Saturday, September 4, 2010


Did any painter ever achieve more in such isolation? Cézanne did not have a one-man show until 1895, when he was 56. If the last years of his life made him something of a public figure in his native Aix-en-Provence and among the artists in Paris, he spent them in virtual seclusion in his studio on the hillside above Aix. Of course, he sought that seclusion, believing that all his "compatriots are arseholes."

Montagne Sainte-Victoire, 1890. Musee d'Orsay

The more he painted, the more he saw. The more he saw, the more he felt that ultimate truth was unattainable. But he never stopped looking, working, trying.  "I must tell you," Cézanne wrote to his son six weeks before his death in the fall of 1906, "that as a painter I am becoming more clear-sighted before nature, but with me the realization of my sensations is always painful. I cannot attain the intensity that is unfolded before my senses. I do not have the magnificent richness of coloring that animates nature. Here on the bank of the river the motifs multiply ..." and in a letter of September 1906, "Will I ever attain the end for which I have striven so much and so long?...I am always studying nature."

Nature morte aux oignons 1895-1898. Oil on canvas. 27 x 36 1/2 in (68.8 x 92.7 cm) 
Musee d'Orsay

The workplace held the permanent characters of his still life's: the plaster cupid, the blue ginger jar, the plain Provencal stoneware, the scroll-sawed kitchen table, the floral rug, the skulls, onions and peaches. Above all, there was Mont Ste.-Victoire, omniscient presence and symbol of his beloved South.

 Mount St. Victoire. 1890. Oil on Canvas. Metropolitan Museum, New York

One sees how absolutely, unlike most other painters who work en série, Cézanne despised repetition. Each painting attacks the mountain and its distance as a fresh problem. The bulk runs from a mere vibration of watercolor on the horizon, its translucent, wriggling pro file echoing the pale green and lavender gestures of the foreground trees, to the vast solidarity of the of Mont Ste.-Victoire, 1902-06.

"There, all is displacement. Instead of an object in an imaginary box, surrounded by transparency, every part of the surface is a continuum, a field of resistant form. Patches of gray, blue and lavender that jostle in the sky are as thoroughly articulated as those that constitute the flank of the mountain. Nothing is empty in late Cézanne — not even the bits of untouched canvas. This organized dialectic of shape and of color is the subject of Cézanne's famous remark: "Painting from nature is not copying the object; it is realizing one's sensations." To realize a sensation meant to give it a syntax — and as the hatched, angled planes in late Cézanne become less legible as illusion, so does the force of their pictorial language become more ordered. His goal was presence, not illusion, and he pursued it with an unremitting gravity."

 Still Life with Apples, a bottle and a milk pot. 1902-1906. The Museum of Modern Art, New York

"The fruit in the great still lifes of the period, like Apples and Oranges, 1895-1900, are so weighted with pictorial decision — their rosy surfaces filled, as it were, with thought — that they seem about twice as solid as real fruit could be. It mattered to Cézanne that he was a Provençal. Mont Ste.-Victoire was central to him, not only as a shape but as an emblem of his roots. The light in his watercolors (perhaps the most radiant exercises in that medium since Turner) is not just the transcendent energy, the "supernatural beauty" of abstraction; it is also the harsh, verifiable flicker of sun on Provençal hillsides. To his anguish and fulfillment, Cézanne was embedded in the real world, and he returns us to it, whenever his pictures are seen. "—: Robert Hughes. Time Magazine on Line.

On October 15, 1906, ill with diabetes, Cezanne climbed the winding road to paint his mountain. He'd done it hundred times before. But while he worked, he was caught in a sudden thunderstorm and collapsed. A passerby found him and carried him, semi-conscious, back into town on a laundry cart. "I want to die painting," he had told a friend. His last letter was to a dealer who supplied his paints. "It is now eight days since I asked you to send me ten burnt lakes no. 7 and I have had no reply," he wrote. "Whatever is the matter? An answer and quick, please." He died of pneumonia six days after writing the letter.

A year after he died,  a major exhibition of Cezanne's works opened at the Salon d'Autumne in Paris. Picasso, Braque and Matisse were among those crowding into the show--and stealing his secrets. But they would never steal his grandeur. Rilke, too, was there. "Not since Moses," he wrote to his wife, "has anyone seen a mountain so greatly."

Richard Kendall. Cezanne by himself. Chartwell Books, Inc. 1988
Cezanne - part of the Post Expressionist exhibit opening later this month at the De Young.


Zoomie said...

Wow, that's amazing writing! Brings Cezanne alive for me. I will read this again before I go to the next part of the Musée d'Orsay show.

namastenancy said...

The credit belongs to Cezanne, whom I have quoted extensively and an essay by Robert Hughes (also quoted a lot) who is my "writing guru." Between Cezanne's glorious works and Hughes' equally brilliant writing, how could anybody fail to be inspired.

Zoomie said...

You've selected quite the good "mentor" in Robert Hughes. Good on ya!