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In France, Cézanne's legacy confronts high-speed rail

Protesters invoke the artist's humility before nature to save iconic land.

By Jeanne Colette Collester / June 16, 2009

Alameda, Calif.

"Cézanne, help, they have all gone mad!" That slogan has become a rallying cry in southern France, where locals are protesting plans for a high-speed rail line that would slice through the iconic countryside that French painter Paul Cézanne made famous more than a century ago.

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Residents of Aix-en-Provence are on edge as they await a government decision on the train's final route.

Their demonstrations reflect more than the reflexive "not in my back yard!" rebuttal to any planned development. Invoking the name of Cézanne, himself a native son who sometimes excised modern intrusions on the landscape and was ever wary of the fast and facile, protesters hope to preserve the very land he painted – land that has remained mostly untouched by modernization and tourism.

The Arc Valley, with its lush vineyards, olive orchards, and famed Mont Sainte-Victoire, looks very much the same as when Cézanne painted it in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As these demonstrators remind us, that could change.

How can Cézanne help? What does he offer our modern sensibilities, our insatiable need to accelerate so many things at the expense of our environment and our own inner development? Often called "the father of modern art," Céz­­anne left modern Paris and returned to provincial Aix. Why? In his own words, "The eye is not enough, reflection is needed."

During Cézanne's lifetime (1839-1906), Aix was a city living on memories. Why then did the artist find this provincial place so nurturing? In Aix, everything moved more slowly. It was, first and foremost, a place where reflection was possible.

In contrast to the rapid changes happening in mid-19th-century Paris, Aix had an authenticity mostly untouched by urban sophistication and artifice. But, as the writer Émile Zola observed, Aix could also be very dull. Cézanne's intellect and temperament, however, were much too passionate to ever be dulled.

Of all his painter friends, Cézanne was the most educated. His local friendships, too, were far more adventuresome, ranging from a professor of geology and director of the Museum of Natural History in Marseille to a German pianist with whom he attended Wagner concerts. And, of course, there was his well-known friendship with Zola. They would linger for hours of conversation in cafes, homes, and in the countryside. Dull, these conversations were not.

Unlike the urban sprawl that now engulfs Cézanne's family estate to the west and, to a lesser extent, his studio to the north, Aix has preserved its center. Walking the historic area today, visitors can retrace many of Cézanne's footsteps and begin to feel a connection to his native city.