Happy Birthday to Paul Cezanne, perhaps the most highly regarded yet least understood artist of the major Post Impressionist painters.
There are literally hundreds of books, articles and essays about this man’s work, and many defy reason. They’re quite literally so verbose, pedagogic and arcane that anyone who cares enough to read them gets immediately turned off by the posturing of many an academic blowfish.
That said, I’m going to give it to you the way I see it, and try to break down all this academic clutter into a simple and yet solid characterization of what Cezanne did.
First off, Cezanne was a something of a trust-fund baby, so he never had Van Gogh’s financial frazzle, or any economic need to sell. He did, however, have ambition (who doesn’t?) and was very disappointed when his early works didn’t sell as anticipated. So he eventually left Paris and plodded off to Aix-en-Provence, his hometown, and painted all by himself in his studio for the remainder of his life. Without the extraneous worries of trying to make a living and earning a reputation as a famous painter, he was able to focus entirely on his art without having to please anyone for any reason. So what did he do?
Like most of the other Post Impressionist painters, Cezanne began to seek new ways of expressing himself. What Cezanne and his fellow Post Impressionists began to explore is best summed up by the questions they began to ask:
– How do we give substance to the Impressionist style?
– How can we “add in” a foundation to our works that highlights both color and composition (line)?
– How do we see the world around us – do both color andcomposition (or shape) matter?
– Can art be self-expressive?
Like the Impressionists, Cezanne wanted to capture light and the play of light on an object at any given moment; but he wanted to give mass and structure and weight – volume – to that object because the object itself is Real. It exists, too, just as the light and the color exists.
And like Seurat and Gauguin and Van Gogh, he wanted to push color and shape and expression and materials to their limits; but he wanted to be true to the very nature of Truth – in a philosophical sense. I think I’ll fare better in this if I start to use examples here.
For instance, let’s look at this work. This is Still Life with Basket of Apples. No hidden meaning, no mysterious iconography. It is quite simply a basket of apples.
But it represents to us what Cezanne actually did as a painter, how he ushered in the Modern period and influenced every artist that was an Artist in the 20th century. His theory was seemingly very simple: he wanted to reduce nature down to the simplest shapes and colors so as to be as true to Truth as possible.
He believed that all of nature could be seen as one of a few shapes (a cone, a cylinder or a sphere) and that all colors are basically warm or cool. He said he wanted to make something lasting of Impressionism, like in the art of the museums – and by that he meant that he wanted to take the hard-won freedoms of the Impressionists’ success with color and light, and make it concrete, make it permanent. And so he began to think of his picture plane, his canvas, as a geometric plane, to be filled with shapes and colors that more truly represent the natural world.
So, in this painting we have a table, a tablecloth, lots of apples, a basket, a plate with breadsticks, and a bottle. Nothing too fancy – he often used what was at hand. In fact, he took so long with his canvases that he began to use fake fruit because the real thing kept rotting! The colors are rich, with warm tones (reds, oranges, yellows) advancing and cool colors (blues, greens, violets) receding – as they are wont to do when we see them together with one another. The shapes are simple – circles, cones, ovals, cylinders. But it looks…unnatural.
Compare it to this. See the difference? One is absolutely naturalistic – to what we see and what we think we see in our world. It’s almost photographic – and then we see it is a 17th century Dutch still life. But which is more real? This is what Cezanne is after.
Did Heda (the Dutch artist) take a photo and then paint from that? No, he couldn’t have – obviously. But he did achieve a work of splendid likeness to the objects. But, remember, Manet earned for artists who came after him the Truth of a painting (and therefore of all art) – it is just paint on a canvas.* And Cezanne longed for a return to that reality. But it was gone. And so he needed to paint as truthfully as he could.
And so, when we look at the basket of apples, we see an awkward still life of fruit and other items on a table that cannot exist in the three dimensional world – everything would fall off! But, think of it this way –
In reality, in all truth, Cezanne did not paint this – or many of his other works – in a second. More often than not, they took weeks. He lingered over them, and promptly discarded his canvases when he thought they were finished. (His wife, bless her heart, kept them safe after he’d finished them.) And so on any given day, he would sit in his studio, and look at his work. He might leave to go to the bathroom, or to get a drink, or to go for a walk, or to eat – how often during your day do you sit staring in one place, with the same view, not moving even one degree? Not often, unless you have been hunting lately.
We are restless, mobile – and so was Cezanne. He knew that from day to day, no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t get the EXACT same angle he’d had the morning before, the last weekend, etc. And so he had to reconcile himself to this: which is more true, the 17th century Dutch still life? Or the lopsided bottle, because one day he sat a teensy bit to the left, and it would have been false to correct to angle just make the bottle appear…like a bottle.
Cezanne determined that to be absolutely true to the two-dimensional canvas, he had to paint what was actually there. And if he sat in different places throughout the day, the table would begin to shift, and the lines of the table on the canvas would begin to blur, and shift. So would the bottle’s shape, and the tablecloth.
For the artist, this was a part of the process. Remember, to be Modern is to be self-critical, autonomous, self-referential – the work is its own critic. Cezanne didn’t need outside legitimacy to know he had stumbled on something. His solitary life as an artist allowed him to develop his concept, and he began to see that it was his goal to paint nature – in all its forms, from nudes to mountains to apples – in its most basic shape, and with honesty from his (multiple) perspectives. By moving around his subject(s), Cezanne proved that, for the Modernist, one-point perspective was a lie, that he (and we) have many vantage points, and thus our own individual interpretations of both the natural world and the work of art.
So you see, Cezanne came closer than anyone else ever had in uniting the world of nature with the world of art – if indeed that can be done. Our eyes, and our minds, move faster than we can articulate; I don’t even want to go into the neurology or the psychology or even the spiritual nature of that statement. But it’s true – we age every second, the world is in entropy (Second Law of Thermodynamics) and time and space are relative. Cezanne captured all this in his art, just by reducing the forms we see around us to their lowest common denominator, if you will. Further, he refused to “lie” about the line of an object, and instead drew and painted what he saw – what he knew was true, even if it looked untrue on the canvas when he was finished.
And thus did Cezanne lead us into the Modern Age – where the traditional understanding of what is certain, what is true, what is absolute – is now regarded by many as merely up to the individual, and always subject to change.
*I’ll be posting on Edouard Manet soon to further explain this reference.