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Formalism and Psychoanalysis: Two Sides of the Same Coin?

Art criticism has, not surprisingly, a great diversity in style, subject matter, and emphasis. In their writings on Cezanne, Meyer Schapiro [1] and Richard Schiff [2] demonstrate clearly the difference between two schools of thought: Schapiro, writing in 1968, embarks on an extremely subjective and psychoanalytical critique of the subject matter of Cezanne's still-lifes, while Schiff, in 1984, follows the more modern trend toward formal analysis and objective explication of Cezanne's painterly practice. Although the two authors do share certain similarities, namely the citation and comparison of impressionist forerunners and a discussion of Cezanne's 'modern' qualities, the differences between the two articles do in fact make for complementary opposites: reading one without the other leaves a distinct one-sided impression, but taken together, they bring to light the complexity and ingenuity of Cezanne's art.

In their attempts to delineate important aspects of Cezanne's work, both Schiff and Schapiro make reference to the artist's forerunners, particularly from impressionist circles. This is, of course, only natural, and has been common practice in nearly all modern art criticism. Interestingly, though, the two authors do not cite any of the same works of art: certainly Manet is mentioned by both, but while Schiff tends to limit his references to the impressionists -- in order to underline the postulated continuity of Cezanne's use of color and compositional elements -- Schapiro discusses a wide range of artists and paintings, from ancient Greek statues to Raphael and even to Van Gogh, in keeping with his generalizing comments about Cezanne's use of still-life. In addition, both writers cite Zola's writings; Schiff mentions only in passing Zola's critiques of Manet, while Schapiro repeatedly uses Zola's correspondence with and writings about Cezanne as a means of interpreting the thematic and psychological basis for the artist's works.

Schapiro's essay revolves around psychoanalytic interpretation. As such, he searches not for the 'originality' of Cezanne's technique, but for the underlying meaning and personal relevance of the painter's chosen subjects. In so doing, he interprets the thematic elements of the paintings, much in the same way one would critique literature. He contributes numerous anecdotes from Cezanne's personal correspondence; this, combined with biographical details and a healthy imagination, leads him to his conclusions about the sexual and psychological intricacies of Cezanne's apple motif and his portrayals of women. He makes a strong case for his thesis, but admits that much of it is speculation: "this sketchy formation ... leaves much unexplained," he confesses. [3] Although his almost total omission of formalist analysis is understandable with regards to his agenda, one cannot help but wonder if the inclusion of such critique might have strengthened his case. The article makes for highly entertaining and captivating reading, but leaves me, at least, with doubts as to its effectiveness.

Schiff quite literally goes to the opposite extreme. In keeping with the title of his chapter on Cezanne's practice, virtually no mention is made of the particular subject matter or meaning behind the paintings, and indeed, biographical details are only included when they can serve to support Schiff's theory of the constructed nature of the artist's "naive" vision. Formal qualities are discussed exhaustively; in particular, Schiff deconstructs the various means of color and light portrayal in impressionist art, and shows how Cezanne's modeling was in many ways a continuation of this rebellion. Throughout the chapter, Schiff presents a calculated and scientific interpretation, with very little room for dissent on the part of the reader. The prevalence of close readings of the paintings, with an almost overwhelming detail of description, precludes the type of sweeping generalizations offered by Schapiro, but may also confuse the reader, since several such descriptions do not seem to offer further 'proof' of Schiff's argument. In an interestingly subtle moment of self-defense, Schiff, like Schapiro, admits to the narrow focus of his critique, defending the formalism of the 1906 critic Duret in words that could easily apply to his own article: "this may appear to be an insensitive 'formalist' reading of a psychologically rich subject matter; on the contrary ... Duret focused on what Cezanne actually wished him to see." [4] Schiff's main thesis, that Cezanne's 'originality' was in fact a construct of his artistic theory, comes across resoundingly; nonetheless, as with Schapiro's article, the reader is left questioning whether the one-sided nature of the discussion was truly necessary.

Taken separately, both Schapiro's and Schiff's articles are compelling and useful commentaries on Cezanne's style and practice. Taken together, however, they exhibit something greater, namely the complexity of Cezanne's art. The complementary nature of these two articles reveals that criticism of Cezanne's art cannot and, I believe, should not be limited by critical schools of thought. Psychoanalysis may be held in disregard by many modern writers, but Schapiro conducts a remarkably level-headed assessment of the factors and motivations behind the canvas; and while readers not schooled in formal analysis may be overwhelmed by Schiff's detailed examination, his devotion to specific compositional elements illustrates far more than his relatively simple thesis. One can only hope that future critics continue to elucidate the many different sides of Cezanne's painting.



Notes:

(1)  Meyer Schapiro, "The Apples of Cezanne: An Essay on the Meaning of Still-life," in Schapiro, Modern Art: 19th & 20th Centuries (1978), pp. 1-38. [return to text]
(2)  Richard Schiff, "Cezanne's Practice," in Schiff, Cezanne and the End of Impressionism (1984), pp. 199-219. [return to text]
(3)  Schapiro, p. 12. [return to text]
(4)  Schiff, p. 216. [return to text]





Written and © Nancy Thuleen in 1997 for Art History 452 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

If needed, cite using something like the following:
Thuleen, Nancy. "Formalism and Psychoanalysis: Two Sides of the Same Coin?" Website Article. 19 September 1997. <http://www.nthuleen.com/papers/452cezanne.html>.