Saturday, November 24, 2012

Cézanne's Small Brushstrokes

Artistic Criticism

Paul Cézanne now ranks as one of the great painters of the modern era, the link between Impressionism and Cubism; such was not always the case, says a book review in The Telegraph, by Hilary Spurling, of Alex Danchev's book, Cezanne: A Life:
Outrage was for years the default reaction to Cézanne’s clashing colours, coarse brush strokes, and a construction so ugly that “he could paint bad breath”, according to a critic in 1907. Rilke said you had to go on looking: “For a long time nothing, and suddenly one has the right eyes.” It was the evenness of Cézanne’s vision as much as its intentness – his rejection of conventional hierarchies of subject and style – that shook both factions, for and against. Rilke saw in Cézanne’s self-portraits “the unquestioning, matter-of-fact interest of a dog who sees himself in a mirror and thinks: there’s another dog”. Or, as Heidegger put it: “If only one could think as directly as Cézanne painted.”

It would be virtually impossible for anyone now to get back behind the wrong eyes, and the great strength of Alex Danchev’s book is that it doesn’t try. This is a biography for an age that takes Cézanne’s supreme clarity, balance and pictorial logic for granted. Far from putting him back in the context he came from, it explores his relations with a world he shaped. Its cultural references range from Socrates to Wallace Stevens, Kafka to Beckett, Chaplin to Woody Allen. The tradesmen of Aix-en-Provence among whom the painter spent his life barely get a look in.

Partly, this is a documentation impasse. The fellow painters closest to Cézanne – chief among them Pissarro and Monet – maintain a formidable presence here. His tough, hardheaded father, a banker who kept the painter dangling financially on a short string for almost 50 years, emerges with unexpected brio. But Cézanne’s own son remains sketchy, as does his sister Marie who lived with him for most of his life without anyone noticing much more than her sharp tongue. “Look, Paul, this isn’t the time to play games,” she said when her brother started drawing their father on his deathbed: “If we want to capture the look of your dear father, we need a proper painter.”
It is the rare family that supports the aspirations of an artist still unknown and not earning money from his art; this only happens later when biography paints a far different picture. That this biography on Cézanne has sketchy details on his son and sister tells us that either the biographer considered them essentially unimportant to telling the story of Paul Cézanne, or that there is not much information on them. Equally important is that most artists are uninvolved in the mundane tasks of parenting.

Painters, like many artists, are interesting in that they tend to lead unconventional lives, that is, they are more independent in their habits of work and thought. What this also says is that humans in viewing the work of painters like Cézanne not only enjoy the fruits of their labor, which are many and beautiful, but also the fact that they defied convention, faced adversity and gained some sort of victory. Of course, we hear only about the ones that succeeded.

You can read the rest of the article at [The Telegraph]


  1. When we returned from China in 1984, my wife and I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The post-impressionist painters thrilled us in a way we had never expected. Seeing their work made us feel we had come home.

    1. China and America form two differing world visions, which is reflected in their art.


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