"Does an apple move!?" These thundering words, hurled by the Modernist painter Paul Cézanne at an unfortunate portrait sitter, would appear to spring from the psyche of a man not given to compromise or cravenness in his approach to art. But in that ejaculation is perhaps to be found the contradiction which makes Cézanne one of the most interesting Modernist painters, and one who promise is possibly the least fulfilled.

The early works of Cézanne are notable for a multiplicity of influences: from photographs to fashion advertising to classical mythology to plein air naturalism. Several of his early portraits are nearly seven feet high (one of whose subjects is a dwarf). He painted Lot having sex with his daughters, somewhat graphically. He painted apples and bottles, harems, rapist satyrs, murders, autopsies, stenciled words (perhaps the first person to do this), picnics, soirees, landscapes and portraits, all in a vigorous, restless, passionate, crusty and expressionist style, never before seen. He was the first artist to make an anti-social psychology into an aesthetic. But he wanted more than for painting to be mere therapy.

His early work was often characterized by large areas of thick, pure color, sculptural strokes of a fully loaded brush or palette knife and a flattened, cartoonish modeling of figures. He often used heavy outlines around even very delicate forms, modeling them without shadow, à la Manet whose art had a profound influence on him, in order to paint at an accelerated rate the feelings (rather than images) he had inside him. In his work the young, and emotionally disturbed artist struggled to achieve mastery over his irascible temper, his clumsiness, and his lack of patience with an academic artworld which held out no hope for him and his radically speculative art (what is new?).

He sought to create a place for his stormy psychology to express itself without reference to any existing technical or iconographic artistic hierarchy, ones practiced by thousands of other artists of that time. In reality, the young Cézanne, whose father was becoming a wealthy banker, was a true heir to the French Revolution. He and Emile Zola, his dear childhood friend, were educated at the Ecole Sainte-Joseph, a private school which taught Greek and Latin, as well as drawing, poetry, geometry and other arts and disciplines. He could quote entire poems from memory, and often did when in sympathetic company. His education gave him a handle on, and an introduction to, modes of thought which he might easily have bypassed had he been left to tutors or to a religious education which was often the case in the 18th Century. School in those days was even less fun than it is now, if that is possible. But, many were the youth who became exposed to new ideas, such as people of different backgrounds going to and sharing the same schoolroom, and the glory of one of the first successful modern revolutions. Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. Not ideas one would have come across in a Catholic parish school of the era, to be sure.

Whether his upbringing, alternating between a more open if already conventionalized education, and his father's stern household, caused the young Paul Cézanne to rebel, it was curtailed, sublimated and uneven, as are all rebellions. He was very afraid of his father, a peasant who had loaned money sagely and eventually became extremely wealthy. Cézanne fils was never one to cross his father openly. He tried working at the family bank, after taking a degree in law, but was so absent-minded and unhappy that his father probably feared he would accidentally give away all the assets. It was safer to let him paint. At least he could not do any harm. Such were the advanced parental concerns of the time.

Cézanne was relieved, and began to paint in dead earnest. From the beginning his work evinced a mind with extraordinary integrity, not to say obstinacy. He seemed not to care that he was utterly unconventional in his painting style. For him it was not a style. It was a direct statement, made with no concessions to anyone else's taste but his own. This seems odd from the fearful son of an overbearing Provencal capitalist. Where could he have gotten such a conception of the artist as an entity unto himself? The yearly Salon was still in vogue. He sent work to it regularly, from the time he was only 23 years old, and it was as regularly sent back. He was even caricatured in the Parisian newspapers as a half-wild beast carrying his equally half-mad daubs on his back. He made for part of the side-show that was the Parisian artworld of the last century. It must have been interesting, if frustrating, back then. Now it is merely boring, and frustrating.

Cézanne was determined not to succumb to the popular taste of the moment, a rare thing even today. He once stormed out of a lecture when the local artist speaking began by intoning, "We live in the age of Bouguereau..." He had his own agenda, and, aided by the example of Edouard Manet, to whom he wrote an amazing letter acknowledging his leadership in the modern art movement, he was not going to give in to anyone he did not trust. And he did not trust many people.

Unfortunately, in my opinion, he eventually did trust someone. That someone was the mildly avuncular, but ultimately cloying and mediocre Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro. Pissarro was infamous as one of the band of reprobates who had come to be called the Impressionists, after a critic derogatorily dismissed their work as mere "impressions" of reality. Thus Pissarro came with the imprimatur of a revolutionary, one who had earned the vituperation of the power elite, yet who obviously had his own ideas about painting and art. He did not fold under the furious excoriations of the press and of the official artworld of the time. He was always poor and he had integrity, which meant a great deal to Cézanne. But he also was in a sense, "established" which reflects another side of Cézanne - the very real need to be accepted.

Pissarro was born in 1830, nine years before Cézanne. He began painting early, and was determined to make his living as an artist. There was a greater need for interior decoration in the 19th Century, since they did not languish in front of VCRs as we do today. They actually had to read, or play music, write, look at art, or paint. Those poor people! Thus it was not unreasonable to believe he would be able to make a go of a career as an artist. He developed a competent style, influenced much by the Barbizon and Fountainbleu painters, such as Corot and Daubigny. Courbet was also a pervasive model. Neither Courbet nor Pissarro were especially inventive painters. They were empiricists, largely, although Courbet was more of a Romantic than was Pissarro, who was even more wedded to what he saw and to the motif before him. This made Pissarro the perfect plein air painter. Since he had very little internal passion, Pissarro was always influenced heavily by the other artists around him. He was a full 10 years older than either Monet or Renoir. But Monet's bolder approach to landscape, brighter colors and more vigorous brushstrokes caught Pissarro's eye, and he came into the orbit of the younger painter, and thus became known as an Impressionist.

Later, Pissarro would throw over Impressionism for Georges Seurat's "Chromo-Luminarism" (which we now call Divisionism, or less precisely Pointillism or Neo-Impressionism). Pissarro was always searching for a compelling technique to boost his own lack of emotional creative fire. He evolved from the strictly bourgeois subject matter preferred by the Impressionists toward a Socialist subject matter, showing virtuous and hardworking country women, but in an modern technique. Before he died in 1903 he had returned to the Impressionism of his first maturity but with a mellower tonality. Judging by his work, he was ever on the lookout for his true self in art. Unfortunately, Pissarro never seized on any image to make his own, nor any technique for that matter. He was an artistic wanderer, intelligent, well-trained, but ultimately not an artist of the first rank (nor for that matter do I consider Monet, Renoir, Degas or Sisley despite their manifest and spectacular talents).

In the past in Western art, students of art would often go to study, work and live in the atelier of an acknowledged master, as early as the age of 13. At some point they would then assert their independence from the master, join a guild and procure commissions of their own. In the industrialized 19th Century, however, a young artist usually did not begin so young nor go to live with another artist, to learn the craft of painting. By this time, artists trained in schools as we have come to know them. Academies, existing under the jurisdiction of one or more master artists, or even run by the state. Cézanne studied fitfully, working a great deal on his own, frequenting the Atelier Suisse in Paris for a period in his twenties. He tired of the boring and stilted rounds of drawing from casts, then drawing from live models and finally and laboriously filling in the drawings in oil paint. If a young painter either exhibited clumsiness or a more inspired distortion of the model for expressive purposes, he (they were virtually all men in those times) was severely reprimanded by the artist/teacher, who would sometimes feel no compunction in painting over part of the offending area to "correct" the error as he saw it. Cézanne, who could not bear to be criticized by people he felt were inferior to him in integrity, if not in dexterity, would turn his canvas over, so that his instructor could not see it. Given his early impetuous styles, he probably saved himself (and possibly his tormentor) considerable grief.

These early episodes in Cézanne's academic artistic education left little appreciable mark on his style or his outlook. A few drawings remain from those months, done competently and uninspiredly, as most students of the era would have done them. One thing is evident from Cézanne's own experiments of that time is that he was not attracted to conventional beauty in any artistic way. He only occasionally used traditionally beautiful women in his work. His men were plain, often homely acquaintances or relatives. His choice of landscape motifs was almost forlorn, focusing on lonely roads in the country, barren corners of countryside, or houses bereft of any human presence. His sense of composition was highly arbitrary, and was no doubt often done completely from imagination, (one of the first artists to do this) with no consideration given for the then-mandatory use of mathematical perspective, and very little aerial perspective. His figures rest awkwardly, one might say conceptually, on a ground painted in accord with some mysterious and furious personal compulsion.

He was direct, unaffected, blunt, often brutally so. His landscapes, when peopled were often mythological, with pale women being attacked or carried off by bronzed satyrs. His brushstrokes were solid and thick. His colors were, while not often pure spectrum colors, sometimes barely inflected by any modulation of shade or subtlety. He did not caress his canvases in other words. He was out for something completely different. It required speed. His emotions were in a tumult, and poured out of him, without regard to the usual niceties of polite, middle-class expression. He was the same way in his personal manner. He once sarcastically refused to shake Manet's hand (whose work he nonetheless adored) saying he (Cézanne) hadn't washed it recently enough. He would fly into absolute rages in public during arguments, or break down and cry like a baby, if he imagined he was being humiliated, as he did once at a luncheon with Renoir, Monet and Rodin, all of whom praised his work. He was obviously in a struggle to tame and make sense of all of his repressed fears, anger, and, no doubt, his love, an emotion not always associated with Cézanne (scholarship on him is in some ways not very sophisticated, as the writers are always much more interested in his art to the exclusion of his interior life). I believe he was struggling mightily to bring out the good in himself, the outgoing, generous and adventurous side of his nature. He was alone, however, in including and accepting his less endearing qualities which could not be set aside entirely.

I think that Cézanne felt that he was expressing too much of his negative, impulsive nature, for his own taste, when he eventually turned to one of the few artists with whom he was on good terms, Camille Pissarro (the "noble, colossal Pissarro" he called him). I do not know the details of how they decided to work together, although Cézanne also did this later on with Renoir, and Renoir also painted with both Monet and Manet at different times. It was not unusual for artists to band together occasionally for mutual support and to learn and be inspired by others. The need was obvious then, if not now.

In the summer of 1870, it was decided that Cézanne would paint outdoors alongside Pissarro at Pontoise, and co-develop a motif. They chose to paint an orchard with the white and uninflected walls of various houses rising above and behind, as their composition (see an example of Pissarro's style, left). Cézanne, while not entirely breaking from his prior efforts, decidedly shifted his style in this particular work to one much more akin to Pissarro's - except that Cézanne used somewhat larger and more consistently diagonal brushstrokes than did the other artist. His palette was lighter than usual, the motif was more closely observed, and the construction of the picture plane was much more consistent than he had hitherto been able to achieve. (An image of this painting will hopefully appear here in future.)

It is an interesting painting, although it remains an experiment, one whose value resides in our knowledge of its role, rather than in our admiration for it as an independent work of art. It is fairly tight and characteristic, but not earthshakingly original or inspired. Yet it was a revelation to Cézanne, who from that summer onward, applied more and more the largely unified and disciplined technique he derived from Pissarro, in developing his own works. Gone were the deep, black morbid spaces, hugely psychological. Instead we now have Cézanne abandoning the color black altogether and forever, and utterly embracing the Impressionist palette of only using spectrum colors. Thus, from using the entire range of colors (and tending toward the shades, or pure color) Cézanne now used only tints (colors mixed with white) or pure colors mixed with tints. His entire range of light and dark was altered by his encounters with Pissarro.

Such is the power of an Idea, even if not necessarily a great idea. Cézanne was looking for a change, for a systematic approach to technique, one which he could, almost like a scientist apply to any genre of painting, be it portrait, landscape or still life. And this he did. His new-found technical discipline would immediately be enforced in a wide array of works, from his views of Mont Sainte-Victoire, to his portraits of his wife - who was another new influence at that same time, along with the couple's baby son, to the famous apples bottles, tables and crockery of his mid-career still lifes. Each kind of painting for him took on the same tonalities, varied only by the vicissitudes of the different scenes he encountered. His still lifes and portraits tend to be a little darker than his landscapes, as might be expected. He rarely painted his mythological rape scenes, since these were less compatible with the bright, modern palette he now used. The only kind of painting in which he continued to indulge merely his imagination were his nude bathers. This makes sense, since he was a compulsively shy man around naked women, and nude bathers would be logistically difficult and expensive to set up. Thus, he worked from imagination on his bathers, which he almost always exclusively segregated by sex. These figures are naturally less closely observed, are more summary, and take on a strange quality matched only by his earlier, more obviously psychological works, among which are murders, the autopsy and abductions.

Cézanne was not entirely in the thrall of the pedestrian attitudes of the Impressionists. He still was idiosyncratic enough to maintain and use some interesting devices of his own, ones which the Impressionists would never dream of invoking. Such as, when a table in a Cézanne still life is covered by a tablecloth it at first appears "normal." But when one looks at the table, it becomes evident that it juts out from under the tablecloth at different angles. Suddenly it is on another plane. This is done slyly, almost subliminally, unless one looks closely. Then it is unmistakable.

In fact each element in his still lifes appears displaced, distorted. He actually put pennies under bottles and crockery to lean them this way and that, the better to create a certain dynamic balance, one which suited Cézanne, and which intrigues us today.

Cézanne was much more intelligent, if more psychologically wounded, than the other Impressionists (although not more wounded than van Gogh, and only a moderately more than Gauguin). His use of "advancing" and "receding" colors is much more sophisticated than Monet's slathered brushstrokes. His haunted portrait faces show much more honesty and courage than Renoir's confectionery beauties, and his desire to play perceptual games of geometric simplification and distortions of forms shows an enormously greater capacity for original thought than do the unemotional, laconic and perfunctory compositions of Sisley and Pissarro. Cézanne is just more interesting than they, and thus is a better artist. His work contains more of the puzzlement of human life, if you will. He is not content with a pretty picture, since he doesn't feel that life is like that. He was an honest man. It is something rare, and often difficult to like.

Cézanne said that each brushstroke has its own perspective - a truly amazing thing to say, much less to actually express on canvas. But that is what he attempted to do, and that is perhaps why his figures and compositions always seem on the verge of falling to pieces, and flying off into space. Picasso said that we love Cézanne for his "anxiety" which may be partly true. He is unafraid to show us what and who he is, even if that is not entirely attractive. At least he has something to show us. Few people can boast that, especially in these times of inward-turning selfishness and the "fuck you me first" attitude we Westerners exude. Cézanne was ultimately a very generous man.

However, had he continued in his early, slashing attempts at picture making, and not succumbed to the "respectable" revolutionary style of the likes of Pissarro, I think Cézanne would have used a wider range of the color spectrum, a wider range of subject matter, an even more arbitrary projection of concepts of space, time and emotions, than he ultimately did. That he felt the need to subdue his fiery, perhaps even psychotic nature, and try to be a refined aesthete (and a husband and father?), is an unfortunate failing of his middle-class values. Think of yourself in this vein. Do you ever really let go of your ingrained "governing" facilities, and express, for lack of a better word, wild, or subconscious impulses? I would bet you it is something you don't feel comfortable doing. Why is this - it's simply because the word has gone out: No Impulsive Behavior. Thus, we have all, it seems, given ourselves over, consciously or no, to the materialist edict of our age, which is to keep what you do private or, if public, strictly within very narrow guidelines of behavior and expression. Don't take a homeless person in, or you will be evicted. Don't militate against the use of taxes for "defense" purposes, don't act out emotionally in any way, don't show a compassionate side to the world, don't have any larger vision, or it will look upon those things as weaknesses, and as a threat. Andrew Mellon, the old thief who gave us the National Gallery (in return for not being prosecuted on federal securities charges and who owned a number of Cézannes) said, "No good deed goes unpunished." The man had wit. No conscience, but considerable pith.

Cézanne, like each of us, was a complex character, full of contradictions, inconsistencies and faults, residing with, and inextricably linked to his high-minded, interesting, intelligent and expressive powers. I can't say if he would have ultimately been a greater artist for sticking to his own, lonely path, but he would have remained more individualistic and possibly would have left the door open for a more dynamic array of work, had he looked at the world more with his own eyes, and fallen in less with others. That is a task which only the tremendously strong can undertake, and maintain, in the face of the insistent, and insidious power of conformity. The avant garde was, ironically, one of the most conformist of aesthetic movements, one with a powerfully seductive promise: New = Radical = Good. True independence has a price to pay as great as any course of action. Cézanne's dissidence served that cultural God instead of one of his own making. Aesthetics are the ethics of the future.


Copyright © 2002 John Sheridan