Monday, April 26, 2010

Came across an excellent book by art historian Meyer Schapiro. (By the way, his NY Times obit is worth reading.) Does it matter that his take on Cézanne was published more than 40 years ago? I don't think so:

"The objective world isn't just represented - it is recreated through strokes of color. The world he creates is colorful, varied and harmonious. . . it is a creation of the mind of the painter who is making us aware of a decision of the mind and operation of the hand. In this complex process. . . like the effort of a philosopher to grasp both the external and the subjective in our experience of things, the self is always present, poised between sensing and knowing, or between its perceptions and a practical ordering activity, mastering its inner world by mastering something beyond itself. (Cézanne, Meyer Schapiro, Abrams, 1965)

Okay, this is starting to explain things for me. This "practical ordering activity" of Cézanne's has him deciding to tilt tabletops and fragmented solid forms. Schapiro explains further:

To accomplish this fusion of nature and self, Cézanne had to create a new method of painting. . . He loosened the perspective system of traditional art and gave to the space of the image the aspect of a world created free-hand and put together piecemeal from successive perceptions, rather than offered complete to the eye in one coordinating glance as in the ready-made geometrical perspective of Renaissance art. The tilting of vertical objects, the discontinuities . . .contribute to the effect of a perpetual searching and balancing of forms. (p. 10)

Reading Schapiro, it's clear that Cézanne did not sit in his studio and cook up a new approach to painting and then set out to make masterpieces in this style. He searched, and experimented, and looked to try different ways of composing what was in front of him, different ways of ordering the world, "an order arising from mastery over chaotic impulses. . . "

It gets easier to see what Schapiro was talking about once he compares Cézanne's work to Monet's.

In Monet's The Beach at Sainte-Adress, the painting is divided into large areas of land and sea, and the colors in Monet's share a similar value and intensity. There is an airy feeling about Monet's and a gray tone unites it.

Below is Cézanne's Bay from L'Estaque. Schapiro points out that the division between the land and sea receives greater emphasis, the contrasts are heightened through the use of such strong colors, and the treatment of shapes is different.

The triangles of sea and land are more strongly connected as shapes that interlock. There is a weight to the sea. Monet's inclusion of small things which attract the eye and interrupt the large forms give the sense of a passing moment, where Cézanne's approach is to emphasize "the grandeur of the scene."

Seeing these side by side, what Schapiro is saying makes sense to me: there is drama, solidity, and weight in Cézanne. Not what Monet was after at all. What do you think? Does this make sense?

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