Who is the “Father of all Painters”?
Duchamp in 1913? He did turn Art on its head with his Bicycle Wheel (1913) and Fountain (1917), refusing to be led by any aesthetic diktat. But he did not paint much…
Picasso in 1907? A few weeks back, the blog took you along his rejection of painting only the beautiful when he discovered African Art and created Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907).
But even before these two game changers of the art world, there was Cézanne, the man whom Picasso declared was “the Father of all Painters”.
Let me paint you Cézanne in just a few words and numbers:
– apples (vibrating, preferably on a sliding white cloth or drapery),
– Madame Cézanne, showing zero emotions (yet there are almost 30 portraits of her)
– Mont Saint-Victoire in all its glory (painted 80 times).
I am usually drawn to Cézanne’s colorist approach – the infinite variations of blues, greens and oranges – but I find him hard to get into.
The intense scrutiny and restraint he applied to every single brushstroke is palpable but to me, it’s a natural barrier, like those protruding dots on the floor meant to slow your food trolley down (yes, I do that to!). It is as if canvas was turned receptacle – even reliquary – of something I can’t trespass or be privy to.
Perhaps because Cézanne’s quest for painting permanence and stillness in all his subjects requires an almost meditative disposition hard to achieve when any dedicated exhibitions bring such crowds of people to museums. Does that mean I give up? Me being me, I rather tripled down on exposure!
This year turned out to be a great opportunity to learn more about Cézanne. Guidance from Art History lecturer Linda Blair, MA and two exhibitions respectively dedicated to Cézanne’s Portraits at Musée d’Orsay and his Landscapes – Le Chant de la Terre at Fondation Gianadda gave me much to reflect on what makes Cézanne such an influencer.
Let’s start with Cézanne’s Portraits at Musée d’Orsay. How can a man renowned for his quasi-absence of social skills manage to get under people’s skin to litterally draw them out on canvas? By revolutionising the genre, of course!
Cézanne rejected the convention that portraits should convey social identity. In late 19th century, this was invariably staged or affected in a grand exercise of beautification and idealization anyway.
Ingres portraits were what Cézanne particularly rejected but this close-up of Madame F. ‘s hands by Dubufe striked me as a perfect illustration of how Cézanne approached the same subject in a radically different way. Two different worlds, right?
I actually think there is a whole debate about how realistic each pair of hands actually is!
From 1866 onwards, the looser brushstrokes of Impressionism clearly influenced Cézanne’s dual process of deconstruction and reconstruction applied to portraits and about everything else.
For Cézanne, painting was about “sensations” but I think it goes beyond the Impressionists’ “impressions” and fleeting moment captured on canvas.
Remember, Cézanne struggled with people in the real world. Spontaneity, conversations, noise and restlessness (Yes, my children are offschool and why would you think I have my children in mind here?? 😂), it’s all a bit too much for Cézanne the analyzer. He needs to bring people’s heartrate down, to the stage where you wonder if they still have a pulse. I am looking for a word that I don’t think exists. Allow me to invent one: personalescence, a personal yet timeless essence, filtered through the artist’s deep analysis and coalesced in paint.
There, Cézanne experienced his “sensations”. Having reduced people as if decanting the dredges from their personalities, he painted them back as corporeal enveloppes in airtight surroundings, each rebuilt with small colored blotches as cellular elements.
Turning Impressionism into “something solid and durable, like the art found in museums” – Cézanne’s words, not mine (his Impressionist friends must have felt the love!).
Cézanne used this exact same approach to synthetise the landscapes of his beloved South of France. Such an analytical technique will go on to inspire the multiple facets of Cubism, Malevich’s Constructivism, Gauguin’s Cloisonism…In other words, the art world found direction thanks to Cézanne!
The big deal though is that Cézanne’s portraits, still-lives and landscapes are painted in the exact same way, as Linda Blair, MA put it bluntly but rightly.
Cézanne dissected the color of his wife’ skin much like he decomposed the colors of apples or the ochre soil of Mont Sainte Victoire.
Fondation Gianadda managed to assemble such a vast array of landscapes that simply stepping back made the vibrating quality of Cézanne’s rhythmic brushstrokes impossible to ignore.
I could sense Cézanne’s incredibly structured analysis and composition applied to everything he laid eyes on. His distinctive rectilinear touches, stacked to reconstruct his almost pixelated vision, raising the horizon line in the process and annihilating all vanishing points. As Cézanne was propulsing the art world foward, he was actually building depth going back to a medieval approach to perspective, stacking his vertical brushstrokes as layers of building blocks.
Each “constructive touch” is either a cylinder, a sphere or a cone, as Cézanne liked to say Nature could be elementally reduced to.
In a sense, this is not so different to what Picasso will later learn from African masks and the simplified geometric shapes of their eyes or mouths. Yet, such a geometric approach lacks the curves and lines that came to define being human as opposed to schematic.
As it turned out, Cézanne’s portraits never pleased, possibly even settling scores with his models who invariably became exasperated by hours of required seating to accomodate Cézanne’s agonizingly slow application of paint. Yet, he was not kind with himself either…
But I guess, you have to feel for Hortense, his wife. Did she pose patiently for hours, hoping that Cézanne would “realize his sensations” as he neatly splitted compositions between left and right, organising a human being as part of the furniture? Did she get numb in the process?
Above, Cézanne seems more interested in the multiplicity of points of view and the careful rendering of the motif on the drapery. Hortense is painted in a similar way to his still lives with apples, on the verge of tipping over…
Here, look at her ear matching the carved wood of the furniture and wallpaper motif as a negative symmetry of her face. She has barely any volume to peel her off the background wall. With her nose painted along the sane lines as the door panel behind, she becomes surroundings, painted with equal care and attention as innanimate objects in a still-life.
Here again, the shape of her eyes replicate the wallpaper motif. The shape of her collar matches the shape of her fingers in symetry with her bow and hairline while…
…the satiny green stripes of her skirt are treated the same way as the countless greens of the trees in Cézanne’s landscapes and water reflections.
And it’s the incredible vibrating quality of his brushstrokes as well as the infinite variations of colors which deliver life and sensations in Cézanne’s paintings. Yet according to Swiss writer C.F. Ramuz in 1906, Cézanne never “copies” Nature but instead “transposes it”.
Playing verticals against horizontals and diagonals, it’s the same flicker of a movement and subtle alteration that set Concrete Poetry going in the blog of a few weeks past (read it here). C.F. Ramuz elegantly sums it as “style”.
The art world would be all the poorer had Cézanne not persevered in imprinting his unique style, repeatedly, one brishstroke at a time, to pave the way for the future of art.
Cézanne’s Portraits was at Musée d’Orsay, Paris. It has moved to London’s National Portrait Gallery (until Feb 11, 2018). And will further travel to Washington, DC at the NGA from March 25 till July 1st, 2018.
His Landscapes – Le Chant de la Terre at Fondation Gianadda in Martigny, Switzerland has now closed.
I am forever indebted to Linda Blair, MA and her enlightning art lectures on Cézanne.
© 2017 Ingrid Westlake
All pictures by Ingrid Westlake, unless otherwise stated.