Cezanne’s early paintings tended to be thick, clotted, muddy. He was pushing to set down so much. More than he had the means to express. His paintings, at times, appeared ugly. And yet, when we look at any of his early work, we cannot deny its expressive qualities. No matter how un-virtuosic his execution, the paintings have weight. They convey a complex mimesis that transcends his rough, ham-fisted approach.
Working in the 1860s, fifty years before such expressive excursions from the cannon of academic finish gained any acceptance, even among the avant-garde, Cezanne painted. He made one personal, often embarrassing – both for their content and their “poor” technique – painting after another. He kept painting.
It’s easy to telescope years of effort in hindsight into a narrative of Progress. In the doing of it something else entirely is at work. Cezanne did not “get better.” He never smoothed out his technique, or cooled his emotional connection with his subjects.
He found means to do what would come out of him as he confronted one canvas after another over decades. He came to terms with his particular – peculiarities. His work changes, but the changes are not in large part progressing towards conformation to any norm – the art-world’s, or his own notions of what he “should” be doing.
His motifs do not change over the years. Still-lives, landscapes, figures – alone or in groups. Figures in a landscape, an inheritance from European Art he considered the highest form of Art. If we remove the pressures of tradition and consider this claim on its merits; the ambition to place figures within a landscape, within our ancestral surroundings; among trees, by water; swimming, bathing, lounging in groups or alone. All this is recognizable as a high ambition indeed.
Cezanne’s words, his famous dictum, quoted by Picasso and others, was taken as the foundation for Cubism,
Treat nature by the cylinder, the sphere, the cone, everything in proper perspective so that each side of an object or a plane is directed towards a central point.
This only appears programmatic in hindsight if we ignore all his seemingly contradictory statements,
A work of art which did not begin in emotion is not art.
There is no model; there is only color.
Contradiction; an insistence that only one possibility, chosen from within a narrow, hemmed in focus, allowing only a single answer to be considered the right one; taken as a way to organize how we can act, is far from what a painter has to say. What a painter does. What we can find in our confrontation with their work. The very richness of a multifaceted attack, of doing one thing, then doing something else, and then responding with a third. And on. Painting is not limited by rational contradiction.
We seem caught in expectations. As artists, as people looking for ways to proceed. The weight of the past…. Let’s take Cezanne, for example. His work seems to demand of us a premature sense of accomplishment. It’s so good! We strain to believe that our own, poorly articulated stabs at something, are either great, or “the best we can do.” From this we jump to, “The best anyone can do.” These bargains lead us into despair, or at least, a dishonest relation with the actual achievements of those who preceded us.
Cezanne’s painting aren’t great because he was a superman. The cult of genius divides us from each other, leaving us powerless. His paintings are great because he maintained a sustained confrontation with his limitations. He maintained an honest relation towards what he was doing.
This is not “persistence.” We find any excuse to fetishize Will. His paintings did not come into being as acts of a dominating Will. Out of an insistent, persistence forcing itself against any obstacle. Paint is intractable. It does not respond to Will. Even though painting deals in illusion. It is remarkably transparent to the truth. Will, in painting can lead to bombast, but over time, this will be distinguished from greatness.
Artists have various gifts. Some few, like John Singer Sargent have the capacity to take in a view whole and jot it down on a surface at one go. They dazzle us with virtuosity. No mean accomplishment.
So far from what Cezanne had to work with. So far from the tremendous accomplishments he arrived at without such a prodigious gift. Virtuosic paintings appear as acts of nature rather than as transformative works of Art. Even when we cannot charge such an artist with glibness, something of their ease dilutes their power.
So much for those with actual virtuosity. How much worse for the mediocre who pass-off their first dabs as fait accompli?
Their tragedy is in totally missing the opportunity painting affords. Painting does not even begin to unfold in earnest until we push past daring to impress. This lack is damning. It disappoints….
Cezanne is a patron saint for artists. He did it! He went on. In spite of his demons and – though he died as we all will – he managed to work a deep alchemy. Turning colored mud daubed on a surface into an architecture, creating a series of visions of the way the universe fits together. Not as some distant music of the spheres.
A close attention, focusing directly on our capacities to perceive. Capacities and perceptions interacting with each other, interacting with what was set down before, affecting what comes after.
Cubism touched on cosmologies coming into being in the first decade of the Twentieth Century. Cezanne; a modest man, intent on making truthful marks on a surface with a sincere ambition to translate his perceptions of a cup, a piece of artificial fruit, some rocks and shrubs on a hillside; into paint. In his way, direct and unassuming, he did so much to invent this whole new way of seeing.
What more can we ask for as encouragement?