Saturday, July 16, 2011

Cezanne at the Met

I took my camera to the Met again yesterday. I met students to help them out with an assignment in the 19th century galleries, and I took some pictures too. I apologize for their quality. Although I'm amazed at the quality I can get from my new digital camera, I'm no professional, and Steve Bates who usually photographs my work is in no danger of losing this client.

I spent a lot of time in the Cezanne gallery, a gallery that is perpetually bare of people even when the rest of the 19th century galleries are crowded, as they were last night.

Cezanne intimidates people. He intimidates me. For years, I rarely spent much time in this gallery because of these demanding uncompromising paintings. I can think of few things more truly "adult" than Cezanne. He's definitely not for kids. There's nothing obscene or violent in his work (that says a lot about how we think of adulthood these days), but his paintings demand a certain attention, engagement, and experience that kids just can't manage. If he wasn't so central to the creation of modern art and design, he'd join my list of artists that I'd never teach to anyone under 25. Cezanne came to art relatively late in life, and didn't become the artist that we think of as "Cezanne" until well into his 40s. He spent his old age as a recluse in the south of France, shutting out the din of the world while he obsessively pursued the growing disconnect that he could see in his own work, between the experience of looking at the world, and painting it.

I've warmed a lot to Cezanne as I get older. A trip to the Cezanne gallery is now a very great pleasure for me. Perhaps I finally have reached the level of age and experience necessary to really savor his work and to see the passionate, and even violent, sensuality that is there in those apples and pears.

This is rapidly becoming one of my favorite paintings in the museum, Still Life with Eggplants from 1893 to 1894. This is a painting full of amazing drama.

This plate of pears appears to be riding the crumpled tablecloth like a surfboard catching a wave. Also, I'm amazed that he uses so much straight-out-of-the-tube viridian, and makes it work. Viridian is a strong, and in my opinion, ugly green that I usually use mixed with other colors.

These pears are full of sex, and it's all in the use of color. Even the shadows are hot red. There's more genuine sex appeal in these pears than in all the tits and asses on the internet.

Who would have thought that a rumpled patterned tablecloth could be so dramatic? The pattern and the folds of the cloth dance and fight it out for our attention.

More sex sublimated in fruit in this wonderful little still life of apples and pears from 1887.

Amazing apples. The painting is not flashy virtuosity, but it's certainly not crude. They are the end results of a gratifying labor of love.

Cezanne knew Mont Saint Victoire in Provence since his childhood, and he painted it many times over the course of his life. This is one of his last paintings of the mountain from about 1902 to 1906. It is was painted just a few years prior to Picasso's first experiments in what would become Cubism. The elderly Cezanne in his last years seems to be just a step ahead of the younger artist at this point.

Here is a detail of the mountain. The sky is just as dense as the mountain. The mountain is just as insubstantial as the sky. I was surprised at how much I discovered in this painting while photographing it. I never paid much attention to the sharp structural brushwork in this picture before. It is both precise, and almost violent.

Here is another detail of the painting showing an idea that would deeply influence later painters, the idea that colors have a kind of structural value. Strokes of pure color laid next to each other shape the painting's compositional architecture.

And finally, there is this very great portrait of Madame Cezanne that gets better and better the more I look at it. The growing struggle to reconcile form and experience meets a very meaningful and beloved subject, the artist's wife. Her head tilts slightly to the left, and that simple gesture sends the rest of the painting reeling. A garden wall seen in perspective now becomes a violent diagonal slicing through the tree, and threatening to behead the woman. Her arms and hands folded in her lap have their echo in the tree branches behind her. Together with the tree, she forms another more complex diagonal across the painting that checks the speed and violence of the garden wall diagonal, returning the whole painting to the calm self-possession that we see in Madame Cezanne's face.

Madame Cezanne's mute uncommunicative face remains the steady center of a painting that threatens always to disintegrate into chaos as Cezanne struggles to bring it to order.

Like so many of the transformative radicals of art, Cezanne thought of himself as a conservative. The last thing he wanted to do was precisely what he did, show younger artists a way to end the great tradition of French Classicism. Cezanne revered that tradition and wanted to bring it into modern times by breathing new life into it. As he worked on this quixotic ambition to "paint Poussin from nature," he gradually discovered how much our experience of nature has changed with the advent of modernity. We could no longer take for granted, as generations of previous artists did, the relationship between the world of actual experience, and the world on the canvas.


it's margaret said...

OH! Wow! --dang.... !!! (weeping as she peels the old dry onions skins away)

Counterlight said...

Cezanne painted a lot of onions. I don't know if they made him weep.

Gainor said...

Thank you, thank you for your wonderful insightful blog posts. The trip to Cezanne at the Met was so wonderful for me to see, as I am stuck in the swamps of Florida with only a few Cezannes here and there. I totally agree with practically everything you say, on every topic! Great blog, Doug and thanks again for the Cezanne article, not to mention all the other enlightenments you write.

Counterlight said...

Thanks Gainor!

Counterlight said...

The Met means a lot to me. I feel very spoiled here in New York. I grew up in Dallas long before great Fort Worth museums, the Kimball, the Amon Carter, and all the new museums in Dallas were built.

JCF said...

Wow, Doug: you've really taught me to see, anew, w/ this post.

More sex sublimated in fruit ... Amazing apples. They are the end results

Heh-heh, "end results". You Old Gay Dog you! [That upper left apple is pretty damn am@ssing! ;-p]