Monday, February 28, 2011

On the Ground with Cezanne

Paul Cezanne, 1906, Photograph by Ker-Xavier Roussel
by Kyle Gallup

Viewing “Cezanne’s Card Players” exhibit currently at the Metropolitan Museum was like visiting with a dear friend. The show renewed my thinking about Cezanne’s painting, and in a personal way. I appreciate anew the totality of his vision and the intimate relationship he had with his Provencal landscape.

In Aix for the summer

Having painted in Aix for a summer some time ago, I know what the light, color, and heat do to the landscape. It makes things shimmer. The glare from the Mediterranean sun on the rocky dry land, makes everything very hard to read visually. If you stand anywhere in Tholonet, looking south, north, east or west, you’d feel like you were inside a Cezanne painting. He painted what he saw. He kept his paintings open while he worked to accommodate what he was looking at. Cezanne’s color comes right out of the landscape. It’s very complicated light and color to translate onto canvas or paper. I believe he struggled with it everyday. I’m sure of this. I also think that by the end of his life, he did have doubts—you know when you’re looking at a landscape for a long time and know it really well and then you take your painting back into the studio to look at it, but it doesn’t have the feeling of all you saw and wanted to capture? This probably disappointed him.

Paul Cezanne, Chateau Noir, 1903-4, oil on canvas, 29 x 36 3/4 (MoMA)

Cezanne’s handheld palette

I can’t emphasize enough how difficult it is to paint outside in the bright sun of southern  France. It flattens everything out. It simplifies forms. You must squint to see color differentiations. When looking at a Cezanne landscape painting, I try to imagine what his palette might have looked like at the beginning of his workday and then, at the end of the day. He may have laid out all his warm colors on one side of the palette—let’s say raw sienna, burnt sienna, naples yellow, red ochre, vermilion and some lead white. On the cool side, he may have had ultramarine blue, cobalt, viridian, and a small amount of peach black. By the end of the day the opposing colors would have met in the middle of the palette, mingling with their counterparts, becoming grayed-down with all the mixing and cross-mixing he was doing. He would also add a little white to build opacity or to make color tones lighter. Cezanne was very careful with black in his paintings, and used it sparingly. He used it to emphasize the volume of the brushy tree greens, adding density and mass. He also used black to extend the various dark greens to their darkest tone, being careful not to turn them black like the shadows.

Daubing color, master mixer

Cezanne daubed color onto the canvas with relatively small brushes while accommodating the ever-changing light and shadow. Observing how transient light affected the color, he structured his pictures accordingly. Cezanne’s skies have green in them. It’s from the nearby tree colors he had mixed. His paintings have grayed down oranges that turn to delicate purples, gray-purples. He was a master mixer. With all the deep analyzing of the color he was seeing while working, he never let go of his emotional connection to his subjects. At times, his bunches of trees would dissolve into a mass of brush stokes of color, and buildings became the most beautiful and satisfying orange cubes in all of painting history—if he only knew.

Living, breathing, painting

Cezanne approached painting in a direct, personal and modern way. He had the courage to leave areas of his canvas unpainted in a single picture. Sometimes I forget that when I look at Cezanne, but who else was doing this at that time? He touched the surface with deliberation over and over, building up the color in some areas, almost modeling the faces or hands in a portrait. But at the same time he would leave sketchy flat backgrounds to flow into the more modeled areas. Cezanne was very aware of the canvas surface as a living, breathing space on which to work. His sensitivity to the surface was acute. It gave him an opportunity to try again.

Fini for now

A century of painting history separates me from Cezanne, yet his work speaks to me today. The freshness of his paintings, their quiet emotional pull and my understanding of all he wanted from the work sustain me. At the end of his life though he was probably unsure of his accomplishments, I hope he was still gratified by the attention and respect the next generation of artists had for him.  I’m guessing he had a few respectful visitors. He must have felt somewhat satisfied by the many years he had to work day in and day out pursuing his personal dream. For me, no artist has crystallized light this viscerally or made color so tangible.

Kyle Gallup is an artist who works in collage and watercolor.


bvpainter said...

saw this exhibition when it was on in London. It was a real eye opener. I've loved Cezanne's work for years, but this show gave one an idea of how he worked and how involved he was with each painting. An inspiration to all of us who try to paint.

Carl Belz said...

Wow! Do I ever appreciate this wonderfully sensitive and thoughtful essay about Cezanne? I sure do, probably more than I can say. I've been fretting for about a week about Peter Schjedahl's New Yorker review of the Cezanne show that he begins with a quote from T. J. Clark: "Cezanne, whose work was the touchstone for critical thinking and writing on art for more than a century, cannot be written about any more." Schjeldahl concludes, "'s hard to argue otherwise." And in response to Picasso's remark, "What forces our interest is Cezanne's anxiety," he glibly writes, "We worry differently now." To all of which I say, Thanks, Kyle, for the reminder that Cezanne might still be worth looking at and thinking about, our "worries" notwithstanding.

kyle Gallup said...

Thank you Carl. So glad you liked my piece on Cezanne. I have not yet read Mr. Schjeldahl's New Yorker review but will soon. It's interesting that he includes this quote from T. J. Clark because for more than a week MANY people conducted a vibrant discussion about Cezanne on Jerry Saltz facebook thread after he posted his beautiful review of Cezanne's Card Players on New York Mag's. site.

Also the day Cezanne's Card Players opened, I was there early. After a hour or so there were people standing in the middle of the gallery looking at the paintings, from one to another and in deep discussion.

Each new generation of artists and art viewers should have the opportunity to look at Cezanne's paintings anew and be free to discover the paintings for themselves.

Kyle Gallup said...

What did Picasso worry about? I wish he were around so I could ask him.

Jeffrey Collins said...

"I hope he was still gratified by the attention and respect the next generation of artists had for him."

And for the generations after that. I personally am only beginning my understanding of his work and my appreciation of it too.

Thanks Kyle for the wonderful and very visual writing. Kinda made me feel as if I was there to watch him work.

Kyle Gallup said...

Thank you Carl for your comment. I have not yet read Mr. Schjedahl's New Yorker review in full. It's interesting as you say, that he opens his review with the quote from T.J.Clark because as I was writing this piece, Jerry Saltz had just published his beautiful review in New York Magazine of Cezanne's Card Players and posted it on his face book thread. For over a week, a very vibrant discussion took place about Cezanne's paintings by many different people.
Also, the morning the show opened, I was there and watched while other people were intently looking from painting to painting and in deep discussion with their friends.I don't think the last word has been written about Cezanne.

James Lourie said...

Nicely written Kyle. Thank you. Have you read Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters on Cezanne? If not, I recommend them.

PS. Amen Carl

sandi slone said...

You can sure tell that only an artist who has had acute experience painting light and color could have written this wonderful review – and in Cezanne's own territory to boot!

"The card Players" reveal yet another kind of challenge and struggle with mass and volume. How masterly these works are and how they clearly weighed greatly on Picasso who learned from them.

Janice Nowinski said...

"Cezanne’s color comes right out of the landscape. It’s very complicated light and color to translate onto canvas or paper."
Thank you for this wonderful piece on Cezanne. You put into words what I felt when I was in Aix many years ago!

Kyle Gallup said...

Janice, thank you for your comment.
It's good to get your confirmation about Cezanne's light and color as I know how important his painting has been to you. We must compare notes some time about our experiences in Aix!