Catagorizing the style of Paul Cézanne’s( 1839-1906 ) artwork is problematic. As a young man he left his home in Provence in the south of France in order to join with the avant-garde in Paris. He fell in with the circle of young painters that surrounded Manet, he had been a childhood friend of the novelist, Emile Zola, who championed Manet, and he even showed at the 1st Impressionist exhibition, held at Nadar’s studio in 1874. However, Cézanne didn’t quite fit in with the group. Whereas many other painters of this circle were concerned primarily with the effects of light and reflected color , Cézanne remained deeply committed to form.
Feeling out of place in Paris, he left after a relatively short period and returned to his home in Aix-en-Provence. He would remain in his native Provence for most of the rest of his life. He worked in the semi-isolation afforded by the country, but was never really out of touch with the breakthroughs of the avant-garde.Like the Impressionists, he often worked outdoors directly before his subjects. But unlike the Impressionists, Cézanne used color, not as an end in itself, but rather like line, as a tool with which to construct form. Ironically, it is the Parisian avant-garde that would eventually seek him out.
Another theme that came to fascinate Cezanne for the rest of his career was the still life. The same will to make “out of impressionism something solid and durable” presides over these immensely powerful, exquisitely balanced compositions. He managed in fact, to impart some of the calm monumetality of his paintings of Mont Sainte-Victoire to the apparently more simple shapes of apples and oranges.
The process was complex. A young admirer, Louis Le Bail, described how “Cézanne arranged the fruits , contrating the tones one against the other, making the complementaries vibrate, the greens against the reds, the yellows against the blues, tipping, turning, balancing the fruits as he wanted them to be, using coins of one or two sous for the purpose.” And from Emile Bernard, we know that he started with the shadow, with one dab, which he covered with another large one, and then with a third, until together they formed a screen that modeled the object in color.”
In 1899, two years after the death of Cezanne’s mother, the family estate, Jas de Bouffan, was sold. Henceforth the painter was to live in Aix itself, spending the mornings in his studio and leaving the city early in the afternoon to go out into the countryside and paint his favorite motifs. While he sank into obscurity in his home town, however, his work began at last to attract some favorable attention in Paris, where a handful of enthusiasts; including Van Gogh, Gauguin, Signac, and Seurat; gathered in the shop of Julien Tanguay, the paint merchant, to see the latest work Cézanne had sent from Aix.
Meanwhile, two Cezanne’s had been accepted,after much official protest, by the museum in Luxembourg as part of the collector Gustave Caillebotte,s bequest. Better still, a young Creole dealer, Ambroise Vollard, persuaded Cézanne to agree to a paris exhibition of no less than 150 canvases. The usual critical gibber ensued, but Cézanne’s achievement was not lost on more percipient visitors. Pissarro, for instance, wrote to his son Lucien about “still lifes, very beautiful landscapes, very strange bathers of extraordinary tranquility,” adding that Cézanne was “a first class painter of astonishing subtlety, truth and classicism.”
In the figure paintings and landscapes of Cézanne’s las
ars, tonal and compositional unity predominate over any ideas of “faithfulness” to accepted standards of realism. Thus, a basic image of western art, the female nude, is considered in Cézanne’s paintings of bathers as an element of pure form rather than a realistic representation of the body. “An old invalid poses for all these women,” Cézanne himself told a German collector.
With the paintings of Cézanne’s maturity, the revolution of twentieth century art was already well on its way. In making the human figure conceivable as an abstraction, in giving an apple the metaphorical significance of the sun, and in helping to abolish the tyranny of linear perspective, Cézanne opened the doors for all kinds of experiments. Thus, the stubborn hermit of Aix turned out to be the new generation’s greatest inspiration; “the father of us all,” as Matisse said. When he died in 1906 at the age of sixty-seven, the fauve movement was already gathering momentum. With their emphasis on the primacy of color, they, and to a lesser extent the expressionists,evolved and intensified one aspect of Cezanne’s achievement. Similarly, the cubists adopted the master’s approach to form and arrived at a new conclusion in which three dimensional reality was conveyed by combining several different viewpoints within the same image.
Born into a dying tradition that enshrined narrative effectiveness as its supreme value, Cézanne helped to set painting on a course that ended in complete non-representation, the furthest remove imaginable from the nineteenth-century Salon. Within a decade or so of his death, the ultimate point in abstraction: Kasimir Malevich’s “Suprematist Composition- White on White”, a white square on a white ground, was reached.
The revolution thus accomplished was as total as it was brief, with the result that virtually every kind of present-day art refers back to it. Even Cézanne, in his most boastful moments, would have been astounded by the rapidity and breadth of his influence. And with good reason. His work has become more than famous, both in itself and as a reinvention of the vocabulary of painting.
“Producing a mosaic of coloured shapes is a closer approximation to genuine artistic activity and the product—a patchwork of shapes and colours—is a closer approximation to the visual world around us—for objects are not crisply delineated ‘things,’ but are merely elements within a wider fabric that is the landscape.
These ideas can be seen quite clearly in the works of Corot, Sisley, Pissarro, Monet, Boudin and Gaugin, and even to some degree in Turner, Chardin and Constable and it is a technique and attitude that was then progressed much further by Cezanne, then by Picasso and Matisse….
Rather than the tradition of drawing outlines of ‘things,’ and colouring them in, they acted upon the view they held and painted blobs of colour they could see and hence an impression of the landscape was created rather than hard-edged outlines of ‘things’ that make up the view. This radical new approach is clearly visible in Monet, Sisley, Corot, Seurat and most other true impressionists. It is therefore just as much an idea, a way of seeing, as it is a technique.
This radical departure from tradition is so subtle and yet so absolute in its view of the visual world around us. It basically refuses to accept that the world is composed of ‘things’ each to be separately delineated, but rather, it holds that there is just one extensive ‘colour continuum’ that is interrupted in places here and there by discontinuities where the different ‘forms’ appear in it.” ( Peter Morrell )