The Enduring Achievement of Cézanne’s Struggle
Updated: Apr 22
Overview of the Art Institute of Chicago’s 2022 Cezanne Retrospective The New Art Examiner Summer quarter issue 2022
What I am trying to translate to you is more mysterious, it is entwined in the very roots of being, in the implacable source of sensations.
– Paul Cézanne
A work of art that did not begin in emotion is not a work of art.
– Paul Cézanne
Aesthetic autonomy is a prelude to personal autonomy, even a basic part of it. Human beings are not fully human without aesthetic experience.
– Donald Kuspit1
The essential precondition for introspection is solitude.
– William Deresiewicz2
Studies have found the average time a person spends looking at a museum artwork is between 15 and 30 seconds. The more contemporary the work is the less time is spent looking at it—if indeed at all. I have frequently noticed the almost completely empty contemporary art exhibition rooms on the first floor of the Renzo Piano wing at the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC)—a place to pass up on the way to see more visually satisfying work. The same goes for the majority of the endless train of conceptual art installations at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Both are signs of the visually entropic boredom that postmodern art has cast upon us. With rare exceptions, conceptualism offers almost nothing to stimulate the eye and mind, much less the senses, in the dead end that the modernist “avant-garde” has become today.
The exact opposite is true about AIC’s traveling retrospective of Paul Cézanne’s work in the United States—the first in 25 years. The distance of time between the 1996 Philadelphia Museum exhibit and now reveals an art world that is even more aesthetically and imaginatively barren—more addicted to technological media and deskilled art techniques—than ever before. By contrast it is uncanny to experience the power of Cézanne’s visual vibrancy that remains as compelling and alive for audiences today as it did for artists who made the trip to his studio in Aix-en-Provence 140 years ago.
The impact on viewers is immediate. Cézanne’s best works have an expressive intensity and visual concentration that holds the eye and moves the mind to introspection. Throughout his life Cézanne talked about his “sensation” expressed through his linear and planar brushwork and discontinuous lines and contours. The vibrating coloristic tones of his still lifes, portraits, and landscapes were embedded in rhythmic compositions that his eye “discovered.” These revelations came from trips around Provence, finding particular landscapes, and in the growing complexity of his arrangements of fruit and pottery, arranged on rumpled tablecloths and printed fabric. His discovery of this mysterious tension—an abstracted rendition of his subject matter using shifting planes of color—resulted in the contradictory and simultaneous depiction of ambiguity and concreteness. His rendering of both at once makes his subjects look simultaneously dynamic and strangely timeless. They have lost none of their visual intensity and vigor since they were created.
It is hard to miss how the compositional energy in Basket of Apples (1893) is increased by a bottle touching the top of the image plane, or how a rumpled cloth and printed drape serve as abstract rhythmic waves that transport apples and pears across the canvas. They become theatrical devices that construct the expressive potential of the scene, making everyday objects seem almost monumental. Much the same happens with the relationships he “found” in nature, where he subconsciously sought those same abstractly resonant connections. The motifs, shapes, and forms he found in nature—trees, houses, roads, rocks, mountains, bays, and hillsides—skillfully play off each other with an abstract and unifying force. There is an underlying harmony in his 1878 painting Gulf of Marseille Seen from L’Estaque, where a projected pier in the distant bay echoes the rhythmic overlay of plank-like roads and ploughed furrows in the lower landscape.
By having the works from different time periods grouped in the same room, AIC's Cézanne’s exhibition displays his will to experiment and change his style over a lifetime. The expressive syrupy strokes of his early still lifes emulating Gustav Courbet give way to the brighter impressionist-influenced palette inspired by his teacher and friend Camille Pissarro, who encouraged him to paint en plein air. This lighter palette experimented with the bright landscapes of the Midi as much as his luminous fruits on white plates. One comes away noticing how each work is distinctly different, and that each one must have been the result of
a unique visual struggle, sometimes recorded over months and years of intense persistent observation. Some apples are rendered in a thicky impacted pastiness, while others are rendered with a thinner decorative luminescence.
Over time one sees how the contours and folds of a napkin or tablecloth with apples could relate to boulders and rocky crags of his Bibemus quarry or the blocky mass of Mont Sainte-Victoire. Early approaches to the mountain express a placid solidity that is upended by later works where the shuttling brushstrokes of vertical and horizontal planes nearly dissolve the mountain landscape into pure abstraction. Art historian Meyer Shapiro delves into the dynamic ambiguity of the artist’s drawing process, particularly in his watercolors:
…by multiplying discontinuities and asymmetry it increases the effect of freedom and randomness in the whole…It is as though there is no independent, closed, pre-existing object given once and for all to the painter’s eye for representation, but only a multiplicity of successively probed sensations—sources and points of reference for a constructed form which possesses in a remarkable way the object-traits of the thing represented: its local color, weight, solidity, and extension.3
The tensions of the abstract-concrete-reality of his compositions are especially evident in his still lifes, which restlessly compose and rearranged fruit, ceramics, and fabrics into some of the most dynamic and novel compositions of his time. This animating “abstraction,” in addition to the bathers in his last works, had a tremendous impact on the creative discoveries of nearly all the major modernist movements of the 20th century: Cubism, Fauvism, Expressionism, and the development of abstraction in general. The period from 1906 to 1914 was the time of the “big bang” in modern art that exploded into Parisian cultural circles and spread throughout Europe. Cézanne was prescient in saying, “I point the way. Others will come after.” Picasso acknowledges he was “the father of us all.” Meyer Shapiro rightly claims:
He produced no school but has given impulse directly or indirectly to almost every new movement since he died. His power to excite artists of different tendency and technique is due, I think, to the fact that he realized with equal fullness so many sides of his art.4
The sheer abundance of suggestive possibilities in his work is why “later artists built on a particular element of his style.”5 It is easy to see how Cézanne’s painting The Sea at L’Estaque Behind Trees (1878–79)—a work Picasso owned—directly inspired Picasso’s and Braque’s rectilinear houses painted only a year or two after Cézanne passed away in 1906. It was only a matter of time before the force of Cézanne’s shifting abstract planes would evolve into the shattered crystalline space of Cubism. Unlike his landscapes, portraits, and still lifes, Cézanne’s last works—The Large Bathers—were not painted from life but were composed in the studio, synthesized from earlier works inspired by Eugene Delacroix’s romantic themes. They are the culmination of his lifelong struggle with abstraction, synthesizing his bathers and landscape into an imaginary rhythmic whole. Matisse’s Fauvism abounds with Cézanne-
inspired motifs and compositional discoveries, particularly regarding the female nude and his still lifes on decorative fabrics. Picasso’s monstrously distorted nudes were directly inspired by Cézanne’s disquieting blocky bathers, whether as studies for his famous Demoiselles D’Avignon or later as pinheaded dancers on a beach from his Surrealist period. Cézanne’s influence extended to the vitality of Gaugin’s brushwork, the expressionist figures of Max Beckmann, the landscapes and still lifes of Georgio Morandi, and even up to the contemporary paintings of Jasper Johns with their shifting encaustic surfaces.
The contradictory richness of Cézanne’s work has made it an essential school for artists. Sometimes it is his doubt, his uneasiness, his mistakes, his eccentricities and his frustrations that have encouraged artists…at other moments by contrast it is the certainty, clarity, and rightness of his painting that appears most striking.6
Thankfully the organizers of the retrospective avoided a blatantly commercial approach to the exhibition, sticking to the historical basis of Cézanne’s development without diverting into extra artistic anecdotes, theoretical diatribes, or Thomas Hoving–style sensationalism. Gratefully there was not a lot of drama in Cézanne’s life for the media or Hollywood to capitalize on, unlike Van Gogh and Gaugin whose eventful lives became popularly ensconced on the silver screen. Cézanne always emphasized how the importance lay in the will of his effort. “Chatter about art is almost useless,” and “The man must remain obscure: the pleasure is found in the work.”
To reduce Cézanne to being a hermit driven by the need for artistic purity misses the existential point that drove his work into being. Following his stint studying in Paris, the intensity of his inner artistic life in Aix-en-Provence demonstrates the creative capacity he was able to develop precisely because he was outside that city’s cultural and institutional power. It is equally noteworthy that other great painters of that time achieved their most important mature works outside Paris: Van Gogh in Arles and Gauguin in Tahiti. All three had created intensely personal and expressive art driven by self-affirming instincts and a profound sense of agency. For all three, this both tested and opened expressive and cultural boundaries, and for a good reason.
…the conception of a personal art rested upon a more general idea of individual liberty in the social body and drew from the latter its confidence that an art of personal expression has a universal sense.7
Contemporary philosopher and social critic Noam Chomsky gives a very similar interpretation for the human need for personal autonomy in expression:
A fundamental element of human nature is the need for creative work or creative inquiry for free creation without the arbitrary limiting effects of coercive institutions. Then of course it will follow that a decent society should maximize the possibilities for this fundamental human characteristic to be realized…The denial of the existence of the self is the teleological denial of the embodiment of the autonomy and agency of having a self.8
Cézanne’s work is a reminder of the degree to which he arduously and tirelessly invented his own course of development, which explains the surprising and rich variety of works within his entire oeuvre. This is also reflected in his character as an act of autonomy and sustained will to pursue his interests outside the need for social or academic approval or having a career. Chomsky’s critique reflects the existential truth that the creative core of an artist’s work cannot be reduced to poststructuralist analysis or have its significance derailed by the massive and neverending economic institutionalization of a brutal art market. Unlike most conceptual, pop, and minimalist art produced in today’s post-art world, Cézanne’s work makes a genuine visual connection with all kinds of audiences to lasting effect. The rich evocativeness and variation in his work slows the viewer down to experience a kind of visual meditation and ability to be in the present that postmodern post-art and culture is incapable of giving. Robert Hughes’s Emmy award winning documentary The Mona Lisa Curse criticizes how so many artists today do not make their work for themselves but for art markets or institutional success. This is why Cézanne’s example remains such a remarkable achievement within today’s distracting technology-addled environment. His plates of apples and luminescent landscapes still affirm perception as an endless font of innovative possibility while giving much needed creative relief from the dehumanizing banality of our technologically dominated culture today.
Diane Thodos is an artist and art critic who lives in Evanston, IL. She is a Pollack Krasner Grant Recipient who exhibits internationally. Her work is in the collections of the Milwaukee Art Museum, the National Hellenic Museum, the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago, the Block Museum at Northwestern University, and the Illinois Holocaust Museum among many others. For more information visit dianethodos.com.
1. Donald Kuspit The End of Art, Cambridge University Press, 2005 p. 38
2. William Deresiewicz Excellent Sheep: The Disadvantages of an Elite Education, Free Press 2015
3. Meyer Shapiro Paul Cézanne, Harry Abrams, New York, 1952 p. 19
4. Meyer Schapiro Modern Art in the 19th and 20th Centuries, George Brazilier. 1968 P. 39
5. Ibid p. 30
6. Meyer Schapiro, forward to Loan Exhibition Cézanne, Wildenstein New York 1959
7. Meyer Schapiro, Paul Cézanne, Harry Abrams, New York, 1952. P. 30
8. Debate between Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault 1971, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3wfNl2L0Gf8