Completeness: seeing life as a whole

"She had an equanimity of humour and a patience proof again anything" was the description given by his niece of Paul Cezanne's wife. The artist's portraits of her certainly show her as long-suffering, and even sometimes bored. His demands on his sitters are well enough known, and there must have been times when Mme. Cezanne wished she wasm an apple or a table, so inanimately motionless was she required to pose. Those wistful eyes looking straight at the viewer seem to ask, "How much longer . . .?"

As with many of his paintings, "Mme. Cezanne in the Conservatory" is, technically speaking, "unfinished." Yet it is one of those works of art that have more air in them because they were not completed than they surely would have had if they hadm been finished. There is the tradition that Cezanne was so persistently dissatisfied -- a kind of tragically frustrated genius-manque -- that he strewed in his wake a trail of abandoned pictures.The evidence of even the unfinished works we have, and certainly of the one shown here, largely belies this. They may indeed display without disguise a process rather than a conclusion (and this is something we find far easier to accept today than m ost of Cezanne's contemporaries did), but they emphatically do not display the erratic failures of an incompetent painter. Everything in this painting indicates that he was in more rather than less control of his brush than many a slap- happier painter -- but that he was not too easym on himself.

"The principal thing in a painting," he is reported as saying, "is to find the distance." It is this exploration that occupied him so painstakingly. In looking at "Mme. Cezanne in the conservatory," it seems possible to locate, with a kind of classical certainty, where, in relation to the painter, and to the plane of the canvas, each subtly modulated angle, curve and surface is. He made it difficult for himself by, among other things, painting his wife full-face: but he has virtually carved its structure until even the hidden back of her head seems a known rather than an unknown quantity. His awareness, in every varied brushmark, is of location -- or the distances between every part of the figure and the space containing it. This space is confined, and defined, by the shelving, or whatever it was that suggests the line just behind the model's shoulders, even though this is one element in the painting which he had not finally placed.

One feels that Cezanne is all the time working towards something, that the task he sets himself of locating distances is actually an insoluble problem, because he is dealing with phenomena that move and breathe naturally, and on which the fall of light is in continual flux, and even more because he is conscious of the three-dimensional, of the fractional difference there is between the image in his right and in his left eye which enables him to see roundm an object.

Some writers have described the way he never quite settles on a precise linear contour but rather discusses it with himself; for every contour there seems to be several possibilities, as if it symbolizes some psychological lack of confidence. It could be argued, however, that it was only the giant confidence of this man, the positive and obstinate sureness that he could somehow, with endless patience, use colour to modulate distances within the limits of a two-dimensional canvas, that gave him the impetus he needed to produce works of art which have profoundly intrigued and inexhaustibly fed some of the great artists of our own century.

His contemporary, Renoir, asked: "How is it that, whenever he puts two strokes of paint on a canvas, they are always very good?" -- a tribute from a totally different kind of painter. Cezanne's forte was not a lively joie de vivre,m it was something stable, fixed, permanent. But it can't be said that this desire for stability robbed his work of life. Though structure was his consuming interest, colour, traditionally considered the fleeting and impermanent aspect of a painter's equipment, was paradoxically his main tool. He was trying to amalgamate the disparates of colour and form, the fixed with the fleeting, the two strains of romantic and classic. The result, surprisingly , is not always an inner tension, as this picture of his wife, with its own grace and gentleness, demonstrates. It is not, however, so much the enjoyment he might have felt in painting his wife that the image expresses, but more the realization of her form as something tangible, real and whole.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.