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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Cezanne the Gardener

Paul Cezanne Self-portrait
Paul Cézanne is often referred to as the "father of Modern Art." While that may be apt, I prefer to think of him more in the light of a gardener--as having planted the seeds of Modern Art. And while we're speaking metaphorically, we could also refer to him as a bridge. By that I mean his life's work bridged the gap between Impressionism and Expressionism. In his earliest paintings, Cézanne was at least nearly an Impressionist. He knew them, shared many of their ideals and exhibited with them; though in fact, his work itself may have been a step beyond their efforts in capturing fleeting effects of light and color in favor of more stable and permanent aspects of the natural world. But as Impressionism veered off in the direction of pretty pictures (artists have to eat, you know), Cézanne’s independent financial situation permitted him the freedom to explore principally color, perspective, mass, and composition though his landscapes, figures, and especially his still-lifes from a theoretical point of view, eschewing a search for beauty of nature in favor of a search for what we might call the nature of nature.

Still-life with Ginger Jar and Eggplant,
1890-94, Paul Cezanne

Particularly in Cézanne’s still-lifes we see him stretching even past that, in a yearning toward painting more than simple pictures, but in fact capturing the objects themselves. And that, my friends, is not Impressionism, but a knocking on the door of Expressionism. We see him sublimating illusionary perspective first in his search for the true nature of his carefully arranged still-lifes, followed by the omission of seductive details and reasonable logic in favor of tension and balance. For the first time in art, Cezanne pursued multiple points of view, as if he painted first using one eye, then the other. But Cézanne was such a reclusive, hard-nosed, aesthetic effete, even the knowledge of his work was quite limited during his lifetime. Like a seed, he had to die in order to make an impact--which he did--in1906.

Violin and Palette,
1909, Georges Braque

The following year, art dealer Durand Ruel organized a retrospective of Cézanne’s work in Paris that was to have a profound effect upon the work of three young artists who, themselves, were to have a profound effect on twentieth century art--Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and Georges Braque. It was almost as if these three immediately went back to their studios and took a whole new look at their own work. We see Matisse suddenly moving toward a flattened picture plane in which there is neither foreground nor background but simply the surface of the canvas itself. Cézanne seems to have unlocked within him a direct route to Expressionism. But it's in the work of Picasso and Braque, as they began working in tandem, taking a more developmental approach to their new vision, that we see the most enlightened flowering of Cézanne’s early exploration of multidimensional perspectives. Braque's Violin and Palette from 1909 is typical, as are many of Picasso's portraits from that era also. Today, we've come to know this blooming of the seeds planted by the "gardener of Modern Art" as Cubism.
Nature Morte au Magnolia, 1950, Henri Matisse

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