From The Artist magazine, June 1981
This essay appeared in the June 1981 issue of The Artist magazine.
Twentieth-century art is indebted to Cezanne’s reinterpretation of light, form and colour; Sargy Mann discusses the paintings of this outstanding innovator.
If one were to conduct a poll amongst all living artists, it is probable that Cezanne would be voted the greatest painter of all time. His role as father of modern art is well known (though it is worth mentioning that he would have dis-owned almost all of his progeny) and certainly it was he more than anyone else who effected the change from Impressionism, that culmination of the search for an understanding of appearance, to the revitalised realism of the 20th-century masters such as Matisse, Picasso and Bonnard, which has some resemblance to that of the 15th-century in its variety of formal language.
From the Renaissance, painters had studied appearance as being the most powerful means of realising their subjects (usually religious or classical). To be able to deal in form, space and light was thrilling and had enormous dramatic advantages over preceding styles; but not until the 19th-century did appearance as such become the subject for painting. The impressionists, answerable to nothing else, finally penetrated the mysteries of appearance, and their canvases stand as the perfection of this mode of realism.
That the tortuous and intensely idiosyncratic way of Cezanne should have led from Impressionism to 20th-century realism owes, paradoxically, as much to the short-comings of his talent as to his genius; though how he overcame these shortcomings was an important part of his genius. If Cezanne had had the natural talent for drawing possessed by Monet he would not have pointed the way into the 20th-century as he did. From an academic standpoint, he could not draw. He did not have the ability to see or estimate the shapes projected by forms and their arrange-ment in space – that is to see perspective. His involvement with his subject, whether imagined or seen in nature, was so intense that he experienced a conflict between its real three-dimensional presence – the actual depth of a table-top or field, the actual proportions of a figure, or the actual fullness of form – and the perspectival shapes and proportions projected by it onto a picture plane which he did not find convincing and so he felt compelled to paint what seemed real to him, whatever the two-dimensional consequences. Here it is worth pointing out that truth to appearance, for all artists is a matter of degree. The old masters bent such truth (even when they understood it) in the service of their subjects, and with a few rare exceptions, artists made patterns that they found convincing and this determined the closeness or otherwise of their images to appearance. The apparent strangeness of Cezanne’s drawing – the peculiar proportions, the seeming inconsistencies – are only considerable differences of degree from what you can find in a Monet or a Rembrandt.
Cezanne’s passion for reality, for the presence of natural forms in natural light, was matched by a passion for art. He loved the great painting of the past (the Venetians, Rubens, Poussin and Chardin most of all) and understood very well that a painting, however realistic in intention, is a metaphor, an invention, and that its language is decorative: a language of two-dimensional design, of shape and colour and line – a pattern in fact. But what he did not find was that this pattern, which was his painting, grew naturally and logically out of the appearance of his subject, as it seemed to for many artists. For him there was no basic mould or logical system of drawing and ordered tone and colour which was equally applicable to all subjects. Arriving at a pattern from his sensations, revealed in discovered rhythms of unfolding under-standing, which also satisfied his feeling for the expressive language of decorative design, was a battle which had to be re-fought in every painting, and at a more fundamental level than for many, perhaps any, of even the greatest painters. Drawing had always to be reinvented; not only discovered in the parti-cularities of the subject, but discovered as a means of responding to space and form at all – to the very three-dimensionalness of reality. Space, for Cezanne did not exist as an empty box with its own clear geometry of perspective into which any assembly of objects, whether apples or mountains, could be fitted and understood. Rather it was a particular attribute of a given subject, whose character and appearance had to be found afresh each time. One often feels a tension between certain strong decorative arabesques, which at first sight seems to give the subject a rather flat and very frontal aspect, and the particular positions of the planes and contours which arise from his responding to successive sensations of colour at a distance. These two demands, of decorative design and the form of his subject, had to find agreement within the rectangle for the painting to reach completion. In some cases they never really did. In the watercolour Chateau de Fontainebleau of 1904-5, the central tree is in three different positions all of which are essential to the realisation of the experience. This tension is perhaps a little like that which might exist between the demands of the form of a poem (five-foot lines, rhyming alternately, say) and those of its subject.
Some such tension between artistic form and subject is at the heart of all figurative art, but it is seldom more in evidence than in Cezanne’s painting. It is the intrusion of this tension between subject and form, and the contradictions it suggests to a mind operating under preconceptions, that leads many to say, ‘since the world doesn’t look like this, Cezanne must be doing some-thing other than painting realistically; some-thing more exclusively to do with art for its own sake – I know, it’s the beginning of abstract painting.’ One might as well say that the world does not sound like a sonnet. It could not be clearer from Cezanne’s letters and his conversations with Joachim Gasquet that he was as dedicated a realist as ever you could find. … ‘Now the theme to develop is that, whatever our temperaments or power in the presence of nature may be, we must render the image of what we see, forgetting every-thing that existed before us. Which, I believe, must permit the artist to give his entire personality whether great or small.’
During the 1870’s, when Cezanne was working close to his friend and teacher Pissarro, he used tone and colour with the same broad logic as the other impressionists, one based on a scaled down response to the tonality of natural appearance. But as time went by his use of colour (and tone, there-fore), like his drawing, became more personal and idiosyncratic, and less logically deducible from the common appearance of the subject. Colour increasingly became his obsession and it was through colour and by means of it that all was experienced and expressed. ‘Drawing and colour are not separate, everything in nature being coloured. The more the colour harmonises the more the drawing becomes precise. When the colour has attained rich-ness the form has reached its plenitude.’ In Cezanne’s work, for perhaps the first time since the Renaissance, colour was in the driving seat in western painting. In another letter he writes ‘I want to render perspective solely by means of colour.’ In my opinion this is one of the most important and revealing of all his statements. Cezanne’s passion was nature, the visual fact as he discovered it with all its shock and rawness. He loved the great painters of the past but they had not painted his experience, his nature, only he could do that. In attempting to do so he found that their methods did not work for him. Or rather that they worked, but he didn’t believe the result. He did not see the world in consistent linear perspective, or in a predictably ordered tonality. But he did see colour and form and distance – ‘The world is more depth than breadth to us mortals’ – and he was intensely aware of the flat decorative presence of his painting as his only means of expression. I believe that he became convinced that this decorative presence should transmute into an experience of form and space, colour and light; whole, all at once, and not via a language of drawing and modelling which had validity out-side that particular harmonious experience (‘I advance all of my canvas at one time, together’). To experience the reality of the part in isolation was to diminish the experience of the totality. Traditional drawing (which he was no good at anyway) had a validity on its own, so did a system of tonal modelling; but colour, being the product of illumination and position, and local colour, was absolutely particular to a given subject. So it was through colour above all that the translation should be achieved, and the colour should determine everything else. So he was driven by his inability to master traditional drawing to the most developed awareness of a painting as a metaphor for an experience of reality. The equivalence was only between the two wholes: the decorative unity of the canvas, and the experience of a particular unity in nature. Parts had to be related to the whole that they were a part of; there was no direct equivalence between a part of one and a part of the other, therefore drawing, colour and everything else had to be discovered afresh within the particular rectangle they were decorating. This was Cezanne’s legacy to the 20th-century realists, and it led Matisse, Picasso, Bonnard and the rest, to the excitement of virtually reinventing figurative painting for themselves. Ironically it also led to the belief that the decorative unity of the canvas was sufficient on its own, and so to the sterility of total abstraction.
To test his ability ‘to render perspective solely by means of colour’, he sometimes set up still lifes which presented spatially mis-leading drawing cues. He tilted vessels by putting pennies under their bases, raised near apples on blocks so that they appeared at the same level as distant ones, or placed an astonishingly large apple right at the back; then he obscured the evidence of all this trickery with a rumpled napkin or with draperies whose patterns produced strong
directions (on the canvas) seemingly at odds with the surfaces they covered. The irony here, as with all of Cezanne’s mature painting, is that most interested viewers respond to its decorative unity, see how beautiful it is but never look long enough, or with sufficient openness for the patterns to transmute into the real prize: Cezanne’s experience of reality. Hence all the familiar clap-trap (as irrational as it is irrelevant) about planes tipped up to bring them onto the surface of the canvas, shallow pictorial space, etc. Everything that Cezanne did on the canvas affirmed its reality and its presence as flat decoration. The quality of the brush marks and their directions were determined far more by the decorative unity of the pattern than the particular form they were describing. Indeed the characteristic look of his brushwork arises, I believe, from a hatred of the imitative. If he felt there was the slightest danger of a passage being seen as localised imitation, he would ‘stitch’ the brush marks into the flat pattern in directions perverse from the standpoint of the forms. All of this makes the transmutation into an experience of reality that much more exciting and transporting when it does occur.
‘Deep feeling unifies the whole being. The rush of the world at the bottom of the mind resolves itself with the same motion that the eyes, the ears, the mouth, the nose discover, each according to its own lyricism … And art, I believe, puts us in the state of grace when universal emotion reveals itself to us, religiously, yet very naturally. The universal harmony, like colour, should be found everywhere.
Genius creates its own method … my own, I have no other, is hatred of the imaginative. I want to be as stupid as a cabbage. My method, my code, is realism. But realism, understand clearly, that is full of grandeur.
In the painter there are two things, the eye and the brain; each should help the other. Both must be developed, but in the fashion of a painter; the eye by the vision of nature, the brain by the logic of organised sensations, which provide the means of expression … The eye should concentrate, devour; the brain formulate. We identify ourselves with objects, we are carried away by them.’
(All quotations are from Cezanne’s letters and his recorded conversation with Joachim Gasquet.)