Paul Cezanne is the most recent painter I can, in good conscience, call truly great. Even Picasso, this century's major claim to art-historical fame, and one of the outstanding genuises of all time, often faltered while trying to see life whole.
But not Cezanne. He had the great gift of seeing it whole and the rare ability to give that perception convincing symbolic form.
He was so convincing, as a matter of fact, that we are still very much under his influence 100 years later. It would even be fair to say that almost everything of formal significance produced in painting during this century derived in one form or another from Cezanne.
He was the crucial link between the past and the present, the great Janus-figure of 19th-century painting, who faced not only backward toward the extremely formal 17th century museum art of Nicolas Poussin but also forward to the revolutionary 20th-century art of the Fauves, Cubists, Constructivists, Neo-Plasticists.
Cezanne is so vital a bridge between past and present that should Poussin ever return to spend a day with us, he could, by studying the paintings of Cezanne, probably gain sufficient insight into the art of Braque, Gris, Picasso -- possibly even Mondrian -- to make some sense out of them on his own terms.
And yet, although Cezanne lived and worked until 1906, and created paintings only one or two steps away from what Picasso and Braque would do within a year or two of that date, he remained very much a man of the 19th century. And by that I mean that his vision of art and of life was expansive, all-inclusive, grand, and self-assured. And that the one or two steps Picasso and Braque would take "beyond" Cezanne would reflect an entirely different world- view -- one that would become increasingly self-concious, anxious, and troubled by questions of identity and purpose.