings, set against an exposed ground, seem practically ethereal.


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