I’ve just started reading Alex Danchev’s Cézanne: A Life (New York: Pantheon Books, 2018), and it’s already shaping up to be a great book. In the prologue, Danchev claims that admirers of Cézanne’s work can’t really explain why they like it. He even quotes my man Roger Fry to back this up. Since I can’t resist a good challenge, I suddenly feel compelled to articulate why I enjoy Cézanne. I remember being first being taken by his work at the Orsay and Orangerie in Paris, back when I wasn’t usually interested in anything after the Middle Ages. You guys will have to tell me if I’ve succeeded in my aims or whether Danchev was right in his assertion that an appreciation of Cézanne is inexplicable.
While writing a rambling first draft of this post, I eventually stumbled upon the heart of the answer. When I’m looking at a Cézanne, I find myself very aware of the fact that I’m looking at a painting – a two-dimensional image in paint, rather than a facsimile of a three-dimensional object. Sounds obvious, but it isn’t always. That’s because Cézanne painted in a way that is instinctual to us all, but that anybody with any artistic training has been taught to squash in favor of other techniques.
In the above still life, for example, Cézanne used thick lines to delineate objects, even though such lines don’t occur in nature.* There’s a dark outline around each fruit, the edges and folds of the napkin, the perimeter of the table, and the contours of the jar. He filled in colors softly, with only some of the highlights and shadows that would make an object seem believably three-dimensional. The result indicates the idea of three-dimensionality without fully representing it. Finally, there’s no thought of texture, like vegetable matter, fabric, wood, or porcelain.Everything looks like it would feel the same if you touched it. Accordingly, it’s so apparent to me that I’m looking at a painting of fruit and a ginger jar, not at anything closer to real fruit or jars themselves.
Think about how a little kid tries to draw or paint something – with clear outlines, flat colors, and little in the way of naturalistic detail. That’s pretty much how Cézanne painted it – in the way that’s most obvious. And I think that is what made him so great. Western thought has dictated for centuries that artists should ignore all those obvious instincts. In any drawing class, you’ll learn never to outline things like this, and you’ll spend a lot of time studying how to precisely shade an object so that it looks as believably three-dimensional and textural as possible. This is generally considered the “right” way to draw or paint, but it’s not what any of us would gravitate to naturally. But it must have taken a lot of non-obvious thinking for Cézanne to go back to painting in the obvious way.
My perspective is a different than someone like Roger Fry’s would have been. Cézanne was groundbreaking in his time, but considering everything that’s come after him, a 21st-century viewer will find him less shocking and more approachable than his peers probably did. Cézanne’s contemporaries would have focused on how far he strayed from naturalistic convention, but I think a 21st-century viewer is more likely to feel that he didn’t stray so far. However, it’s the ways in which he did stray from representational convention that think are the most compelling things about his work.
In the timeline of western art history, Cézanne is considered a Post-Impressionist. He was preceded by the Impressionists, who broke away from traditional art-school naturalism but furthered different aims than Cézanne did. In turn, his work strongly influenced much of modernism, particularly the Cubists – and I find myself acutely aware of his connection to that style while writing this piece. Follow the links above to learn more about all three of these movements.
*Update 5/17/19: Moving further into Danchev’s book, it seems that Cézanne didn’t think putting lines around everything was a good artistic practice, and he didn’t see himself as somebody who did that. Yet, I see this all over his works, particularly his still lives! I’m not sure what to make of this. Does anybody else see it that way, or am I the only one?