Sunday, April 09, 2006

A Return to Cezanne

The major motivation for twice returning to the Cezanne in Provençe, on exhibit at the National gallery in DC through May 7, 2006, has largely been due to the academic necessity to expose several groups of continuing education students to the experience of engaging the master’s work both in the development of a single painting and in the evolution of a plastic idea throughout a lifetime of painting.

David W. Galenson, in his recent book Old Masters and young Geniuses sets Cezanne up as the archetype for the experimental painter in the Modern era – one who works towards an undefined goal through undefined means illustrated best directly through a quote “I seek in painting.” The progression of an experimental artist is through an evolution of steps, not leaps, and is always in the pursuit of finding. Conversely, the conceptual artist pursues defined goals through defined solution sets. Picasso represents this archetype with his quote “I don’t seek, I find.” The conceptual tend to arrive upon a painting rather than search for it. We’ll come back to this.

Cezanne is easiest to discuss form a formal perspective by how he puts on the paint and how he is structuring his composition. He becomes the painter for many to look at because a retrospective of his oeuvre becomes a step-by-step approach on how to construct a painting or how one might construct a career of painting. Through the scope of time he shows us two major jumps on the bookends of one subtle shift in his methods.

In the beginning of his work, exhibited in the second gallery shows many studio paintings with sitters and still life – very few landscapes. C. 1860, these paintings demonstrate Cezanne’s interest searching between line and plane to represent form. Plane is approximated through large meaty daubs of paint that appear applied with a club, whereas line rests heavy and black around specific forms within the composition: outlines that break. His first shift away from this is simply through what looks like a greater attention to thinning the viscosity of his paints. Suddenly by the 1870s the paintings become a bit more atmospheric, lighter. While this might seem like a simplistic observation, it is evident how this freed up his mark making. He expertly drew compositions quickly onto the canvas, overlaid appropriate formulae of color, and retraced line where necessary. In this process he quickly began to understand how the stroke of the paint applied with the brush affected the optical interpretation of space: lines in opposition will create an illusion of depth. Where he chooses to create lines that run parallel with one another he develops space through methodic experiments in value and color. Shifts in tone are what allow the space on the canvas to recede. This is something he had to struggle to find in his painting. This is also where a thinned paint will help the solution since oxygen takes less time to penetrate and dry a thin membrane of oil paint rather than a chunky glob.

A second, subtler shift in his work happens with a return to the studio. Whether Cezanne bounces back and forth between the two is not evident through the thesis of work presented on the wall. But, several quotes on the wall suggest his dissatisfaction with the studio earlier in his carrier, forcing him into the landscape. Later in his career he seemed able to construct a studio to fit his needs rather than constructing work to fit what his studio space allowed. Some later work of still life and skulls appear to suggest what he learned in the landscape was applicable to the studio environment once he found a suitable means of production. No suggestion is provided within the thesis of the retrospective to suggest that he ever abjured his sentiments regarding the studio from earlier in his career. But having any comfort to work in the studio would set up his third shift in subject.

The bathers seem anomalous and tangential to his body of work. In later paintings around Sainte Victoire Cezanne seemed to be less interested in the optical needs of representation and more attentive to the intellectual suggestion of form that occurs with how he works color and stroke. Some of this seemed abandoned when it came to the bathers where he stumbles around anatomical issues like an adolescent boy groping his first breast. Yet, positioned next to a late still life of fruit in the studio, it becomes apparent that Cezanne, with his heavy line and clumsy planar approach is a certain influence of Picasso and also a great influence of Cubism (Gardener also makes this correlation). With careful observations of Cezanne’s female bathers we are also likely to find influences for Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. While this gives no less credence to Galenson’s findings, and there are sketchbooks filled with Picasso’s preparatory drawings of Les Demoiselles, Cezanne offers a very strong backbone for Picasso and becomes the fulcrum allowing Modernism to shift into Cubism.

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