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Why I'd like my own Cezanne

By Theodore F. Wolff / March 1, 1984



I wish I owned a Cezanne. Not necessarily a major figure study or one of his great still lifes. One of his smaller landscapes or studies of a few apples on a tablecloth will suit me nicely. Reproductions won't do - no matter how good they are. There's always something lacking in them. If it isn't the color, then it's the scale or the lack of texture. But always it's the absence of his painterly touch, and the fact that only in the original does everything come together precisley as he intended, and as though it were happening at this very moment.

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A Cezanne exists in the present, in the here and now. It isn't merely a piece of art history, a neatly framed record of something accomplished by that great artist a century ago. It is alive, and will continue to be so as long as it remains intact.

That is the magic of Cezanne's - and of all true - art. It remains dynamically alive and capable of altering human consciousness and action as long as it is viewed. The nature, depth, and range of this power varies from artist to artist. We receive one thing from Rembrandt, and something very different from El Greco and Vermeer. We can pick and choose, and make different choices at different times. There are days when a Klee watercolor is just what we want or need, and others when we prefer something monumental like a Michelangelo fresco, or something hauntingly romantic like a landscape by Friedrich or a floral by Redon.

We are fortunate to have so much art from which to choose. All we need is an alert eye, an open attitude, and a sympathetic sensibility - and the world of art is ours.

What a Greek sculptor, a Chinese painter, or an English watercolorist saw and felt in 340 BC, 1367, or 1816, respectively, is ours to share if we open our eyes and activate our sensibilities. The grasshopper sitting on a leaf that so delighted a Japanese artist 500 years ago, or the rabbit that fascinated Durer in 1502, is suddenly alive before us, thanks to the clarity of the artist's perception, and the directness with which he transformed that perception into lines, forms, and colors.

This is especially true if the artist's style is particularly autographic - if the viewer can identify with the movement of the artist's brush as it swooped down onto the canvas to leave a daub of paint, and as it then dragged a decreasing amount of pigment across the surface of the canvas. Most Expressionist and Abstract Expressionist art derives its effectiveness this way. In fact, anyone unwilling or unable to identify fully with the physicality of paint, or with the movement of brush across canvas, is apt to miss the point of such art entirely.

The beauty and excitement of the creative moment can often only be caught and conveyed by a dramatically immediate technique. Brushwork, color, degree of sensitivity to surface, all these things and many more tell us a great deal about what the artist saw and felt. Ecstasy, for instance, is more clearly conveyed by a few explosive colors and lines than by a heavy-handed and detailed technique. And the sheer joy of living can be transmitted from artist to viewer by something as simple as a few pieces of wire and colored tin - as Calder so beautifully showed us.

What matters is what the artist saw and felt and was able to convey to us through his or her art. Durer's rabbit, after all, is of interest only to the degree it permits us to share that artist's extraordinarily clear view of nature , his sense of wonderment at life's variety, and his delight in being able to capture and convey the look and feel of living creatures better than any Western artist before him. It is Durer's perception of the rabbit, and how he managed to transmit that perception to us, that enchants us, not the rabbit itself.

Similarly, it is Rembrandt's vision and experience we perceive in his later portraits, not those of his sitters. In fact, the closer we get to the end of his life, the more his paintings project only the quality we have come to identify as exclusively his. This quality may be most pure in his self-portraits , but it is also dramatically present in his landscapes, portrait studies, and biblical subjects.

Much the same is true of Cezanne, only in his case we share his extraordinarily holistic vision of life and art. More than any other artist, Cezanne made the symbolic representation of the wholeness and intactness of life the very subject of his art. In his work, everything, no matter how small and apparently insignificant, is crucially a part of the whole. Nothing, not even a tiny brushstroke or an area of exposed canvas, can be changed without altering the intention of the entire work.

The remarkable thing is that this search for formal perfection was carried on as an intense and often soul-searing ''dialogue'' between himself and a variety of very specific subjects. He wrestled with the problem of finding a painterly equivalent to the totality of what he saw and knew, to his profound conviction that the whole is always greater than its parts. He wasn't interested in isolating an object in order to focus his entire attention upon it, or in composing elegant or inspiring work according to Renaissance or Baroque formal ideals.

With this in mind, it is easy to understand why a study of three apples, an orange, and a tablecloth was as much a challenge to him as more complex subjects. And why a small still life of his conveys the essence of his vision as truly as any of his larger works.

Cezanne causes us actively to participate in the symbolic transposition of his vision into art. As we study his work, everything falls into place now - and precisely as he intended. It's an extraordinary experience, for it lifts us out of the everyday complexities of living, and onto a plane where we once again sense the larger rhythms and the grand totality of life.