Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Some thoughts on the Cézanne and Beyond show

June 5, 2009 by  
Filed under masters of perceptual painting


Bibemus Quarry c. 1895 Oil on canvas, 65.1 x 81 cm

I got to see the Philadelphia Museum of Art ‘s “Cézanne and Beyond,” shortly before it closed this May. The show had on view some 50 Cézanne paintings and another 100 stellar works from 18 major artists, such as Matisse, Mondrian, Picasso, Braque, Charles Demuth, Max Beckmann, Giorgio Morandi, Alberto Giacometti, Jasper Johns, and Brice Marden. You can obtain a nearly 600 page catalog of the show with this link .

Seeing so many masterful works by Cezanne in one place was immensely enjoyable but found the some artists connections to Cezanne a bit thin in places, like the color field ribbons of Brice Marden or minimalist pears by Ellsworth Kelly– connections to Cezanne perhaps only wishful thinking from the artist or curator. It’s all too easy to claim Cezanne your source of inspiration but I’ll take them at their word; after all Cezanne is the big granddady to modern painting.

However surely not all the grandchildren turned their backs to painting from nature – except for a few like Morandi and Giacometti most painters in the show had a more conceptual rather than perceptual basis to their work, which would seem to run contrary to one of Cezanne’s core belief of working from nature. For example; shown below is the “Card Players” by Jeff Wall, a 2006 transparency in a huge lightbox photo shown here hung next to the Met’s Cezanne’s Card Players. Or this extreme example, the performance artist Francis Alys covered an actual Cézanne painting with bubble wrap and hung it at the show’s exit point as what he called his homage “to where Cézanne had left us: a place where one could no longer see nature with a virginal eye.” It left me feeling that at least one bullshit artist covered up the real spirit of Cezanne with yet more plastic crap destined for the landfill.

“Card Players” by Jeff Wall, 2006, transparency in lightbox photo

I ‘m not sure when I last saw nature through a virginal eye, which presumably means before you first got screwed by modernist abstraction, but I do think Cezanne still offer great rewards for contemporary realist painters. Most painters know that painting is a life long study, that no one really graduates. But “post-graduate” study isn’t just taking workshops, watching DVD’s and rigorous study from the motif; it is also important to understand art history that continues into the 21st century, like it or not. Too many painters make very skilled, competent but extremely boring paintings because they are trying to get back to that pre-modern virginal state of mind, when what counted was the ability to paint according to exacting academic doctrine


Paul Cezanne Mont Sainte-Victoire 1885-87 Oil on canvas, 26 x 35 3/8 in;

Much can be learned from Cezanne; his ways of composing and thinking about his painting, not to copy his style or affectations (like so many have done before) but to gain additional understanding about other ways of seeing and construct a painting; additional tools for creating a more visually meaningful expression that you use with your own voice and to your own purpose.

Getting to sources of modernism– where painters like Matisse looked which in turn inspired someone like Richard Diebenkorn’s Bay Area figurative work and his abstract Ocean Park Series – to a contemporary realist painter like Ben Aronson – whose realist cityscapes show a direct lineage. Ben Aronson said “In working from familiar surroundings, as I often do, I find that in order to raise a work from the commonplace to the extraordinary – from a simple descriptive record to a work of art, the main objective is not merely physical likeness, but rather to aim for the most concentrated form of a powerful visual experience. Perfect spelling alone does not make great poetry, just as the realistic rendering of numerous visual facts will not alone amount to high art.”

I am planning on writing an intermittent series of posts on Cezanne and perceptual painting, specifically dealing with his thoughts on color sensation and composition. I thought it might be a great opportunity to try and learn more about his works myself and share with you my findings. Finally I will end by this quote from Cezanne himself:

“The artist must shun opinions not based on the intelligent observation of essentials. He must avoid thinking like a writer, which so often distracts the painter from his true goal—the direct study of nature—and causes him to waste his time intangible theories.

The painter must dedicate himself totally to the study of nature and try to produce paintings which enlighten. Conversations about art are almost always useless. Work, which brings about progress in one’s art, is sufficient consolation for being misunderstood by fools. The writer’s expresses himself in abstractions while the painter renders his sensations and his perceptions concrete by means of drawing and color.”

Or to put it another way from another translation or quote: “One cannot be too conscientious, too sincere, or too submissive to nature; but one must be more or less master of his model and, above all, of his means of expression. His goal is to penetrate what lies before him and to strive to express himself as logically as possible.”

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Comments

16 Responses to “Some thoughts on the Cézanne and Beyond show”
  1. Valentino says:

    When I read artists’ writings on art; what it is, what it is not and what it should be, in most cases I find such texts interesting, but useless for the practical purposes of the painter. They are so often hopelessly unclear or too generic.
    What means “the essentials” in this context? If one randomly select 100 contemporary representational painters for a survey, I bet each and every of them would say that they strive to capture the essentials of their subject/ model/motif.
    So, what does the term stand for exactly?
    Will achieving that goal (whatever that might be) transform a competent painting to a work of art? Is Marcus Bohne capable of observing the essentials in his paintings? What about Mark English…Howard Post or David Ahlsted? I guess they do.
    So, does it imply that Albrecht Altdorfer, Van Der Veyden, P.P. Rubens, Claude Joseph Vernet, Ivan Shishkin, Albert Bierstadt or english Pre-Raphaelites are artistically inferior to the mentioned painters?

    Quote: “The painter must dedicate himself totally to the study of nature and try to produce paintings which enlighten.”
    This come from a supposed forefather of the modernism, the man who said he wanted to “redo Poussain from nature” (whatever he meant by that).

    I don’t know how many canonical modernists and postmodernists of the 20th and 21st century “dedicated themselves totally to the study of nature trying to produce paintings which enlighten.”
    Very few, I’d say.

    • Larry - admin says:

      When I read artists’ writings on art; what it is, what it is not and what it should be, in most cases I find such texts interesting, but useless for the practical purposes of the painter. They are so often hopelessly unclear or too generic.

      Not sure if you’re referring to my writing here or if you’re complaining about lack of value in artist writing in general (which then would make me wonder as you seem to be a painter yourself) It’s true that many painter’s lack writing skills and aren’t necessarily great art critics but that doesn’t mean they don’t have valuable thoughts and opinions. Good painters usually hold passionate beliefs about their art, some can convey that clearly and some can’t. Same holds true with Musicians, Doctors and Plumbers. But the real point I’d like to make is that for me, Art isn’t just about what is of practical value for a painter. What ultimately makes art powerful and lasting has more to do with more ethereal qualities that are much harder to write about, the reason to make your painting to begin with – the vision, the poetics and the passion. This can be accomplished with 000 brushes or with a broom.

      What means “the essentials” in this context? If one randomly select 100 contemporary representational painters for a survey, I bet each and every of them would say that they strive to capture the essentials of their subject/ model/motif.

      That is precisely what makes painting so interesting, that it was made from a point of view. That there are many points of view and ideas of what is essential in their motif is a good thing. If everyone painted the same “essentials” it would be pretty boring.

      So, what does the term stand for exactly?
      Will achieving that goal (whatever that might be) transform a competent painting to a work of art? Is Marcus Bohne capable of observing the essentials in his paintings? What about Mark English…Howard Post or David Ahlsted? I guess they do.

      I wasn’t familiar with Marcus Bohne, thanks for mentioning him. Some great paintings there.

      So, does it imply that Albrecht Altdorfer, Van Der Veyden, P.P. Rubens, Claude Joseph Vernet, Ivan Shishkin, Albert Bierstadt or english Pre-Raphaelites are artistically inferior to the mentioned painters?

      Not sure what you are getting at here. You mention a number of great painters (well, the pre-raphaelites aren’t my cup of tea but I’d say there are good painters none the less) I have a hard time with rating painting genres and loose interest quickly in that game.

      Quote: “The painter must dedicate himself totally to the study of nature and try to produce paintings which enlighten.”
      This come from a supposed forefather of the modernism, the man who said he wanted to “redo Poussain from nature” (whatever he meant by that) I don’t know how many canonical modernists and postmodernists of the 20th and 21st century “dedicated themselves totally to the study of nature trying to produce paintings which enlighten.” Very few, I’d say.

      Depends on how literal you take the “study of nature” and the word “enlighten” this blog has a whole slew of painters doing exactly that…

      Thanks for your thought provoking post, even if we do disagree (I think anyway) I hope others will join in the fray.

  2. Rebecca Harp says:

    I enjoyed your remarks about the connection “stretch” to Cezanne in the exhibition. The Palazzo Strozzi museum in Florence is notorious for connection stretching….they put a show on not too many years ago entitled “Nell’ombra di Michelangelo (in the shadow of Michelangelo” and of course everyone flocked to see it in the desire to see a retrospective of his work for 14 euros or so. It was instead a show of about 4 pieces by Michelangelo and 40 others of the contemporary artists in his shadow, ie, those that simply copied him or just didn’t make it to his level…They also put on an exhibition on the impressionists (if I remember correctly) a couple summers ago whereby the posters around town and on the buses read something about, why not come in and look at our show, we have air conditioning. Seriously.

    They did have, however, a large, impressive Cezanne show with quite fewer connection stretches. And though I am not a fan of Cezanne (his blues and greens I find incredibly stifling for some reason), there was an absolutely delightful little painting he did of the stove in his studio, and it took all I had to not yank the painting off the wall and take it home with me:) I was later given the catalogue by one of my students, so now I can enjoy that painting again.
    Artists sometimes write generally, and sometimes profoundly. I personally like what Cezanne wrote more than what he painted, and I prefer what Michelangelo sculpted to what he wrote. But that is just my opinion. Artists are constantly forced to “explain” themselves, whether by artist statements, titles, interviews, introductions, or even prices. We just try to do our best and be as honest as possible, but it does not mean we will necessarily be good at it.

    • Larry says:

      some good points Rebecca, thanks for taking the time to post such a thoughtful comment. I wonder what that little painting was above the stove was you wanted to scarf up? There are many paintings by Cezanne I don’t care much for either. I never warmed up to his big bathers as well as many of his earlier works. Some of his landscapes knock me out and others leave me cold. From what I’ve read he must have felt the same way. Apparently the woods around where he painted was littered with discarded paintings – thrown away in fits of disgust. I can totally relate to that – problem is these days I’d get arrested for littering!

  3. Valentino says:

    > “Not sure if you’re referring to my writing here or if you’re complaining about lack of value in artist writing in general”

    The latter. English is not my mother tongue (I live in Croatia, Europe), perhaps I didn’t make my point clear enough.

    I visit various art blogs/ sites/ forums on a daily basis, read magazines etc., so I regularly came across similar artist’s statements (like that of Cezanne, I mean). And, when they speak about painting concepts and what they strive for, more often than not their writings are – unfortunately – unclear or too generic.
    I for one, rarely read an artist’s statement, writing or interview (one in which they speak about things I mentioned earlier) and came across something that can help you to grow up as an artist (not just as a paint applier).
    I am sure that their words are make perfect sense to them, but – generally speaking – sometimes I wish an experienced painter, a true maestro, could offer more enlightening and thought provoking bit of advice than equivalent of “you got to capture the essentials”. (caveat: I took that one as an example, there are hundreds of such “profound” revelations in circulation) That sort of stuff an art student learns in high school (at least that was the case with me).
    I’ll stop here, don’t know if I have make my point any clearer. I apologize for convoluted writing and all those brackets, I wished to avoid ambiguity.

    “But the real point I’d like to make is that for me, Art isn’t just about what is of practical value for a painter. What ultimately makes art powerful and lasting has more to do with more ethereal qualities that are much harder to write about, the reason to make your painting to begin with – the vision, the poetics and the passion. This can be accomplished with 000 brushes or with a broom.”

    That is completely different issue, a very complex (and inexhaustible) one.
    I did not intend to address it in my comment.

    • Larry says:

      Thanks for clarifying your comment Valentino, makes me feel better that my dicey writing skills is off the hook this time at least!
      You do make some good points. There is certainly more than enough vague, pretentious, dishonest and generic artist writing that promotes “capturing the essentials” and the like.
      My interest in Cezanne partly stems from his primary concern about responding to nature and working from life as well as his early explorations into abstraction from nature. These days, especially prevalent on the web, many realists concern themselves with getting techniques and skill in making highly polished photorealist painting – where many time exactitude and precision take precedence over expression. Learning from Cezanne is an opposite approach in thinking about making painting and is someone we can still learn a great deal from, even if we choose to paint in a totally different style and manner.

  4. Valentino says:

    @ Larry: I think that every great piece of art works on different levels (and successfully on all of them, otherwise it won’t be great). It’s fascinating to see how much attention great painters of the past – particularly in baroque era – were paying to overall design and composition (an interesting – dynamic yet balanced – arrangement of abstract shapes lies in the core of both).
    In general, I prefer representational over abstract painting, though I would not denigrate good, meaningful abstract art, one in which is apparent that a painter has mastered both his/her trade and the principles of visual language.
    That being said, I have to stress that, for some reason, a great composition is a very rare beast in a contemporary representational painting. I have seen A LOT of contemporary realism, and in 95% of the cases, the best ones were those that start their career in illustration or comic industry.
    A lot of painters obviously think that they can hide their artistic flaws by dazzling demonstration of technical virtuosity (alone). Of course, the meticulous rendering of every detail in a painting is not objectionable per se (In my opinion ability to paint well is an absolute prerequisite for this kind of endeavour), but it is NOT goal in itself. It is just a mean to an end.
    (One of the painters who clearly demonstrate that they are aware of this is Daniel Sprick; a great painter who does not stop at just creating eye candies, but goes a couple of steps further and thread into territory of Art.

  5. Valentino says:

    I’d like there is an edit button here, I see several grammatical mistakes in my posts which I can not rectify.

  6. Valentino says:

    Oh, btw, Cezanne is not my fav cup of tea either (I have just read Rebecca’s last message).
    His landscapes are OK, though I do not like the juxtaposition of uncontrolled (near)complements, particularly not green/orange scheme. His still lives are better (to me), yet figure painting are unbearable to look at (much like Renoir’s), especially The Bathers series.
    I respect his intentions and artistic integrity, yet I think it’s pity that such an attitude have not spawned better paintings.
    Just my 2 cents…

  7. Rebecca Harp says:

    Here is a link to the stove in the studio by Cezanne. I particularly love the painting faced to the wall, in light of your comment Larry about the tossed canvases:

    http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/cgi-bin/WebObjects.dll/CollectionPublisher.woa/wa/largeImage?workNumber=NG6509&collectionPublisherSection=work

    I hope copying and pasting the link works, if not, it is on the national gallery website (under high security, darn). I think this painting explains a great deal about Cezanne’s desire to create great art, and the frustration that arises when saying it and doing it are two very different things. That together with being a charming composition and a window into the world of an art studio makes this painting a masterful one for me.

    My teacher from years back actually used to say, “Do what I say (teach), not what I do (how he paints, he meant).” There is perhaps too much focus in many artists minds on the desire to be a master, rather than perhaps give the proper respect and response through paint to the beauty of nature? I think that may be what Cezanne was trying to say. And perhaps he just said it more than he did it.

    As for the tossed canvases or the painting to the wall, I personally know that painting failures are part of the process. Out of every ten paintings I do, one or maybe two please me, but I needed the other nine in order to get to the one. And when you get to that one, you don’t even really know what it is that you achieved, you cannot really put it into words. It just feels “right.”

    I once saw an odd documentary featuring an odd character, a Catholic nun named Sister Wendy. Though I am not Catholic and therefore find it a bit odd to relate to a nun, she captured my greatest attention with one thing she said, however. She was trying to explain in her opinion what “sacred” art, or I would use the term a true masterpiece, is: a great (sacred) painting is one that after looking at it (and she said looking and looking and looking again) you feel as if it has improved your integrity. I think that this is a mighty fine way to view the power of the highest painting achievements. I sometimes wish artists would stop nurturing their own ego to become the next master, flashing their bravura and technical knnowledge, and think more about how to notice a marvel and conceive a picture which can “improve someone’s integrity.”

    • Larry says:

      great comment Rebecca – sorry to be so long in responding. I dislocated my finger and a small fracture of a finger in a fall a few weeks ago and it is still very hard to type much. I can do it but I tend to avoid typing as much as possible.

      Here is a link to the stove in the studio by Cezanne.

      sweet painting I can see why you might want to nab it, I hadn’t seen that earlier Cezanne before, thanks for the link.

      My teacher from years back actually used to say, “Do what I say (teach), not what I do (how he paints, he meant).” There is perhaps too much focus in many artists minds on the desire to be a master, rather than perhaps give the proper respect and response through paint to the beauty of nature? I think that may be what Cezanne was trying to say. And perhaps he just said it more than he did it.

      Cezanne, unlike many artists today, was lucky that all he didn’t have to worry about selling work to make money, so he was free to do whatever he wanted. I think he was wanting to find new, personal ways to see and paint the beauty of nature – sometimes he succeeded more than others. I agree that many painters are too focused on becoming an art star and look in the mirror more than they look at the outside world. I find that incredibly boring.

      As for the tossed canvases or the painting to the wall, I personally know that painting failures are part of the process. Out of every ten paintings I do, one or maybe two please me, but I needed the other nine in order to get to the one. And when you get to that one, you don’t even really know what it is that you achieved, you cannot really put it into words. It just feels “right.”

      I know this well. That is why I think its a good idea for me to make a number of smaller, one-sitting works right now – where I have greater freedom to experiment, make a bunch of real stinkers along with a few diamonds in the rough that hopefully will provide new directions and ideas for future more prolonged work.

  8. Robert says:

    I’ve always been intrigued with Cezanne but it wasn’t until recently that I understood him better. Rackstraw Downes pointed out that Cezanne’s work was about the process of looking. Reading that was revelatory to me and it makes a lot of sense out of the apparent distortions, which I previously thought weren’t important to appreciating his work. Now I think his work hinges on the distortion because it describes how his eyes and head move from plane to plane. I’ve felt his work was honest but until reading the article by Downes I didn’t realize how honest.

    • Larry says:

      Good comment Robert. Where did you read the Rackstaw quote on Cezanne? I have the big new hardcover book of his work but have yet to read all the essays. I plan to try and write a longer article sometime in the next couple of months or so on Cezanne’s landscape composition – looking at the book (1943) Cezanne’s Compositions by Erle Loran There is a lot of interesting information in this book that I want to digest more thoughly, my thinking is by writing and article about it then it will help me to understand it better so I might be able to make use of it somehow in my own work.

  9. TDK says:

    I love Cézanne he is my favorite cup of tea lol and how could you do a Blog on perceptual painting without mentioning this incredible artist. I also agree one of the most honest artists there was in a time when it was so hard to be so. Thanks to him we or I benefited greatly in seeing what art could be on a very personal level instead of Illustrating we can choose to probe into our own playground of visual delights thus revealing our unique quirks and twists.

    Cézanne said he wished he could be born again to see the world with a new eye. But This is the first time I ever heard the term Virginal Eye Larry and that is an appropriate term when I think about it or how I commonly refer to it as Cézannes optic which explored a new way of seeing with innocence instead of constipated visual cues of a gazillion images we have seen and recorded in our mind. Hmmm innocence, what a concept to actually see this world without preconceptions and to go back and reinvestigate what it is we are seeing and or saying in a work of art on a very personal and dare I say …a child like attitude.

    Easier said than done though, even though I wanted it badly I have had many problems accepting this premise or understanding it for that matter. Still I had to fight off those darn pesky academic pressures it seems at every turn in the road. Like perspective to mention just one with its entire ready made order…yuk!!! But like Picasso said the shite the academics teach can be UNDONE (that’s the good news) but the smell will always remain and that’s the part that dogs your every step into a somewhat clearer vision in order to practice perceptual painting. That was a good warning for me because no matter what I did it would rear its ugly head once again to stink up my vision but after time it gets easier to accept this innocence and ignore academic pressures. I guess, if it was hard for Picasso to ignore, then it probably won’t be any easier for me. Just wish I learned and adopted a lot of these valuable lessons earlier on.

    Cezanne put it most bluntly when talking to Emile Bernard, “To paint after nature is not a matter of copying the objective world, it’s giving shape to your sensations”.

    P.S. saw your pics of your latest show on A. Q. Larry. Nice work.

    • Larry says:

      I love Cézanne he is my favorite cup of tea lol and how could you do a Blog on perceptual painting without mentioning this incredible artist. I also agree one of the most honest artists there was in a time when it was so hard to be so. Thanks to him we or I benefited greatly in seeing what art could be on a very personal level instead of Illustrating we can choose to probe into our own playground of visual delights thus revealing our unique quirks and twists.

      I’m glad you agree! and a great way of putting it. I can’t type the response your comment deserves right now, my fingers are killing me. But thanks for your compliment about my work.

  10. Robert says:

    Larry it begins with the last paragraph of page 143 and continues on 144 of the Schwartz book.

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