cézanne, shapes, and grids -- 10/27/23

Today's selection -- from What Are You Looking At? by Will Gompertz. Paul Cézanne insisted on perceiving and painting nature in an entirely new way:

“It wasn't until his father died in 1886, leaving Cezanne a large amount of money and the estate in Aix, that the artist finally found some peace and made Provence his home. 

“Mont Sainte-Victoire dominates the local landscape, a huge, brooding mountain that can be seen from miles around. Its immutability, its history, its sheer muscular presence had a magnetic effect on an equally obdurate artist looking to make pictures that had a sense of permanence. The way in which Cezanne chose to represent this treasured motif depended on his mood. While Van Gogh expressed his feeling for a subject through distortion, Cezanne did so through drawing and color, as can be seen in his painting Mont Sainte-Victoire (c.1887) which is now owned by the Courtauld Gallery in London. 

Cézanne's studio in Aix-en-Provence from 1902 until his 1906 death

“On this occasion Cezanne chose to paint the view from the west of Aix, near to his family home. A patchwork of green and golden fields (depicted from at least two angles) rolls toward the blue-pink mountain, which appears like a giant bruise on the landscape. The way Cezanne has depicted the mountain would suggest he was no more than a few fields from its base, when in fact he was about thirteen kilometers away. This is what he means by expressing his own sensations through line and color. He has not drawn Mont Sainte-Victoire in precise perspective, but has foreshortened the view to reflect that in his mind and eyes it was the commanding feature. The cool palette with which he has then painted the mountain communicates its solid physical hardness against the softer, warmer colors of the fields. 

“Cezanne could see like a bat can hear: at a different frequency from the rest of us. He had solved some of the problems of accurately representing our visual perception with his dual-perspective technique, his harmonious compositions and his highlighting of specific, subjectively selected features. But he was still not satisfied. He told the young French artist Emile Bernard (1868-1941) that ‘one must see nature as no one has seen it before you.’ 

“Bernard had worked with Gauguin in Pont-Aven in Brittany, where the two artists had fallen out after Bernard made the (quite reasonable) allegation that Gauguin had stolen his ideas and style. But then he would have been the first to admit that he had not only taken Cezanne's advice but also copied his ideas, most obviously these words of wisdom from the usually taciturn artist: ‘May I repeat what I told you ... treat nature by means of the cylinder, the sphere, the cone.’ 

“The point Cezanne is making, which he had discovered for himself when seeing ‘nature as no one has seen it before,’ was that we don't really see detail when looking at a landscape, we see shapes. Cezanne started to reduce land, buildings, trees, mountains and even people to a series of geometric forms. A field would become a green rectangle, a house would be depicted as a brown cube box, and a large rock would take on the shape of a ball. You can see the technique in the Courtauld painting, which is really little more than a stack of shapes. It was a radical and revolutionary approach that had many traditional art lovers scratching their heads. Maurice Denis (1870-1943), a young French artist, tried to explain by saying that a painting could be judged on criteria other than the subject it depicts. He said, ‘Remember that a painting, before it is a warhorse, a nude woman or some anecdote or other, is essentially a flat surface covered in colors arranged in a certain order.’ … [but] Cezanne still wasn't finished. 

“There was one more logical progression that he felt was needed to achieve his aim of turning ‘Impressionism into something more solid and enduring, like the art of the museums.’ It was to take his idea of simplifying a landscape into groups of interconnecting shapes and move it one step further: to introduce something approaching a strict grid system. Or, as he put it rather more lyrically: ‘The parallel to the horizon gives breadth, whether it is a section of nature or, if you prefer, of the show which Pater Omnipotens Aeterne Deus (omnipotent, eternal father God) spreads out before our eyes. Lines perpendicular to this horizon give depth.’

Le moulin sur la Couleuvre à Pontoise

“Again you can see the evidence of Cezanne putting his ideas into practice in the Courtauld's Mont Sainte-Victoire. He has built a structure of parallel horizontal lines, with the fields, the railway viaduct, the roofs of the houses, and at the point where the farmland ends and the foothills of the mountain begin. And then to give that sense of depth he has added an aggressively foreshortened and cropped tree trunk that runs from top to bottom on the left-hand side of the canvas. It works just as he said it would, by suggesting that the mountain and fields are in the distance. You can prove his theory by removing the vertical tree trunk from sight (by placing an obscuring hand in front of it). Do so and you will experience the sense of three dimensional space disappear. It completely changes how you ‘read’ the tree's branches, designed as a framing device by Cezanne. They still follow and echo the shape of the mountain's ridge, but with the tree trunk removed they appear to become part of the sky. And yet reintroduce the tree trunk and the branches form an imposing element of the foreshortened foreground, hovering, one imagines, just above the artist's head. 

“But there is one branch that sticks out halfway down the tree trunk that is unusual. Cezanne has used the leaves on the branch to merge background and foreground; to close a thirteen-kilometer gap by simply applying a few parallel, diagonal strokes of green paint. He has fused time and space by overlapping and integrating separate planes of color in a technique known as ‘passage’ (a technique that led to Cubism). It is all part of his quest to produce canvases that reflect the ‘harmony of nature’ while being true to the way we see objects and space, which is neither from a fixed perspective nor without prior knowledge. 

“At the beginning of his journey into attempting to ‘add a new link’ to the art of the past, Cezanne inadvertently pushed the door to Modernism ajar. By the time he died it was swinging on its hinges. His ideas of grid-like structures and simplifying detail into geometric forms can be seen in the architecture of Le Corbusier, the angular designs of the Bauhaus, and the art of Piet Mondrian. It was the Dutchman who took Cezanne's ideas to the extreme with his famous De Stijl paintings, in which a grid of vertical and horizontal black lines with the occasional rectangle of primary color was the entirety of the picture."

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Will Gompertz


What Are You Looking At?: The Surprising, Shocking, and Sometimes Strange Story of 150 Years of Modern Art




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