Episode 1: Paul Cezanne's "Fruit and Jug on a Table" (c. 1890-94)
How do you solve a problem like Paul Cezanne? What was he getting at? Most modernist artists have an easy certain something associated with them, a few bullet points you can rattle off to give an approximation of their style and their contribution to Western art history. Courbet, for example, turned the genre of history painting on its head to paint his worker friends. Monet went outside and brazenly declared that he was painting light’s portrait. Cezanne’s bullet point is that he was the father of modern art. Nothing more, nothing less. I know this because I was presented with at least two essay questions to this effect when I was in school, and because I assigned it myself as soon as I was a TA.
But what on earth does that mean? Why is he bestowed with this title when his work remains so stubbornly hard to categorize, or even understand? He is famous for painting still lives that make people tilt their heads. Where none of the visual logic adds up. His painting technique invites you in only to push you away. He had the reputation for being a curmudgeonly shut-in. Why does he get to take responsibility for siring the 20th century?
Sometimes it’s not just a question of who someone is, but where they come from. Cezanne was a hinge, a turning point – think of this little painting is a placemat-sized portal. The space between the Impressionism that defined the avant garde art of second half of the 19th century and the burst aesthetic pipes of the 20th century is this peculiar little period that ran from approximately 1886, the year of the final Impressionist exhibition, and 1906, the year of Cezanne’s death. In 1910, the critic Roger Frye looked back and christened this period, creatively, Post-Impressionism – the generation after Impressionism where artists were liberated from technical realism, thanks to the development of the camera, and highfalutin subject matter, thanks to a few rebels like Manet and Degas. Artists could pretty much paint what they wanted, how they wanted to, which, as you might imagine, led to some pretty diverse stuff, of varying quality. Don’t forget that what we see in a museum is only the uppermost cream of the crop.
Therefore, as happens when a group of painters is posthumously named by a critic, the Post-Impressionists weren’t a cohesive movement. For the most part, the heavy hitters – Van Gogh, Seurat, Gauguin, and Cezanne—didn’t much work together or exhibit together, and when you hold their paintings up side by side, the similarities pale in comparison to their differences. In fact, you can really only point to two shared characteristics that unite the Post-Impressionists: they capitalized on the permission that Impressionism gave them to liberate their subject matter, technique, color palette, and reliance on the art establishment, …and they all hated Impressionism.
Impressionism was a movement of spontaneity and light, of removing black from your vocabulary to focus instead on how the atmosphere of a country sunset or a belching steam engine could be captured as it was happening. It was the revolutionary art of its moment, but no one if not Impressionists knew that moments pass. Art history is the story of reactions, and the next generation of artists could only respond to what they saw as trivial spontaneity with a slower, more ponderous investigation of the form and order that the Impressionists rejected – Cezanne once said that he gave up painting flowers because they died before he could finish painting them; “fruits are more reliable.” They still used the bright Impressionist palette, and sometimes the contemporary Parisian street scene subject matter, but something else was happening, something big. Something that actually came to define 20th century Modernism: what Post-Impressionists were painting took a backseat to how they were painting.
Every artist approached this idea differently. Each was fascinated by the act of painting itself, and, perhaps more importantly, the act of looking. Post-Impressionists acted on the assumption – the radical, modernist assumption – that every viewer brings to the canvas their own set of eyes, their own subjective way of looking and interpreting. And this relationship between the viewer and the object is becoming a crucial component to the experiencing of an artwork. And just maybe, there’s an objective way to capture all this subjectivity, if we just experiment enough.
And so experiment they did. And they all went their own way. Seurat, for example, never did anything spontaneously, instead preferring to leave his static bourgeoisie Parisians to rust on the banks of the Siene as he painstakingly built up dab by dab of pure color, a scientific approach to color theory and optics. His theory was that we all look at things subjectively, but there’s an objective scientific principle underpinning what we see.
Van Gogh was also excited by color, but to a completely different end. How, he asked, could the Impressionist palette speak to the interior emotional state of the artist? How could a viewer be so aroused, and even agitated by the colors on a canvas, that he relates with the artist’s emotional state? Where Seurat stopped your eye in its tracks, Van Gogh sent you flying with energetic, thick, fluid brushstrokes, an attempt to capture raw, subjective emotions that we can all empathize with, onto a canvas.
In Gauguin’s own words, he was an anti-Impressionist. Like his frenemy Van Gogh, Gauguin was concerned with the interior, preferring to capture abstract imagination over the ability to capture the light streaming through billowing steam just so. He felt that the Impressionists neglected the subjectivity of feelings, and actually moved to Tahiti to escape those steam engines and find a spiritual connection with a quote unquote unspoiled, non-Western world that existed largely in his own head…but that’s for another episode. The point is, he attempted to capture the subjective and irrational in his own objective way: through symbolic narratives that bore little resemblance to reality, the dreamy illustration of a fantasy.
And Cezanne. The surly recluse, the innovator consistently rejected from the Salon, that is, the establishment art world. He wasn’t even trying to make nice with the avant garde – like Manet before him, he wanted the establishment to take him seriously, and was devastated when they didn’t. Impressionists thumbed their noses at the Salon, exhibited in independent exhibitions, and painted for the moment. While Cezanne adopted their brushwork and palette, he was scandalized by their attitude. He wanted to, in his words, turn their style into “something solid and durable, like the art of the museums.” The deliberateness of his work suggests a stab at timelessness, unlike the timebound and airy Impressionist paintings. More than that, though, was his attempt to capture the reality of human experience, of what it really means to look at something with those subjective eyes in that subjective head. A camera boasted exactness, but it could only capture the surface of what something really looks like. Cezanne wanted to capture what looking looks like.
As it turns out, it’s wonky. We look at this fruit and this jug on this table. Let’s start in at a random point: we see the jug from above. So this should situate us. But as we sweep our eye around, the fruit isn’t adding up. The shadows and light source, our trusty frame of reference as to how we should make sense of volume and space, is betraying us, turning the fruit in different directions, and almost giving the table a sense of lift, which would, on any normal table, send that fruit tumbling. Meanwhile, the sheet in the background, framing the table, should recede, and in places it does, and it others it stubbornly doesn’t. In trying to make sense of this otherwise unremarkable still life, we experience this frustrating sense of resistance, even as the luscious colors and benign subject matter are inviting us in. There’s a French word for this, repoussior, literally translated as “something that pushes back”, and it pops up in Cezanne’s work repeatedly – roads that lead us in and then just end, creating an almost visceral feeling of abrupt denial into the scene. So what gives?
Partially, Cezanne is just having some fun, playing with the limitations of a two-dimensional canvas like many artists did after the development of the camera. You can start to mess around with a viewer’s expectations when they’re no longer expecting a perfect vanishing point. But it wasn’t just the viewers’ eye he was experimenting with – it was his own. Cezanne wanted to see if he could capture a scene that was “more real than reality” because those apples, when you look at them, then turn your head, then look again, DO look different. You alter your frame of reference practically every time you blink. And if you’re working on a painting and you’ve got durable fruits sitting on a table and you get up to get a snack and then sit back down, you’re not going to see them the same way. The light has changed, your placement has changed, your looking has changed. So yeah, those apples are going to change. Maybe a canvas is limited in its ability to capture more than two dimensions, but, with a bold artist at its helm, it has the uncanny ability to capture these multiple, successive perceptions of a single object: look, turn, paint, look, turn, paint. The objective transcription of his own sensations, as he put it. The representation of his own perspective, at once the intellectual problem-solving of an artist and a deeply soulful examination our own viewpoint onto the world. It might not obey the laws of reality, but you can’t say that it’s inaccurate.
Because perspectives shift. Our interpretations of reality become more real than reality, because we’re always projecting our own experiences onto it. There’s no omniscient narrator telling this story. And this is basically the story of the art of the 20th century. After Cezanne died in 1906, there was a retrospective of his work in Paris, where a young artist freshly blown in from Barcelona came to look. And soon Picasso was pumping the pedals of his two-wheeler, racing off into the 20th century at full speed, while Cezanne stood back in the driveway, having just let go, and looking proud.