I spent 5 days in London during the worst weather one could imagine.  There was massive flooding in Southwest England, there were rain and gale force winds in the city.  I traded the parks for the galleries and tried to make the best of it.

The undisturbed time spent with the Impressionists, but most of all the Cézannes, must have shifted some things for me, because I came home with new inspiration. What I learned most from spending time in their presence, sometimes almost  putting my nose practically on the surfaces of his canvases, and sometimes looking from further away, was that there are no tricks or formulas or secrets to good painting. Rilke, in his ‘Letters on Cézanne’, speaks about the straightforward purity of Cézanne’s search, and of the absence of any interfering concepts, ego, or ideology laid on top of the work. It simply is.

Today I went to see his pictures again: it’s remarkable what an environment they create. Without looking at a particular one, standing in the middle between the two rooms one feels their presence drawing together in a colossal reality. As if these colours could heal one of indecision once and for all. The good conscience of these reds, these blues,, their simple truthfulness, it educates you;and if you stand beneath them as acceptingly as possible,, it’s as if they were doing something for you….

It is as if the integrity of his struggle with his work releases one to be oneself. I looked at some of the strokes in his still lifes, and they are simply done- to cover the area, to get a tone in, nothing is polished up, made pretty, smoothed over in any way. He attends more meticulously to some of the fabrics and surfaces, but what one gets from the original work is that it is above all, painted. And the mark- making, rhythms, and choices are completely idiosyncratic to this one individual. Which once again gives a clue to how to paint- paint like yourself, warts and all. Don’t think too much.

The still life I’m working on now is informed by all these insights and experiences. It is from the same series as the previous one below, but has entered a new realm.


Instead of doing the acrylic underpainting in one solid colour, I followed my former mentor’s advice and loosely painted all the areas in their complementary hues. While I was doing that I let that brief go as well, and started to just use colours  I liked. Then I made a radical departure from my other realistic work, and decided to keep true to my own, rather than the ‘correct’ colours. I am still working with balances of light and dark and cool and warm, but there is suddenly much more room for me.

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)

The spell of Cezanne

January 14, 2014

I’m painting again. It feels like coming alive, or stepping into sunlight after months in a cave. I think November last year was my last painting and it stranded from lack of inspiration.

In between times.

Incubation periods.

Heavens, they are so hard to navigate. Every.  Single. Time.

I’ve been creatively active with various crafts, volunteer work, writing, etc. So I’ve been ok, but underneath is that constant worry that the will to paint won’t come back, and also the longing to be immersed again, in the search, the problem solving, the bliss, the colour the vapours of oils and paints.

Eisenstein speaks of receiving a vision of one’s next step as a gift, but he also says that the ‘volition’ to follow that vision is also a gift. Yes, it is so true.

I’m under the spell of Cezanne at the moment- have visited two of his canvasses which are part of the show, Natural Beauty’, here in the Groningen Museum, and last year in Germany and England.  What is it about his still lifes especially which keep inspiring artists down the years? Funny, when I am standing in front of one, it doesn’t give me the buzz I get from other favourite painters, rather it reassures me. They are so matter of fact and unassuming. This is an apple, these are a bunch of apples on a table on a cloth or in a dish. They don’t look easy, it isn’t that- they just ‘Are’, so much so they reach directly into the heart of life and into the heart of the viewer.
I’m reading about him- his work developed in a chaotic time in the 1880s when painting was being reinvented. He got drawn to the Impressionists, then he pulled back to find his own truth, and ultimately moved closer to the Symbolists- so says the book I’m reading. I don’t know enough factual art history from that period to comment further on this point.

Cezanne still life with a ginger jar

Cezanne still life with a ginger jar

Cezanne still life

Cezanne still life

I feel that 2014 must be as chaotic as 1880 was, as far as what art is, what it wants to be. The writer says that the chaos in art reflected what was happening in the society.That is true of these times as well. What does one paint and why, and, artists of our day have been asking themselves for decades, ‘does it really matter?’

I lost inspiration after a good long run with my Friend’s Fruit Bowls series. I had a gallery here to look at the work recently and they found some of it ‘conventional’. People often encourage me to follow my more whimsical style because it stands out more and is more unique (ie will sell better). But I’ve stood in front of a Cezanne and felt an answer to something I didn’t know I’d asked.
It is not very fashionable to keep working away on still lifes, fruit, cloths, bottles- we’ve seen all that. After I more or less finished with the fruit bowls, I was wondering what would be next, I thought I was done with that. But when I listened properly, it was, ‘More Fruit!!!!’

So I set up a still life (innocent husband reaches for a pear and is strangled) and am all fired up again. Mr Cezanne is close by, open to a spread of still lifes on the work table, I will shamelessly follow his lead, and so learn where I’m meant to go. But God, does it ever feel good to be back in the saddle again!

Under painting, thinned oils on a ground of raw sienna and white acrylic

Under-painting, thinned oils on a ground of raw sienna and white acrylic