When it comes to Cézanne, nobody knows anything, most especially me.
If you go to Aix-en-Provence in the South of France, you’re going to hear a lot about Cézanne, their home town boy, and if you get a chance to stop in at the famous Les Deux Garçons café (pictured in the header, above) on the broad, lovely Cours Mirabeau, you can ponder how Hemingway liked this spot, probably sat right here, and how Cézanne and Emile Zola, boyhood friends, lingered here over coffee many times. Zola would seek his fame and fortune in Paris, and he tried to help his friend Cézanne do the same, tried to help him make it in the art world there, but Cézanne, being Cézanne, couldn’t quite pull that off. So he returned to Aix where he spent his days painting in isolation, and, after Zola wrote The Masterpiece, a novel about a failed modernist painter whom Cézanne believed was based upon himself, their friendship ended.
So if you go to Aix-en-Provice, that splendid university town, you’ll find tributes to Cézanne, everywhere– from statues in the main square to a museum devoted, rather tendentiously, to his “family home”.
All that is easy to find, easy to figure out– the person, Cézanne– who lived here and worked here.
But if you look into Cézanne the painter, the artist, the one whom learned people contemplate with furrowed brow and of whom they speak with reverance– things become less easy.
You might find that “Cézanne”, which is to say, the artistry of Cézanne, is easy to like but hard to understand.
His work is easy to like because it’s so beautiful and pleasing and balanced and, well, just really, really nice to look at– and, it would seem, not that particularly difficult to decipher if, indeed, you have a mind to decipher it rather than look at it and enjoy it.
If you do decide to try and decipher it, that puts you in the same camp as an absolutely astonishing number of analysts, critics, philosophers, curators, self-proclaimed art connoisseurs, and that’s just to start.
You, see, Cézanne is considered an artists’ artist, one of the most influential who ever lived, with everything coming before him being one thing and everything coming after him considered to be something else.
Now, bear in mind that the “after” part, years-wise, is much shorter than the before part, centuries-wise, since he lived from 1839 to 1906, but still…
Artists who came after him, most notably Picasso, admit that, to a great or lesser degree, they are “standing on the shoulders” of Cézanne, taking advantage of his insights and the increased possibilities those insights birthed, a world of visual rendition unknown before he not only conceived of them, intellectually, but began the process of demonstrating them artistically.
Understanding that about Cézanne, intellectually, is one thing. Seeing it in his paintings is another. Everyone talks about it; everyone has a theory. Everyone imputes ideas to Cézanne that happen to support whatever their own personal philosophy is– and I don’t just mean their philosophy about art, I mean their philosophy in general.
Cézanne gets talked about an awful lot, and nothing I’ve ever seen written about him, whether expounding endlessly and abstrusely about his brushstrokes or imputing to him (also endlessly and abstrusely) a kind of artistic visual mathematics, none of it characterizes him as anything less than a towering figure in Art, a true genius.
But when you try and get at why he’s a towering figure, what, exactly, he did, well, that’s when it gets dicey, contradictory and almost always buried under a gigantic pile of impenetrable rhetoric; rhetoric so tortured, rhetoric that has to reach so hard to grab hold of some actual meaning, that you begin to wonder if it’s explicable at all.
Bear in mind that you don’t wonder if it’s true or not—that he was so monumentally influential on those who came after him. No, there’s just too much universal certainty that he was indeed that influential. Rather, you wonder if anybody can actually put their finger, really, on why—and I’m referring here to those, especially, who set forth their ideas on Cézanne with a surety that is as unencumbered by self-doubt as it is unblemished by comprehensibility.
Here it is, sort of, in a nutshell, and there are people who will disagree with everything I say here, just as there are people who would disagree if I said exactly the opposite. But I’ll give it a shot:
Cézanne was the bridge, they say, between the old Masters and what would become– passing through various interim stages along the way, like Cubism—Modern Art. He was the guy who liberated painters from feeling like they had to show things as they really are— in favor of trying to show things as they really are. Huh?
There have been many volumes written trying to explain what I mean by that sentence, but here’s a start: You’ll notice in the still-life, above, there are certain things that are “off”, most notably the “perspective”. The rim of the bowl indicates one vantage point, the plate a different one. You do get a sense of the “roundness” of the fruit, but they aren’t “photographically” rendered. The deep shadows that would have made it more photographically realistic are absent, allowing for color more vibrant than it would be if meticulous attention had been paid to that “modeling” created by shadows. Even the stem of the fruit stand is off-center, or, perhaps the plate-part of it is distorted and “unrealistically” depicted.
What’s going on here?
For one thing, what’s going on is an abandonment of the stuff the Renaissance painters killed themselves to achieve. When Filippo Bruneslleschi “invented” linear perspective in the 1400′s, that became the holy grail: Getting things “right” in terms of depth and contour, even though done on the flat surface of the canvas. If Brunelleschi didn’t figure out perspective, you gotta wonder if we would have Florence. (And that, my friends, makes one wonder about the truth or falshood of the “Great Man Theory” of history. If Hitler had never lived, would we have had Nazi Germany? If Brunelleschi had never lived to invent linear perspective, would someone else have done it, or would we still be living in the Dark Ages. But I digress…)
Cézanne wasn’t purposely abandoning these things– these little things that had given rise to the Renaissance and made it stupendous and which pretty much made art everything it was up until that point–he was sacrificing them on the alter of other things that he deemed more important, like color and, well, “truth” of the object or scene, “truth” (my word in this context, not his) being much more important than “reality”, or, more accurately, reality only being released by liberation from convention.
Yikes. Let’s try again:
Put a bowl of fruit on the table and look at it with one eye.
Now, without moving your head, close that eye and open the other. Go back and forth a few times.
You’re seeing two different things. Which one is “reality”? If the painter were going to paint the scene “as it really is”, which scene should he paint, the one you’re seeing with your right eye, or the one you see with the left? Or, rather, should he paint the scene he sees with both eyes open, like most of the painters who ever lived up until that point?
If he does do that, is he really painting “reality”? Is he really capturing the full reality of that bowl of fruit?
Cézanne believed not. He believed that at an absolute minimum there are at least two realities there, and, when you think of it, why should the “reality” of that bowl of fruit be defined as being limited to that which he can perceive with one, the other, or both of his eyes? The truth is that the reality of that bowl of fruit exists and can be expressed—or should be expressed, if such a thing could be done—inherently, emanating from itself, not limited to the painter’s one particular perception of it. (See how we’re getting lost in the funhouse already?)
In order to try and make this infinitesimally clearer, let’s jump ahead for just a second to Duchamp’s Nude Descending the Staircase, considered to be the ground zero of Cubism and the gateway to Modern Art. The attempt there is to take a lot of different angles on the subject, as if it were being looked at by a bunch of different people all at the same time, and capture all of their “realities” in one picture. The fancy term the critics use for this is “simultaneous viewpoints”. Cézanne had been the first guy to conceive of this concept and to try and figure out a way to do it, and if you do a little critical reading on Cezanne, be prepared for an avalanche of very highbrow, thoroughly professorial exegeses on Cézanne’s obsession with shapes, because those shapes– cones, spheres, triangles—are inherent in the subject, not requiring our perception for their existence, and that, too, was something Cézanne was struggling—mightily—to try and figure out a way to capture in his work.
Accordingly, you can find whole books that take every Cézanne painting and superimpose triangles on the images; big triangles, little triangles, right-side-up triangles, upside-down triangles, triangles within triangles—all showing how Cézanne was obsessed with a kind of visual mathematics, part geometry, part something else.
And we’ve only touched on his thoughts on “modeling”—that’s the play of increasing shadow on an object that gives it “depth”. On the one hand, this imitates what happens to the sunlight on an object, in “real life”. On the other hand, and this is what rankled Cézanne, if you attempt to be true to the modeling effect of the light, what you lose in the process is the truth of the color of the object, because you’re trying to have the color do something that, after all, who says it has to do, which is mimic what you see, from your one particular vantage point, rather than having that color be rendered in it’s essential, well, color-ness.
Whoops, here we are deeper in the funhouse.
Cézanne himself didn’t help matters much, because he was given to saying things like this:
“Objects influence each other through and through… They spread their influence imperceptibly about, by means of their auras, as we do by means of looks and words… the minute particles that surround things.”
I will guarantee you that the guy who wrote the book about Cézanne and the triangles thinks he knows what Cézanne meant by that.
But I don’t think he does. I don’t think even Cézanne knew what he meant by it.
And that’s why, as I began looking into this, I thought about Melville. Hermann Melville. You know: Moby Dick and all that. More specifically, I thought about the moment, many years ago, that I understood that everything people had been telling me—actually, teaching me—about Moby Dick was not only irrelevant and beside-the-point, it was malicious. I don’t mean that their telling me all these things was done out of malicious motivation—no, their motivation was simply to convince themselves and me that, erroneously, they knew what they were talking about. I mean it was malicious in the sense that it not only failed to aide understanding, it obstructed it, while, at the same time, exsanguinating the work itself.
I came to understand that all the hours we had spent trying to “deconstruct” the text of Moby Dick, to understand what the white whale “stood for”, for example, or Ahab’s wooden leg, or Ishmael’s name, all that time trying to parse exactly how Melville calmly and intelligently employed well-named techniques (well-named by others, others not unlike the professors who were teaching all this stuff) like “foreshadowing” and “irony”—all those hours and all that effort conspired to create a picture of Melville and what he was doing and what he was trying to do that had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the book, the man or anything, ultimately, either important or helpful.
The professors wanted to believe that Melville was just like them: Professorial and cerebral, calmly and deliberately marshaling his genius to go about the business of creating a masterpiece, of putting the “puzzle” together just so, and disgorging a work that is something of a crossword puzzle for us, an intellectual challenge to see if we can keep up with him, to see if we can “solve the puzzle” and “see” what he did and how he did it.
But Melville wasn’t professorial at all. He was an insane, crazed maniac who spent his life reaching down his own throat trying to grab the sharp-toothed beast that was gnawing at his soul and yank it out so he could look at it and understand it and most of all so he could get rid of it, and the only way he could think of to maybe do that was to sit down and write, and after a long, agonizing period of gruesome effort, of trying to let happen a lot of things that he couldn’t help trying to make happen, after all that– there was Moby Dick sitting there, and, probably, the sharp-tooth beast was still in his gut waiting for another feckless effort to pull him out in the endless, hopeless, agonizing process of human beings who are driven to create stuff that the rest of us are inclined to characterize as art, and, on many unfortunate occasions to attempt to reduce to a thesis, antithesis and conclusion, all of which the perpetrator of this “art” would despise.
Cézanne’s canvasses might have a lot of triangles that you can find in them, and maybe Cézanne did all that knowingly, and maybe his thought processes were mathematical and calculating, but I don’t know if that’s true, I just don’t. I don’t think his purpose was to create painting-puzzless that future professorial types could amuse themselves by deciphering, his purpose was to wrestle with the sharp-toothed beast, and that was the only way he could figure out to go about it.
He wasn’t considered talented enough to be admitted to Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and going to Law school like his banker father wanted him to do didn’t work out either, because I believe Cézanne knew full well that law school wasn’t going to do a thing to help him with the sharp-toothed beast, so he hunkered down in Aix-en-Provence and spent his life isolated and lonely, trying to find that visual voice that would help him get at “it”, and the voice he found probably didn’t do the trick for him, totally, but in his searching and his grappling and his obsessiveness he did find a voice that would alter the course of art on the entire planet and probably forever because his particular duel with his particular sharp-toothed beast caused him to do things in a way that others began to understand even better, maybe, than he did, and to take those things and use them to ride into the future in new ways.
And I don’t have any doubt that these art critics and philosophers who write about Cézanne know a lot more than I do, and they’re a lot smarter than I am, and they probably were born with a much keener ability to see and interpret the visual world than I was—after all, they’re art critics; that’s what they do—but I’m not convinced that when the bar closes for the night and the street lights dim and the last taxi has taken the last unsatisfied seeker home, I’m not sure any of them can say any more about Cézanne than that, and if they forget about the sharp-toothed beast, then they don’t know Cézanne at all…
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