“I point the way. Others will come after.”
None other than Pablo Picasso called Paul Cézanne “the father of us all.” Why? In many respects, Cézanne was the first Western artist to explore the reduction of Western painting and in doing so led the way towards what we know today as abstract painting.
Influenced by Impressionism, Cézanne believed painting needed more structure and could be more analytical, which he saw in Old Master works but thought was not present in Impressionism. In particular, he believed the world could be treated through a more formal, abstract system of three forms: the cylinder, the sphere and the cone. (While he never truly got to the point of making works simplified to this extreme, eventually Cubism and its offshoots, such as Futurism, Orphism, Suprematism, and Constructivism, would in different ways.)
One can see what are referred to as Cézanne’s proto-abstract ideas in his series of works focusing on Mont St. Victoire, a mountain in Provence, where he was born and spent most of his life. One of the first things to notice, like in Manet’s work, the emphasis on flatness. The landscape, for one, has been reduced to flat planes, squares and rectangles in many areas. The ground either seems to be tan and flat or a green diagonal mound, but nothing more complicated. Also look at the buildings pictured. Cézanne has taken any particularly unique details and reduced them into flattened planes so that the houses seem like small cubes. (And here in many respects you can see the root of Cubism. Compare certain passages of this painting with Georges Braque’s Houses at L’Estaque, the first work to be called cubist.) Cézanne has also taken what is a very rocky mountain and smoothed out any irregularities. Try squinting your eyes and most of the mountain in view could almost be a uniformly flat rock face—something, again, it is not in real life.
Cézanne also reduces the landscape with his brushstrokes. Only a few strokes indicate a group of trees or the side wall of a building. Also, like Manet, Cézanne seems to be reinforcing the fact that this image is on a flat plane. Look, for example, at the tree in the foreground of the image, how it is outlined in a lighter color and higher up on the trunk the tree seems to blend in with the background sky. Also look at the lower section of leaves and how the division between them and the mountain is muddied and this particular area of the painting seems to be vibrating. It would have been easy for Cézanne to make a clear division here, to present the tree as being in front of the mountain. However he chose not to, and like Manet, chose to dispute the traditional assumptions of what a painting should do, and seek to express something that was not just dependent on realism but which sought something different through a reduction of forms and a fusion of the elements in a scene.
What would also become very influential on later painters—especially the Cubists—was Cézanne’s incorporation of different points of view of objects in one painting. In many ways this was an attempt to make painting on a flat surface more true to the experience of vision, particularly the reality that vision was a series of successive images and that life and experience was about constantly shifting perspective. (One can see how Cézanne’s interest parallel contemporary experiments with stop-motion photography and early film by Eadweard Muybridge.)
Look, for example, at his Still Life with Basket of Apples (1890-94). The longer you look at this work, the more it becomes subtly perplexing because it is a compilation of different views of objects in one work. Like the pastiche of genre scenes in Manet, your mind tries to put the scene together but the way Cézanne has painted it, forces work against you. The tabletop on which everything rests is seen from two different angles, so the edge on the left hand side doesn’t meet up with the right side edge after the tablecloth. Also, if you look at each apple, they each seem to be painted individually (some in very odd shapes and angles) to the extent that it is difficult to integrate them all into one point of view. As well, the basket seems to be painted from two different angles and the wine jug looks as if it is tipping over in the background. Cézanne was, in many respects, more interested in relating objects to each other than making sure the painting made perspectival sense. Cézanne labored over these works for a long time, to the point that the fruit would rot, and as a result, he ended up making most of his still lifes with fake fruit.
Cézanne was by no means making such significant work throughout his life but was actually a late bloomer. He did exhibit early on with the Impressionists, however people really didn’t know what to make of his works shown there, which were quite different from the imagery of most of the other artists. Cézanne’s paintings were often violent and brutal, morbid and erotic scenes, created through the use of heavy thick layers of pigment applied with a palette knife. See his Portrait of the Painter Achille Emperaire (1829-1898), c. 1868, for an example of this.
It’s been said that Cézanne was the crudest of any artist to attain such later fame and at the time of the first Impressionist exhibition he was referred to as “a madman who paints in delirium tremens.” It was not until the Impressionist Camille Pissarro took Cézanne under his wing—Cézanne referred to himself as Pissarro’s pupil—and encouraged him to not make such personal work and begin sketch outdoors, that he started on the path towards the artworks which have made him so influential. Yet he still didn’t have his first one-man exhibition until 1895, when he was in his mid-50s.
Read the next post in this series, about the birth of collage.