Cézanne’s obvious desire to connect with tradition did most strongly motivate his choice of subject. The greatest testaments to this desire were his continuous visits to the Louvre. However, the tradition could be a modern one as well, think of Courbet’s bathers, for example. The bather with outstretched arm in his 1853 Les Baigneuses is one posture that frequently returns in Cézanne’s drawings and paintings of bathers, especially with the striding and drying figures, in more or less altered form. This was the good tradition of anti-academism. Real life gave way to the painting of real bodies. His 1853 Les Baigneuses, though, shows strange and all too affectionate postures for a naturalist reading; even for a purely Realist one, I’d say. Those nudes (one really in Courbet’s bathers of 1853) are still far removed from the real more conventional flesh Manet gives us, in the contemporaneity of his Olympia of 1863. Cézanne’s paintings were never to be considered realist, or contemporary, but above all highly imaginative. “The modernity of Cézanne’s bathing pictures lays not so much in any specific reference to time or place as in their universality.” (Quote from “Paul Cézanne drawings and watercolors” by Christopher Lloyd pg. 176-177)
Courbet’s nudes still refer to art and art alone. The way those nudes must have posed exemplifies the otherness of the painting in which they are to appear, and which translated their temporality of being into their being of substance within a painterly continuum. The bathers posed for the painter with seemingly acute awareness of the irony of their gestures (reminiscent of Grotesque Rococo), but this irony imposed by the curator of the scene could not but be overshadowed by their flesh’s truthful and Realist rendition in paint, as a foreshadowing of their incorporation into the body of work by Cézanne. The nude we see on the back seems to fend off any and all lustful gazes, even that of her companion, but the true gaze of the spectator will never be averted. Especially the male spectators are free to contemplate her buttock, as the possible site of sense gratification. You could consider the gratification of the senses via the all-prevailing sense of sight, one of the strongest traits of Realism in painting. The eye becomes the interlocutor of the haptic, delivering messages back and forth, between memory and what is depicted and recognized as real, as a depiction of the real world. It’s reading is an echo of the self and one’s cognitive history.
The materiality of the body is delivered via the materiality of the paint, translated through vision. The light touches the eye; the line of sight is permeated by the memory of touch. Courbet gives us the sensation of flesh as the ultimate truth. It is through this, his strongest motive that his depiction of nudes lives on in the art of painting. Whereas a polished rendition of the bodies would not have been able to reach beyond its literary and anecdotal framework. We are drenched in the symbolic reading of indexical wholes. As such our reading will always escape the reality of the material on to itself behind those representations. Though Cézanne will bring us close to an understanding of their co-existence.
An important shift relating to the content of a painting, the way this is rendered and becomes painterly, occurs via the transition from Renaissance to Baroque to Rococo to Romanticism, Realism, Naturalism and Impressionism, notwithstanding the interlude of Neo-Classicism. Early Renaissance painting saw the depiction of Biblical and heroic, Classical themes. Those early Renaissance pictures mainly suited the needs of the clerics, the latter classical ones those of the rich aristocracy. The depiction of a painting’s subject was one embedded in lines of written history. Bit by bit, the emulation of sensation came to the fore, replacing the history painting’s literary narrative with one of the senses. Rembrandt gave us a strong sense of how a scene could evolve; from its highpoint, you could imagine the way the story unfolds with the protagonists active and in place/space, but still within a literary construct. With Fragonard, one senses that you are able to smell the flowers, think of The Swing and the abundance of nature, how this symbolizes an out-of-control desire. With the rise of the Impressionists, the spectator is invited to complete what he sees depicted. Here, there is little intellectual play, no reference to the symbolic connotations the barking dog may set off, or how the lover, lady on the swing and the older gentleman pushing her on the swing in Fragonard’s work form a triangle (of love). So I find here with Impressionism a loss of the symbolic, an abandonment of the literary narrative in favor of a purely optical, visual and painterly one.
With Cézanne, it’s largely the same, and his work could, in this sense, very well be considered Impressionist. But the thoroughly and intensely constipated structure of the compositions which form the body of his later work, with the deliberately constructed paths for the eye, align him in more than one way with the literary narrative of Rembrandt and Poussin. His work requires a mindset for reading, similar to that of reading a text and holding the story together. This is all too clear within his early work The Abduction (of Proserpine by Pluto, as recounted in Ovid’s Metamorphoses), where he really wanted to align his work with the grand tradition of history painting. He could surely only be of his time, but it was his genius that made it possible for him to translate the literary trait of history painting, via his handling of paint and the construction of his image on the picture plane, to the contemporaneous. With his Card Players, he has given us a true Post-Impressionist’s reading, a “Gestalt” of the literary narrative within the modernist construct of sensual painting.
Aruna D’Souza states in “Cézanne’s Bathers/Biography and the Erotics of Paint” that “It was a pleasure not of form but of substance, an erotics of paint that seeped beyond the body’s contours, that constituted those body’s contours, that collapsed the sensuality of medium with the sensuality of the body.” (Pg. 121) This, I think, is largely correct, though only insofar as the whole experience of painting is regarded as a sensual one. It is not so that Cézanne’s aims where those of the sexual prolific male. His whole life was devoted to painting; to bring about what he thought of as the highest in art. Painting was, above all, an intellectual occupation for him, not a sensual one. He fought his battle with desire. Especially his later scenes of bathers are, most of all, about composition and the grandeur that arises when all elements are balanced. Now, D’Souza wants to fit the whole of Cézanne’s effort within her vision of painterly erotics, and so sexualize his whole venture. Whilst it is mostly so that Cézanne’s ambiguity towards the sexes, in his depiction of nudes, does not so much underscore a possible homo-eroticism, but indeed the opposite: It makes the human form more the object of composition and form, in a general sense. I can’t agree, therefore, with her statement about those bodily forms as signs of erotic connotation. “It was, rather, that the signs of the baigneuses’ erotic content were not only figurative but formal: The signs were anatomical distortions, built-up surfaces, and reworked contours that marked these images.” (pg.101) “That an insistence on the baigneurs as representations of either nostalgic memories or as insistently contemporaneous instances of observed reality was a way of managing certain sexual anxieties produced by Cézanne’s formal method is clear.” (pg. 103) Any reading of a sexual desire into the bathers may be just that, a reading into it. Huysmans’s reading of erotic content in the painting of the bathers may far more concern his own sexual orientation. To Cézanne, I’m sure, the sexual context has always been secondary.
Though D’Souza makes a point regarding the overtly sexualized connotations of the formal sign in Cézanne’s bathers paintings. Stating that these signs, as such, penetrate the sexuality of the male bathers, eroticizing them by the very connotations of sexuality derived from them being such signs within the paintings of female bathers. I do not think this is a legitimate reading of his investment of abstraction. Indeed, painting is sensual to him, like it is to Vincent van Gogh. He, too, finds the painterly “jouissance,” but Cézanne’s is more ephemeral, more ethereal and always connected with the classical heritage of his hometown. One he really felt, since Ovid was part of his youth’s “Bildung.” Cézanne never wanted to say farewell to the higher emotions he experienced during his youth, in connection with poetry and friendship, but sought to give those a real form within the contemporary.
In relation to the ironic gestures of Courbet, Cézanne seems very much satisfied, without lending any such an ironic implication to the postures and gestures of his nudes. Here, we feel he is on a totally different journey, a totally different quest for the essential aesthetics of art. He draws his nudes with such caressing lines. See, for example, the drawing of a seated bather from circa 1880. He searched the shadows, looking for lines, and drew lines in search of shadow, shape and mass. With Cézanne, we feel it is all about the play of the interconnectedness of plane and line, of the truly painterly. Though even Cézanne may have been aware of Courbet’s irony, his nudes embody true pathos. Cézanne’s nudes are metaphors of composition. They serve his painterly means. There is definitely no irony here, not anymore, even if he wanted there to be. His thorough design and ongoing concern with the figure gives us bathers often jotted down, as a composer would write out a theme. His longing for “real art” rules out any extra-painterly reading. Though art historians have searched for (the awkwardness of) the nudes to translate into his fear of human contact, to me it seems clear that the artifice of this body of work is far more about his desire to be able to dream and live between the fulfillment of both his art and manhood. His whole venture is so much more like a Virgilian prose of an artist’s Arcadia, then ineptitude of his behavior.
Christophe-Gabriel Allegrain’s Bather, also called Venus which entered the Louvre before 1824, shows a natural charm that is likely to have inspired Cézanne with his search for the truth in painting. The truth was defined as of mid-1860s and onwards as a clarté, the clarity akin to a scene in broad daylight. This was achieved via three painterly approaches, as defined by Dr. Richard Shiff in his “Cézanne and the End of Impressionism:” 1) the use of strong contrasts of dark and light 2) the use of only the most attenuated contrasts, i.e. the establishment of a relative uniformity of value and also of hue (la peinture grise or la peinture blonde) 3) the use of attenuated value contrast, along with strong contrasts of hue, usually in the form of relatively bright, pure, “spectral,” colors.
With Cézanne, we can find the germination of this (3) clarity most strongly within his Roofs of L’Estaque of the 1870s, a work in pencil and watercolor on paper. It is part of the Museum Boymans van Beuningen’s print cabinet collection, and will feature there in the upcoming show: “Manet to Cézanne: Impressionist Drawings from Our Own Collection” from May 27th 2017 until September 17th 2017, at the freely accessible museum’s Print Room in Rotterdam.
I find it to be one of his most cautious paintings, one of the early watercolors to announce the procedure of painting color upon color, stroke of color upon stroke of color, building the form with indefinite means, unpredictable contour, indefinite possibilities of struggle. Allowing for an uncertain, but unavoidable achievement of form through the application of the absolute brushstroke. The delivery of abstinence of meaning to the brushstroke, the tabula rasa of the brushstroke as a means for achieving pictorial coherence within the process of the build up of the picture. The image emerges from the brushstroke, the tache like a pool from infinite drops of rain, unified to reflect another cognitive plane, to become a different entity through unification, but still leaving visible the single brushstroke as a drop fixed in the sky.
Cézanne will always linger at the essence of the painterly touch. To Cézanne, the juxtaposition of strong, bright hues became the true building blocks of optical and pictorial clarity. It was this visual truth he observed here in 1876 at L’Estaque. In his letter to Camille Pissarro, he describes the scenery as: “It’s like a playing card.” “The sun here is so tremendous that it seems to me as if the objects were silhouetted not only in black and white, but in blue, red, brown and violet. I may be mistaken, but this seems to me to be the opposite of modeling.” (From Paul Cézanne Letters, edited by John Rewald.) Though this realization stems from an observation of the natural world, its rendition and, as such, its ultimate truth, is not one of the natural world, but one of the painterly as such. Its train of thought is spurred by rendition, and the image is only real as a rendition on to itself. The truth does not so much concern the emulation of the experience of the natural scene, but the enactment of its creative interpretation. It is this that is to be relived, time and time again. The act of modeling is only to take place within the construct of the work of art. Cézanne’s truth is one of painting.
Look at the image of rooftops once again, how strongly do the white, light-blue areas around the houses set those off against the bay and sky of blank paper. This is a very economical use of expressive elements. One can imagine that this is the moment just before sunrise. The strong white smudge is the reflection of light via the expansive surface of the sea, behind the rooftops, which gives you this strong brightness, only to be found at the Mediterranean. The tree in the middle is orange, a precursor of the emergence of the rising sun.
To view more images referenced in this essay, please visit:
Cézanne at the Museum Boymans van Beuningen Rotterdam
“Les Baigneuse” by Courbet at Musée Fabre Montpellier
Manet’s “Olympia” at the Musée d’Orsay, Paris
“The Abduction” by Paul Cézanne at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s “The Swing” at the Wallace Collection, London
Cézanne’s “The Large Bathers” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art
Paul Cézanne’s “Bathers” at the Musée d’Orsay, Paris