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    The Roots of Modern Art, Part 4: Post-Impressionism (II) - Cezanne and Form

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    • 06/14/2006

    By /index.php?/user/8-davidm/">David Misialowski (2006)


    In July 1890 van Gogh painted this landscape, Crows Over the Wheatfield:

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    Shortly after painting this, he shot himself. He was 37 when he did.

    Except for a few anecdotes and some historical context where necessary, I have refrained from discussing the details of Van Gogh's tragic life, one in which he chronically lacked food and died penniless and scorned, denied even a proper burial at the Auvers cemetery because the priests disapproved of his suicide. I imagine the public is aware of the Van Gogh story in its broad outlines, because it has been mythologized in film and print, and moreover the contemporary clich� of the starving artist, or the rebel artist who must fight for acceptance and notoriety, has evolved directly from the Van Gogh mythology. But the myth of Van Gogh is not as important as his art, and it would be a mistake to subsume the latter under the former. The accomplishment is what counts, and not the details of his life, and his work would influence other artists, not because of his life history, but because of the work itself. I hold, therefore, that the details of his life are unimportant, and to recount the story of the tragedy that engulfed him would be superfluous. Van Gogh said that we take a train to go to a town but we take death to go to a star, and one presumes he is painting on a star even now, employing not a mere three primary colors, but infinite primary colors.

    The Vincent Van Gogh Gallery claims to have assembled all of Van Gogh"s work, including his paintings, drawings and his letters (he was a prolific and immensely talented writer). If so, this is an unprecedented achievement.

    "Render Nature by Means of the Cylinder, the Sphere, the Cone, all Placed in Perspective." - Cezanne.

    Art historians regard Van Gogh and Cezanne as "postimpressionists", though lumping them together this way seems to reflect little more than a poverty of imagination, given that it is hard to imagine more dissimilar artists. Art lore has it that the two met only once, Cezanne hovering over Van Gogh's shoulder while the latter was slashing and dashing away at a work (he frequently turned out one masterpiece every hour, on especially fecund days) and finally proclaiming, "You, sir, paint like a madman!" Then Cezanne stalked off in a huff.

    One can imagine Cezanne's indignation, because he painted slowly and methodically, so much so that sometimes the fruit rotted and the flowers wilted during his interminable still-life studies. Cezanne is an odd duck for the non-artist to get a handle on, but understanding what he was up to is important if one wants to understand many of the main trends of modern art that descended from Cezanne. (There are those who say it's not really possible to understand what Cezanne was up to, and even he might not have completely known.)

    It's clear that the goal of the academic painters was to create images of photorealistic fidelity to nature, while bypassing the real world altogether in the service of story-telling works dealing with religion and mythology. We can see that the impressionists were mainly concerned with capturing the play of light, shadow and intense color during sessions painted while out of doors — capturing an impression of a moment in time, as when the leaves rustle in the wind and sunlight filters down through them. Van Gogh's preoccupations were a little more complex, but fundamentally it's not hard to see that he was concerned with capturing, on canvas, some inner reality of his subjects, while transforming them according to a new conception of color. But what did Cezanne want to do?

    Consider the following still life by Gustave Courbet, a pioneer of French realism who also moved away from academic traditions but never went over to the more radical approaches of the impressionists and the post-impressionists:


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    This is focusing on a basket of apples and bears a lot of similarities with early still lives done by Van Gogh. It is a realistic portrayal of the subject. Now look at the following still life by Cezanne, from around the middle period of his career:


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    This looks rather odd, and might even strike some as unpleasant. It's also unclear what Cezanne is trying to accomplish. It certainly doesn't fit into any known paradigm that we have encountered so far: realism, academicism, impressionism or, for want of a better term, Van Goghism.

    Looking at Courbet's work, we see that, although he is getting his hands dirty with realism in a sense that the academic school would have shunned, the painting is still traditional in that it has a recognizable subject in the foreground set against a distinct (in fact black) background. The concept of rendering volumes and creating the illusion of depth perspective by means of shading (light-dark contrast) is called chiaroscuro, and had been around for several hundred years by the time Courbet executed his work. One could note the irony that "realistic" paintings depend on illusion. To render, on a two-dimensional surface, three-dimensional objects existing in space requires that one use paint to trick the eye. And by this time, some artists might have been wondering whether this centuries-old trick has played itself out. Couldn't there be something more important to painting than using a trick?

    One could even see this problem as a philosophical one, having to do with the question, "what is a painting, anyway?" One possible answer is that a painting is an object in its own right, and the degree of reference to the outside world that one might give it is purely arbitrary.

    In his work, Cezanne has gently flattened the picture plane. The painting seems odd, at least at first, to eyes schooled in realism, because it lacks depth. The "background" begins to march forward to meet the shapes in the foreground, so that there is an "all-over" effect of painting, absent from the Courbet piece. This flattening isn't too dramatic - the white of the bowl is in high contrast to the shadow behind it - but look at how the glass practically becomes part of the wallpaper behind it.

    This is important because any artist who works in any medium will tell you that there is a terrific tension between the "window on the world" concept of art and the flat picture plane concept. While employing the former technique can offer the illusion of realism, using the latter can often produce much more interesting compositions and designs, and of course, it is a more authentic utilization of paint, if one considers the idea of employing "illusion" in art to be a bit suspect. One obvious potential defect to the Courbet approach (depending on one's conceptual scheme for what constitutes art, of course) is that a lot of the surface of the painting is wasted in dead black, and how interesting is black to look at? In contrast, flattening the picture plane enables the artist to produce interesting pictorial elements all over the canvas, rather than just in the foreground.

    All pictures, whether "realistic" or fully nonrepresentational, are abstract. This just means that they are composed arrangements of lines, curves, colors, areas and volumes. In a representational piece like Courbet's apples, the painter uses these tropes to evoke the illusion of real objects existing in the outer world. Nonrepresentational artists will use them to evoke paint as paint. The Cezanne piece exists somewhere between these two poles, though still much closer to Courbet. Toward the end of his career, as we shall see, Cezanne had evolved to make paintings of a mountain that began to look little if anything like a mountain. By the time he died in 1906, he had arguably gone over to full nonrepresentationalism, painting the first truly modern works of the 20th century.

    In the sort of "illusion" painting that is necessary to produce the realist "look", the foreground is generally quite distinct from the background, and the subject of the painting - in the case of Courbet's work, a basket of apples - defines what is known as positive space. The background is called negative space. In the more abstracted work of Cezanne, positive and negative space can assume equal importance, and even exchange places. This means, again, that the artist has more opportunity to use the entire canvas, rather than just the foreground, to create things that are interesting to look at. This fact alone could be seen to give flat-canvas painting an advantage over "window on the world" painting.

    A much more dramatic example of Cezanne's evolving approach may be found in the following still life:

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    At first glance, the work may best be defined by all that the artist is not trying to do: He's not trying to achieve photo-realism. He's not trying to tell a story. The work has nothing to do with mythology. He's not trying to capture the play of light and shadow. He's not even particularly interested with any idea of color. So, what is Cezanne trying to do? I think Cezanne's work is best thought of as pioneering excursions into the investigation of form, of how paint can be formally and maximally arranged on a flat surface to produce some kind of effect on the mind or imagination of the viewer. Recall Zola's observation that for the painter, the subject is merely a pretext for painting. While this was never quite true for Van Gogh, it was absolutely correct for Cezanne, perhaps moreso than for any painter in the 19th century. Because of this concern, his work was also fundamentally impersonal. Consider this portrait of his wife:


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    How happy could Madame Cezanne have been with being considered, by her husband, as a scaffolding for formal investigation? For certainly, this work is nearly void of any hint of the personality or inner character of the subject, a preoccupation that greatly concerned Van Gogh in his figurative studies. The work is an exercise in form and nothing more!

    If you look at this work closely, you quickly realize that Madame Cezanne just happened to be an expedient prop. Had Cezanne deemed it necessary, or if he had had the props handy, he might just as well have used, in the center of the canvas, a pink elephant or the tooth fairy. As it happens, the perimeter of the work is just as interesting, and maybe even more so, than the prop in the center that happens to be a vague likeness of the painter's wife. Notice how, on the left, there is straight, vertical form that shoots up to a yellowish, partly obscured square shape (window? picture on the wall? Does it matter?) that stands in sharp contrast to the sweeping curvilinear folds of the drapery to the top right, which then taper off to a dramatic diagonal shape driving the eye back down toward the lower part of the canvas. All these interacting tensions are made more dramatic by the fact that form in the middle of the canvas (by form, that would be Mrs. Cezanne) is tilted (was she drunk?), a tilt that itself is contrasted with a titled portion of the wall that proceeds from lower right toward upper left. Also, notice how the interplay of the rectilinear forms on the left, with the curvilinear and diagonal ones on the right, create a negative space in which Mrs. Cezanne is embedded, which itself is a very interesting shape - the shape, actually, of a harp. This painting is all form; a composition of interplaying shapes. Color, light source, personality, story-telling, the subject itself, are all incidental, to the extent that they exist at all. Cezanne is in love with form as form; he wants to bring forward formal interplay for its own sake, and suppress all the traditional concerns of Western portrait art (and art in general).

    Consider another portrait of Cezanne's wife, in which the artist again focuses on form to the exclusion of content, but this time his special concern is with defining form according to color:


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    Again, Cezanne has flattened depth perspective, suppressed shadows and created an all-over compositional feeling. And again, there is little character in the face - a dramatic difference from portraits by Van Gogh, in which expressions are often so intense and revealing that they seem almost fissionable.

    The composition has a simple big shape: It is a mountainous triangle (the body) set against a great circle — the red chair. The circle terminates without closing with endpoints that themselves are circular, and the abstracted shape could be read as a chair or, perhaps, jaws. (In his youth, Cezanne painted rape scenes.) The face is full of gloriously abstracted-out color: Ochres, oranges, blues, greens, and violets, all of roughly the same value or brightness, meaning that they harmonize, with no color sticking out from the rest.

    If you look around the painting, you will find that virtually every patch of it consists of splotches of color that go marching across the canvas, creating a vibrancy and a dynamic the causes the painting to move. Color patches exist even in the vibrant red. Despite all these vibrant patches that lend a hectic air to the painting, Madame Cezanne somehow seems as stable and monumental as a mountain. The eye is constantly seduced by the competing forms of the circle of the chair and the triangle of the human form. The bright red circular shape drives the eye around and around, and even though the chair does not completely close, the four-sided blue decorative shapes on the ochre wall, also arranged in a circular pattern, drive the eye from the top circular shape that terminates one end of the chair, to the bottom circular shape that terminates the other, and so the circle is closed.

    But the triangle form of Madame Cezanne, especially emphasized by the interlocking hands and the way the arms bend and rise toward the pedestal of the shoulders, lure the eye away from the circular chair, and up into the face, which itself is another circle, or an oval. And there the eye lingers over the color patches of the face, until the red chair seizes hold of one’s view and drives it round and round again. One can occasionally break free of this visual ride by letting one's gaze descend down to the folds of the dress, which are painted to resemble vast terraced boulders. It is almost as if this whole painting is more of a landscape than a figure study.

    Notice that the chair can't possibly look like this in reality. Cezanne, in the service of a rhythmic composition, has simply abandoned traditional perspective and instead invented multiple perspectives. He would do the same in his landscape painting. His use of multiple perspectives, flattened picture space, and emphasis of dramatic form over literal representation, anticipated and inspired Cubism.

    Cezanne's march toward this conception of art was a long one, and he started off in a more or less traditional way, painting foreground-background pictures that told stories, ones that often traded on mythological themes. Consider this early Cezanne:

    The Abduction_small.jpg

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    Foreground figures, background landscape. Window on the World. A story is told: that of an abduction. The only thing that distinguishes this is his unusual use of color. Later in his career, his figures, as in the case of Madame Cezanne, became formal devices, hardly recognizable as people. Consider his bathers:


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    This work is monumental, and increasingly nonrepresentational. The background of the clouds and sky has practically merged with the foreground of the greatly simplified human forms, creating an all-over design scheme that can't be sustained by traditional window-on-the-world painting. As with impressionist art, and the art of Van Gogh, there are an increasing number of broken brush strokes in this work, but they are not used in the service of delineating dapples of light. They seem almost arbitrary, but they are really being used to accentuate form. The clouds in the background might just as well be mountains, and the humans in the foreground could as well be outcroppings of rock or even trees. What matters is their arrangement, in the service of the composition of the whole canvas: Their faces are mere smudges, but their postures, the directions they face and the stances that they take create dramatic tensions that captivate the eye and drive it around the canvas, settling it down to look in some places, scurrying it off in different directions at other places. The overall effect is one of monumentality, as if Cezanne has striven to capture a timeless reality that lies behind and beneath the tableaux of women bathing. This goal, in fact, is quite the opposite of what the impressionists were after: they were trying to pin down a fleeting moment in time; Cezanne was, by now, seeking to capture and depict the bedrock of the timeless.

    After his paintings of bathers, and toward the end of his life, abstracted his conception of form away from the rudiments of realism. Increasingly, the subject of his painting became, not the things in the world that he painted, but the interplay of the paint itself. This is the birth of nonrepresentational art that would hold so much sway over the 20th century, and persists in varying forms until the present day.

    Biology students are very familiar with charts of transitional fossils. A famous one shows the progress of skulls from our pre-hominid ancestors to present day humans. Later in life, Cezanne painted one particular mountain, again and again, and I suggest that these paintings represent transitional fossils from late 19th century art to modern art. Consider the progression of paintings of Mont Sainte Victoir:


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    I'm not sure that these are in precise chronological order, but even if they're not, it doesn't effect that larger point, which that toward the end of his life Cezanne was painting less the mountain, then he was painting the paint. He had discovered a new way to make art — the interplay of form divorced from subject. Here is one of his last works, Garden at Lauves, which is pure color composition:


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    The 20th century had arrived.

    In Clive Bell's book Art, first published in 1914, he attempted to explicate what Cezanne was up to by inventing the concept of significant form. Bell argued that for all his apparent departures from traditional painting, Cezanne was in the true tradition of art, for all great art embodies significant form, which is the arrangement of lines, shapes and colors in some profound relationship that seizes the attention and ignites the imagination. On Bell's account, the content of a painting is irrelevant; and indeed, to focus too much on representationalism runs the risk of destroying significant form and reducing a work of art to a mere description, like a court document perhaps. This view of art is central to the thesis of formalism, and it is also an attempt to define art. The attempt to define art is an essentialist project. Before moving on to discuss Picasso - perhaps simultaneously one of the most heralded and most misunderstood painters of all time - I want to take a closer look at the thesis of formalism, and indeed at the philosophy of art, which will be the subject of my next essay. To broach the question, "What is art?" is to open up the possibility that one can have a deeper understanding of all art. But we shall see, among other things, that the thesis of formalism as Bell would have it probably can’t be logically sustained, for it appears to be circular. It is even possible that no essentialist account of art succeeds, in which case those who attempt to articulate such an account might find their time better spent reading Wittgenstein.

    Here is an extremely interesting review of Cezanne by a Washington Post writer, which offers a different take on Cezanne and disputes some things that I have said in this essay.

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