For many artists and museum-goers of the previous century and this very minute, Paul Cézanne was and still is the bee’s knees. The cat’s pajamas. The bomb diggity, if you will.
His post-impressionistic efforts were largely laughed off by official arty circles throughout his career, forcing him to pass many dark nights of the soul doubting his own abilities. However, both critics and the common people began to warm up to his style like feral cats during the decade leading up to his death from diabetes compounded by a particularly nasty chill.
It was the budding generation of hungry, disillusioned painters and thinkers who first began to evangelise and experiment on his behalf. Paris’ Salon d’Automne featured a retrospective of Cézanne’s work in 1907, and young bucks like Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Pierre Bonnard, Paul Gauguin, Marcel Duchamp and Kazimir Malevitch became smitten to the point of procuring some of his canvases for themselves and forging the path of modern art under his posthumous tutelage. Cubism, in all its perplexing glory, would not exist if Picasso and Georges Braque never pored over Cézanne’s peculiar brushstrokes, and the sea of contemporary art we see today would look not at all the same.
What did Cézanne do so differently to make him a certain cornerstone of art history? What did rebellious hellions painting after him detect as special when they admired his compositions?
The answer, my friends, isn’t exactly blowing in the wind, but can be made clearer upon examination of just two of his still-lifes.
Still-Life with Basket, also known as Kitchen Table was painted by Cézanne between 1888 and 1890. Apples, melons and pears, ceramic wares and a stout wooden tabletop draped in white fabric are easy to make out. Hundreds of years of traditional European still-life painting are validated at once. Yet what kind of kitchen is this?
The wicker seat and front legs of a spindly chair cut off the top of the canvas at dubious angle. Unhung canvases daubed with landscapes, a console table laden with household items, wide doorframe and painting of a floral motif dominate the left side of the composition and deny their relation to one another, facing the centre of the room from seemingly self-chosen perspectives and creating a subtly jarring backdrop. From the open grey-orange expanses off to the right abruptly juts a thickset wooden leg, casting a slip of a backwards shadow in the neither cheery nor melancholic glow of an unspecified light source; a workbench or stepladder perhaps? An easel? A detail rendered elusively on purpose.
See how the ginger-pot almost floats above the crowded table not wide enough to fit its girth, its gaping mouth tipped forward in a somewhat confrontational manner. Then there’s the matter of the fruit, pushed crookedly to the forefront of the scene while resting on a slightly receding support. Each juicy orb has an identifiable countenance of its own, but where they touch each other, the crisp white linens and the twiggy sides of the basket, they meld and mingle and sacrifice their certainty to enigmatic marriages of oblique pigments.
This perturbing fusion and super-imposition of neighbouring planes which both confuses viewers and emphasises the painted nature of a picture is known by art historians as passage. Make sure to pronounce that like a proper French artiste. It’s a visual trick that is extremely shrewd in its apparent carelessness, and one that Cézanne quite cornered the market on.
Still-life with Plaster Cast, finished in 1895, is even more befuddling. The star of the composition is a figurine of Cupid, very likely a cast of a seventeenth-century Pierre Puget sculpture Cézanne kept cloistered in his studio. Though the original was but a small statuette, the painted Cupid’s pudgy naked physique forces the eye to stretch up and down, from coiffed head to bulbous toe.
Impossibly, he is seen from above and from the side simultaneously, resting stably on the tabletop but vanishing into the ashen background. Apples bleed into the mustard tablecloth at the forward-most points of the canvas. Some stack themselves perilously upon a shallow dish and one lies dejected on the floor, which appears oddly like an iridescent, upwards-slanting wall. Staggering, half-finished paintings lead sight lines back and left, a clash of sharp corners. Refusing to be ignored, two onions both cut harsh diagonal lines away from themselves, but dissipate at some edges into the tentative flow of the whole work.
Cézanne was dealing with domestic problems in these less-than-naturalistic images, his stilted circumstances and aesethetic arrangements incite anxiety in places meant to be comfortable. Jittery sexual tension also prevails. Cézanne loved his apples, so much so that every apple after Cézanne became a tribute to Cézanne. They dapple his still-lifes, along with other globular produce and the occasional rotund shapes of putti anatomy, firmly touchable mounds that might as well be breasts and buttocks.
Many whose opinions mattered during Cézanne’s active years simply thought he couldn’t paint properly, the discrepancies in his compositions only signaled incompetence. Fortunately, a new creative set paid closer attention to the details Cézanne toiled over, and decided he didn’t get things so wrong after all. Bored with habitual ways of seeing, young artists of the twentieth century looked to him as a father, ballooning up his legacy by focusing on the true nature of painting over the perfection of things being represented.
Entire modes of representation were overhauled shortly after Cézanne departed this world and left the haters behind. New intellectual puzzles began to pervade cultural manifestations, ambiguity became creative fuel and reality was forced to shed its comfortable conceits for inherent subjectivity, all thanks to his troubling, tantalising imagery.
René Huyghe and the editors of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Paul Cézanne, French Artist, Encylopaedia Britannica Online
Alex Danchev, Cézanne: A Life, New York: Pantheon Books, 2012