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Further musings on Cézanne

January 29, 2014

Cezanne still life with a ginger jar

Cezanne still life with a ginger jar

Generations of artists have been moved by the work of Paul Cézanne. What is it about these seemingly unassuming paintings which, in the words of Rilke, ‘struck like a flaming arrow’?  He goes on to say that Cézanne, ‘remained in the innermost center of his work for 40 years’.

What is it to ‘remain in the innermost center’ of one’s work; is it perhaps this quality which speaks to many modern painters in our distracted and fragmented times? I know this idea hits me a certain way, as an admonishment and an inspiration both.

I don’t think it is just the freshness and purity of his still-lifes and landscapes that has made him such a (distant) mentor for so many. Knowing something about his life- the early struggle to acknowledge art as his path and  commit to it, and the truly cruel repudiation he received at the hands of critics-  you feel the dogged courage it must have taken to keep painting anyway. And as importantly, to stay true to himself in his work.

In the mid through late 1870s, he was associated with the Impressionists, and was represented in most of their early exhibitions. But he gradually withdrew, finding their emphasis on surface light and the fleeting moments of nature too superficial compared to the direction he felt pulled in. He wanted depth. His approach to nature was to look for the enduring and solid. Even his still lifes reflect a timeless presence.
Additionally, conflicts with some of those associated with Impressionism in Paris could have contributed to his distancing himself from the movement.

Looking at one of Cézanne’s still-lifes, you see numerous imperfections which add up to a lively, beautifully balanced whole. There are some potentially disturbing deviations, where ovals on bowls and pitchers are askew. Some analysts claim these were deliberately done in order to achieve balance in the composition, others disagree. I’m undecided, Cézanne could draw beautifully and I’m sure he had mastered the laws of perspective. Perhaps it is that he was less concerned about getting everything Right. And that the constant interplay of various visual distortions create the underlying tension in the paintings which makes them, as well as harmonious, also exciting and alive.

When artists copy Cézanne, it isn’t the personal quirks, but, I feel, rather an attempt to emulate the truth this work radiates. It is ‘clean’ in the sense of having very little ego overlaid onto it.

Certainly Cézanne was aware of himself as a painter, perhaps even as a key figure in heralding a new modern age in painting. He wasn’t without ambition, but when he was engaged in the work it was an all-encompassing communion between him and his subject.
I sense that reverence and concentration and it moves me.

There is a direct observation of form, yet also something entirely his own. In ‘Conversations with Cézanne’ by Emil Bernard, the young painter observed Cézanne at work, and reveals that over the years Cézanne had developed a complicated technique of working from dark to light, through layers of rhythmic brush strokes, and that through this ‘modulation’ forms were built up directly out of colour.  As spontaneous as some of his work looks, it was the product of a well thought out technique; and he worked with a clear intended direction.

In an earlier post, I said that I thought his still lifes were probably accomplished in a few sittings. They looks so fresh and directly painted. Well, the old man has something to say about this:

I’ve stayed faithful to that object- I copied that there, do you see? There are months of work in that. Laughing, crying, teeth gnashing. We were talking about portraits. People think that a sugar bowl doesn’t have a face, a soul. But it changes daily. You have to know how to look at them. Those fellows over there, the glass and plates- they’re having a conversation. They are constantly confiding in each other.’ (as told to Joachim Gasquet, quoted from ‘Cézanne’, Hajo Düchting)

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7 Responses to “Further musings on Cézanne”


  1. Love Cezanne…My favorite book about him is Cezanne by himself.

  2. Kay Says:

    Perhaps the ‘conversations’ are the key to ‘remaining in the innermost centre’. It sounds like the conversations were focused and engaged and intense. Not fragmented by distractions. I like the image of conversations with objects and idea of him layering his conversations with colour and living objects emerging from them and the conversations continuing.

    When i do textiles i get in to a rhythm and find myself in a zone / flow. It is in some respects like mindfulness – a connection with a moment or two or three. I can only stay there and let the pieces emerge. Not sure how much i am ‘remaining in the innermost centre’ – not a competition is i? Thanks for the post.


  3. Hi Kay, I enjoyed your comment, some nice insights there.
    Yes, I experience ‘the zone’ in some of my art as well. I think this is a good analogy for remaining in the innermost centre and yes it is very much like mindfulness.

    I think Rilke was referring to Cézanne’s unwavering pursuit of his own truth, and his not getting distracted by the fashions of the day, by success or ridicule (he had both), or anyone else’s ideas about how he should paint.


  4. Thank you so much for that wonderful quote at the end. I feel the animation in his paintings but didn’t know he meant for it to be there.

    • Sarah Zoutewelle Says:

      It is hard to know the intent of a painter, even when it is in his own words. But quotes like that do give an extra added layer when looking at the paintings. Nice that you can feel the animation, a good way to describe it.


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