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October 30, 2008

Please Explain: Cezanne

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I decided to start a short series about famous artists whose paintings I don't "get."

The concept is for you, our Valued Readers, to step in (in Comments) and set poor, thick-headed me straight regarding the featured artist.

Here's the deal:

I know that the artist is famous and was to a greater or lesser degree influential in his own time and for at least a while thereafter.

However, this fame and influence is mostly in the context of the history of Modernism and Modernist painting. At the extreme, the artist is venerated because he is seen as an evolutionary link in Modernism's progression to abstraction and beyond; he is an interesting fossil such as creatures emerged from the seas eons ago that were transforming fins into feet.

But what about the art itself, absent its historical context? Seen in isolation from that context, is it really any good? In general, I don't think it's great. I actually find little appeal at all and scratch my head, wondering what all the fuss is about.

Why am I wrong?

The first artist is Paul Cézanne.

He was an outsider in more than one respect for much of his career. Fame and veneration came fairly late in life, though some artists such as Camille Pissarro recognized value in what he was attempting fairly early on.

This was despite the fact (in my judgment) that Cézanne was never better than a mediocre draftsman (in my skill league, in other words). Moreover, I find the struggle he shared with other artists to "honor" the flatness of the surface of the canvas to be an odd diversion akin to attempting to square the circle. Hey, gang, if you want to paint things flat, that's fine; so is attempting to create a feeling of depth. No big deal either way, I say.

Here are some representative Cézanne paintings.


The Card Players - 1890-92
One of his better-known paintings. I assume that getting the men right was one of his lesser priorities in this effort.

Still Life with Apples and Oranges - 1900
I think Cézanne's best paintings were still lifes.

I don't have a title or date for this one, but it's clearly one of the many landscapes he painted in the vicinity of Aix-en-Provence where he spent much of his life.

Okay, have at me.



posted by Donald at October 30, 2008


Donald, I think the hoopla is about the form, the idea, rather than the actual resulting paintings. Just as in literature, many of which are labeled as classics only in the fact that they broke rules rather than their being an example of exquisite writing.

Posted by: susan on October 30, 2008 10:23 AM

I don't like Cezanne either. At the same time, I have to admit he built a level of gravitas into his work that was missing in that of his much more dextrous impressionist contemporaries (and no, he wasn't an impressionist). The reason was precisely his lack of facility as a draftsman...which he spent a lifetime trying to overcome. Never succeeding.

Take the two men playing cards. Maybe he didn't get them right, Donald, which is to say naturalistically, but they certainly sit there. They have weight, solidity. And if you give them a chance, a great deal of visual interest. Look at the left hand figure's combined shape of bowler hat and profile. Or the straight vertical line where his back meets the chair back. Cezanne wanted to emphasize that. Or maybe he just couldn't pull off the subtle, but less forceful, broken naturalistic line of back against chair. We'll never know. All we know is that in his awkwardness he found something else.

Posted by: ricpic on October 30, 2008 10:35 AM

Although I thought Cezanne's peaches were a big cliche, I didn't begin to love his stuff until I visited the Barnes Foundation for the first time four years ago. Have you visited it yet? Although they have one of his "Card Players," the two paintings that took my breath away were an early still life of peaches that seemed lighter than all his other peach still life paintings I had seen before and this painting of Mme. Cezanne where the fuzzy, oval pinched imprecise face seemed to be playing with curves of her torso, hat and the chair. Plus all that gorgeous blue! It wasn't flat at all.

I didn't know much about Cezanne's portrait work until I saw that painting, and then when the Met Museum in NY mounted their Cezanne/Pissaro exhibit (2005) -- mostly landscapes, where it was so evident that Cezanne was the most artistically energetic and daring of that pair, I began to finally understand why he was so avant-garde and revolutionary. It's hard to imagine Cubism without him. It wasn't the flatness of many of the paintings that struck me so much, as their moving towards abstraction and gorgeousness the longer I looked at them.

Then in 2007 the Met showed another great show, "Cezanne to Picasso: Ambroise Vollard, Patron of the Avant Garde." Vollard was the dealer for many of the top French artists from the 1880s to the 1930s. Here's Cezanne's portrait of him from that exhibit
I remember, that the wall was painted with as much detail, care and intensity as Vollard's clothes and face.

I think many of his paintings don't deliver instant pleasure. One needs to spend time with his paintings in the flesh, really look at them to see how sensual and avant-garde they are at the same time. (Two other painters whose works only begin tell their story after intense meditation are Chardin and Morandi. Thanks again, Mr. Montebello).

So make a reservation to visit the Barnes Foundation and go there. When the Metropolitan Museum has another exhibit featuring his work, go see it, if you can. If you're not converted or at least further intrigued, it's only Bouguereaus for you, pal.

Posted by: CL on October 30, 2008 12:12 PM

ha ha, i remember 'seeing' cezanne the first time after a bard lecture. it was something about 'planes' not airplanes and the way he would sneak in bizarre perspective twists that are 'subconscious' but when i saw it it did feel like flying. ok i have a background and an education but lets forget about that.(chips away at a marble block)
ahem, see theres this 'thing' about color, and this other thing about expression, and this other thing about distortion(space&time), and this other thing about seeing whats in front of you to get to whats inside of you. its a subtle thing while it confronts much like the character of the man who painted them.
draftsmanship has nothing and everything to do with it. it has paintballs flattened, it needs to be soaked up. you can decide not to like cezanne, he wont care, thats how it all starts out anyway. i love cezanne but many times i realize that i might be odd (awed) in my own perspective. its a reverence for the surface perhaps indeed. which leads not just the eye, but the heart into what is below above around and behind the surface.
i call it the cezanne see-saw.

Posted by: tipota on October 30, 2008 12:23 PM

Sorry, Donald; Cezanne is my favorite painter. His favorite hues are also mine, and I love how he works with subtle variations of color. Also, I'm a sucker for bold outlines. I'm referring especially of the still lifes (you're right, they are his best), and indoor scenes generally; many of his other works seem like they came from a different painter and leave me cold.

By the way, I'm immune to any Grand Narrative of Progress Theory of Art (thanks to the training I've received here at 2Blowhards) so you need not worry that that's why I think I like him.

Posted by: The Fredösphere on October 30, 2008 12:44 PM

Trying to argue someone into liking something is a fool's errand. However, I will throw my weight behind Cezanne and say that I like his work very much, as does the painter friend I respect the most. Neither of us is particularly enamoured of modernism. We just like it.

Posted by: Thursday on October 30, 2008 4:38 PM

Its not that Cezanne is so bad, but that he is hyped far more than painters who are ten times better. For the standards of his day, his work was mediocre to poor. In my opinion, he is used as a transition from proper realism to the junk-is-really-art movements later on. Its not his fault, he was just trying to create something beautiful.

I really feel badly for people who aren't aware of the vast amount off great realistic painting of that period and later. I count myself lucky to know a bit more than the average viewer about this era. I could swear that your ideas about great painting would change if you just had a chance to see what is being censored by the powers that be.

If I could choose a painter or two to recommend, try Joaquin Sorolla, or Nicolai Fechin. You'll see what you are missing.

Posted by: BTM on October 30, 2008 6:09 PM

His still lifes are awful. The cloth drapes like stiff paper mache and the fruit unappetizing, hard, dry, and unidentifiable. The original Dutch still lifes were a display of wealth; Cezanne's are a display of decay.

Posted by: jz-md on October 31, 2008 11:05 AM

As Fred, I can't explain why but I love Sezanne's apples. They - and the tables, and vases, and the cloth - occupy different plane of existence, quiet and beautiful.I deliberately don't want to get into technicalities; in my experience, with knowledge of "how" comes disillusionment in "what", and it takes really strong personal drive to overcome this phase. I have the drive where interiors are concerned, as I suppose, you have it with painting. But I did have a period when any beautiful place I'd be in, I'd start immediately dissect how it was done; seeing the world as if from behind the stage, while the rest of the world is enjoying the view from the orchestra: not necessarily joyful. The only recipe is to keep working, getting better with your job, then knowing the "dirty side" doesn't matter anymore - but not disillusion others with your observations from behind the stage.

Posted by: Tatyana on October 31, 2008 1:25 PM

Cezanne is a great colorist and a very competent composer. His pictures are, as a consequence, almost always worth looking at. (Especially, as you note, when doing still life, as composition and color are pretty much 80-90% of what you're going to get out of a still life. Brilliant draftsmanship in a still life is a an iffy virtue, for reasons I can't articulate: many brilliantly rendered still lives are completely dead to me.)

Cezanne also presents a reasonably nice painting surface, unlike, say, Monet, who was a much better draftsman (actually quite a remarkable draftsman) but whose paint application is so dry and chalky I have a hard time looking at his paintings when I'm face-to-face with them.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 31, 2008 6:09 PM

I usually skip over Cezanne, mostly because he seems to prefer abstract visuals with no interesting content. Looking at the examples here, though, what I noticed is that he handles textures differently than I remember anyone else doing. I can see that if absract, neutral visuals were what you liked, and textures, you'd love Cezanne.

Posted by: John Emerson on October 31, 2008 6:55 PM

Cezanne is the transitional figure between the "oppressive" reign of naturalism, and the "liberating" moment of cubism. Take away the teleology, however, and he's a crude draftsman who's done a few appealing still lifes. There's no comparing him to one of those actual artistic forces of nature, like Degas, for instance, who drew, and drew, and could not stop drawing, and whose every sketch contains some revelation. Cezanne's late landscapes look like paint rags.

Posted by: Faze on November 1, 2008 11:01 PM

Donald, aren't we allowed to love Bouguereau?? Does it mean we're philistines?? I love him anyway.

However, I must disagree with Tatyana and her unsolicited Lesson. No no no, nyet.

Posted by: Sister Wolf on November 2, 2008 11:46 PM

Dear Michael,
In short, to "get" Cezanne, sense the movement of colors, lines, forms and your eye's action as it follows the design. Cezanne, to me, is all about perceived and implied movement. His paintings are not emotionally detached studies, but a part of the experience of the moving picture in front of him. He works out his emotional reaction to his subject through physical exercise as he brushes the paint. His limited palette of colors allows him to be more involved in the action.
When I was younger, I spent many hours trying to "get" the art of Rothko, Pollock, etal.- the Action Painters, Abstract Expressionists and Color Fielders who were the ce;aebrated artists of the day. As I lived in Philly, Maine and New York at various times, I had access to quite a few examples of these works. The physical energy captured in these works excited me without my seing them as anything more than a thing on the wall that someone said was valuable. But I always "got" Cezanne. The rippling movement of color, the directional forces of lines, the stepping of color harmonies were there for me the first time I saw, as a teen, his monumental "The Bathers" at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The painting held me fascinated at the huge strokes and energy of application, then the quiet moments of stuttered contemplation as he stacked colors to produce the illusion of movement, the overarcing trees that contained and unified the participants and all nature. As I was a bit of a jock, with a reputation to protect at high school, I could only talk about these sights with my closest friend and even then in the most inarticulate terms of "cool," "great," and "crazy, man." Maybe part of my ability to relate to Cezanne was the encouragement I found in his lack of precision in drawing. I was very weak as a draftsman at that time and had a strength in color and movement. I am still learning to draw, but I, through over fifty years of constant struggle, now have the confidence that I can catch a likeness in a very few lines. But I love to throw the paint around. This is what Cezanne gave us, the permission to move and be physical with paint without tiny stroke, "tickle," slick painting.
The journey always is about becoming.
Harry R.

Posted by: hrteacher on November 3, 2008 10:54 AM

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