Archive for May 25th, 2011

He knew all about perspective and light and shadow.  He had studied classical doctrines of picture making and he knew that using these tools was the polite way to make a painting.  But Cézanne (1839-1906) throws all those polite conventions out.  Instead, he negates perspective—look at the table’s  edge, the table is tipping forward—and he paints the pitcher at a tilt.  There’s a precipitous feeling here, as if someone were under the table and pushing it towards you—“in your face,” into your eyeball.

In the still life with apples and wine bottle we have  at the Art Institute of Chicago, we can see that he propped up the bowl of fruit to make it tilt forward. We can’t see the coins he pushed under the wine bottle, but people who knew him said that’s what he did.  The table top, as usual with Cézanne, defies the rules of perspective and the front edge is discontinuous.

Cézanne treats a landscape the same way.  Le Mont Sainte-Victoire, the mountain near Aix-en-Provence where he lived and which he painted dozens of times, is not impressive.  I was there.  It’s a scruffy drab triangle in the distance.  But when he painted it, he made it imposing, mythic.  He painted it much bigger than it is and he compressed the distance from his easel to the mountain.  It’s as if he had walked right up to it, then walked behind it and picked up the horizon and pushed the whole landscape up like a stage set made up of corrugated cardboard.  Like the table with the fruits, the mountain is now “in your face,” right on top of your optic nerve.  Actually, everything is.  The sense of foreground-middleground-background is lost.  Everything in that landscape is on the same plane.  It’s only because we can identify “trees, house, mountain” that we project onto the painting a sense of spacial depth.  All the while Cézanne is doing his best to negate all those assumptions as he creates a flat, brittle surface of passages of colors and shapes.

If this makes you think of Cubism, you’re on the right track.  Picasso famously called Cézanne the father of Cubism.

I mention Cézanne here as an introduction to the next post, which is about a painting done in my “Impressions of Landscape” class.  Well, that, and also because I love Cézanne—I used to “worship” him until I made my pilgrimage to Aix about sixteen years ago–and will talk about him at the slightest provocation.

This photo of the mountain from the spot where Cézanne painted the Sainte Victoire from  Bellevue  is by Erle Loran, from his book Cézanne’s  Composition, Univ of California Press, 1943.


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