Sunday, 17 May 2009


“A work of art which did not begin in emotion is not art.” - Paul Cézanne

The French painter Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) was one of the most important figures in the development of modern painting. In particular, the evolution of cubism and abstraction was largely due to his innovations (so now you know who to blame!). During the greater part of his own lifetime, however, Cézanne was largely ignored, and he worked in isolation. He mistrusted critics, had few friends, and, until 1895, exhibited only occasionally. He was alienated even from his family, who found his behaviour peculiar and failed to appreciate his revolutionary art.

For many years Cézanne was known only to his old impressionist colleagues and to a few younger radical post-impressionist artists, including the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh and the French painter Paul Gauguin. In 1895, however, Ambroise Vollard, an ambitious Paris art dealer, arranged a show of Cézanne's works and over the next few years promoted them successfully. By 1904, Cézanne was featured in a major official exhibition, and by the time of his death (in Aix on October 22, 1906) he had attained the status of a legendary figure. During his last years many younger artists traveled to Aix to observe him at work and to receive any words of wisdom he might offer. Both his style and his theory remained mysterious and cryptic; he seemed to some a naive primitive, while to others he was a sophisticated master of technical procedure. The intensity of his color, coupled with the apparent rigour of his compositional organisation, signalled to most that, despite the artist's own frequent despair, he had synthesised the basic expressive and representational elements of painting in a highly original manner.

Cézanne's goal was, in his own mind, never fully attained. He left most of his works unfinished and destroyed many others. He complained of his failure at rendering the human figure. Even the great figural works of his last years (eg, the “Large Bathers”, painted 1899-1906), reveal curious distortions that seem to have been dictated by the rigour of the system of colour modulation he imposed on his own representations. The succeeding generation of painters, however, eventually came to be receptive to nearly all of Cézanne's idiosyncrasies. Cézanne's heirs felt that the naturalistic painting of impressionism had become formularised, and a new and original style, however difficult it might be, was needed to return a sense of sincerity and commitment to modern art.

I like many of Cézanne’s still life paintings, such as the one I feature, and also some of his landscapes where the elements of the painting assume a strange sculptural quality that achieves monumental proportions. I would have to agree with him on his own self-assessment o his figural painters. His “Great Bathers" look like they were modelled on transsexual men soldiers whose transformation into the opposite sex was influenced the stalwart physique of the men and marred by worst efforts of a terrible plastic surgeon…

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