Rethinking Classic Themes in Art History
EXPLAINING CEZANNE TO BLAKE GOPNICK
“Paul Cézanne is one of the greatest artists of all time. And that’s almost all there is to say about him.”
This was written by Blake Gopnik in his review of an exhibition of Cézanne’s Card Players at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.1 The article is illustrated with Cézanne's painting in the Courtauld Institute. Gopnik gives up on explaining the artist, but Cézanne can, in fact, be explained all you have to do is look, and look carefully, at what he did, and pay attention to what he had to say.
When Gopnik writes that the explanations of Cézanne that “do get trotted out are all simply wrong,” he is generally right. The old modernist thesis, that “Cézanne reduces the world to a few geometric solids(is)ludicrous to anyone who really looks at his stew of shapes,”or “that Cézanne is only about composition and color.” However, Gopnik is not so right when he discredits what is evidently true, that “Cézanne simply stared harder at the world than other artists.” I think that is exactly what Cézanne did do when, as he put it, he was “analyzing his sensations” in fact, analyzing how his perception of the “motif” (Cézanne’s term) often conflicted with the objective facts about what was in front of his eyes. From an observer’s point of view there are always two parallel realities, both equally true. First there is objective reality, and, second, what should be called experiential reality.
It is now a given of neuroscience that, in the process of seeing, the brain reconstructs the stream of data from the visual world, to reshape what we think we are seeing to correspond with objective reality; in other words, to make how we see fit with what we know. Cézanne believed that his more direct observations, articulated in his paintings, embodied the essence of art itself. Art lay in the manner in which this more primary level of perception processed visual experience.2 Once the principles behind this experiential reality were discovered, they could be transferred to artificially concocted compositions like his Great Bathers in Philadelphia.
Apropos of Gopnik’s rejection of the statement, “Cézanne simply stared harder at the world than other artists,” he writes how this would be “absurd to anyone who recognizes how little looking at a Cézanne apple is like looking at a real one.” My advice to Gopnik is to look again at your apples. An apple is round. That is hard, objective reality, and that’s the way you want to see them, but most apples, casually placed on a table, really do not look so round. The degree of roundness has much to do with how the light falls, or, more significantly, the influence of adjacent formsthe actual experienced reality. So the traditional artist carefully sets up his still life, twiddling with the lighting as much as possible, to bring into line what he sees with what he knows. Actually, Cézanne did a lot of twiddling with his still lifes, but it was to bring out, not suppress, the perceptual anomalies. That’s where he found the art.
A great example of how forms affect forms has been my own experience in hanging art exhibits. It is very difficult to get a painting level, which has, in its composition, a strong diagonal. In hanging, my choice was to follow my perceptionsI wanted it to look right. A colleague I worked with, recognizing the problem, insisted on measuring the distance to the floor of each corner of the painting. He wanted it to be right. I would argue that my choice would have been the more aesthetic one, in old-fashioned aesthetic terms, since it had to do with harmony.
A simple Cézanne rule is that strong forms (Cézanne’s term: “dominant sensations”) act to pull other forms into line with them, compelling them to harmonize. This sense of forms affecting a gravitational pull on each other pervades Cézanne’s paintings. It is one of the exciting things we respond to in his art. His paintings are like mini solar systems, a cluster of forms all acting on each other. As a consequence, Cézanne’s tables are rarely level. They are always tipping this way or that, as in the Courtauld Card Players illustrated in the Newsweek article. One card player leans back, his chair and body affecting a strong diagonal, and the table he is playing on, the other player, and even the background, all lean with him. In other words, all the forms are drawn into the kind of harmonious relationships the human consciousness seeks in all things. This painting would be a tough one to hang, using only your eye. It would always appear too high on one side or the other.
Keeping with the diagonals, Cézanne, in the Card Players, also exploits the tension of these diagonals pulling against the verticals and horizontals of the frame. Tensions are what make paintings or designs exciting. In theory he was not doing these kinds of adjustments consciously but, as he would say, he was simply following his sensations.
Some of Cézanne’s most powerful effects are in the tension inherent in space as perceived, as against space as it is in fact. There is a real empty void out there, but you do not necessarily perceive it as it is. For example, consider the fact that every art student learns, that strong colors or strong shapes are going to want to pull forward, wherever they are, while weak ones will fall back. And a foreground shape can blend together on a single plane with a form that lies far behind it, if they share a common edge, and still more forcefully, if they share a common color, eliminating the visual space between them. Forms that are separate in objective reality are always in various stages of blending or disconnecting with adjacent forms. This effect, intensified in paintings, and even expressed through a common brushstroke, is an exciting thing to perceive.
In art schools in the old days, the teacher, skilled in landscape art, would bring these visual anomalies to the attention of his students, and would teach them how to correct them, so that nature would be right, not necessarily look right. In Cézanne’s landscape of a curved road in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the road, supposedly, is to lead back into space. However, colored the same hue and intensity in the foreground and in the distance, it visually goes straight up and down, flattening out parallel to the picture plane, completely dismantling any sense of space. To the art teacher Cézanne would have made a major mistake. The teacher would then tell the student that the road should have been progressively toned down as it receded, to make it look like it is in fact, not how it appears. However, if the scene pleased the artist in the first place, and that’s why he painted it, to change the road from how he saw it to make it act in accord with known reality would be to undermine its original aesthetic form. It is why a Hudson River School landscape may be wonderful, but it could never be as convincing an experience as a landscape by Cézannewith the proviso that the Cézanne be as carefully looked at, as the artist himself looked at the original scene.
That Cézanne found in perception a set of actual rules to follow in art, not such an attractive thought really, is never-the-less suggested in his culminating work, the Great Bathers in Philadelphia, where he concocted a scene filled with bathing nude females. Conceived of as a major presentation piece, this was a subject which, at the time, stood for art at its most artistic. But here Cézanne may have gone over the top in having every shape respond to (harmonize with) the overarching dominant sensation of curved diagonals, which turn nature into something like a gothic arch. Painting in front of actual landscapes, or painting actual bathers, or still lifes he set up himself, or card players, Cézanne faithfully followed his sensations, which often could lead him away from a number of what would appear to be a closed set of principles.
2 For reasons that I think are cultural, overlooked by historians is the whole subject of how artists were influenced by the dramatic advances made in the natural sciences in the second half of the 19th century. There has always been a reluctance to connect artists to scientists, even though in this period they shared with science the key to the scientific method, which was careful observation. Monet’s search for the true colors and optical distortions in our perception of nature, as against the colors we think we are seeing, is the great case in point, and leads directly to Cézanne’s more complete observations. The chemist Chevreul’s famous publication of 1839, On the Simultaneous Contrasts of Color, opened up this whole issue of perception versus reality. Every artist owned, or had access to a copy. Cézanne’s art could be described as a continuation of Chevreul’s research. The title of the 1854 English translation, The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Color, more pointedly suggests the aesthetic consequences of Chevreul’s work. (Winslow Homer referred to it as his bible.) It is significant that the connection between Chevreul’s scientific theories and the visual arts was underscored by his appointment as head of the Gobelins Tapestry works. One cannot exaggerate Chevreul’s influence. He was one of the most famous scientists of the 19th century. In France he was recognized as a national hero. He received numerous honors both in France and abroad. Chevreul’s hundredth birthday was noted around the world and was an occasion for a national celebration.