Completeness: seeing life as a whole

Paul Cezanne is the most recent painter I can, in good conscience, call truly great. Even Picasso, this century's major claim to art-historical fame, and one of the outstanding genuises of all time, often faltered while trying to see life whole.

But not Cezanne. He had the great gift of seeing it whole and the rare ability to give that perception convincing symbolic form.

He was so convincing, as a matter of fact, that we are still very much under his influence 100 years later. It would even be fair to say that almost everything of formal significance produced in painting during this century derived in one form or another from Cezanne.

He was the crucial link between the past and the present, the great Janus-figure of 19th-century painting, who faced not only backward toward the extremely formal 17th century museum art of Nicolas Poussin but also forward to the revolutionary 20th-century art of the Fauves, Cubists, Constructivists, Neo-Plasticists.

Cezanne is so vital a bridge between past and present that should Poussin ever return to spend a day with us, he could, by studying the paintings of Cezanne, probably gain sufficient insight into the art of Braque, Gris, Picasso -- possibly even Mondrian -- to make some sense out of them on his own terms.

And yet, although Cezanne lived and worked until 1906, and created paintings only one or two steps away from what Picasso and Braque would do within a year or two of that date, he remained very much a man of the 19th century. And by that I mean that his vision of art and of life was expansive, all-inclusive, grand, and self-assured. And that the one or two steps Picasso and Braque would take "beyond" Cezanne would reflect an entirely different world- view -- one that would become increasingly self-concious, anxious, and troubled by questions of identity and purpose.

I've always seen the art of Cezanne as a very deep, still lake fed on the one side by the various streams of art history, and contained on the other by a dam. And I've seen the beginning and the development of 20th-century modernism as the cracking of that dam and the rapid transformation of that deep lake into hundreds of streams and rivulets rushing to find their own levels and to establish their own identities.

To experience a Cezanne painting is to experience the certainty that order -- and thus meaning -- do indeed exist. I have at times approached a Cezanne with feelings of disjointedness, boredom, vagueness, even of confusion, only to have those feelings lifted away and replaced by a humming sense of purpose and direction that resembles nothing so much as finding a path in a forest after having wandered aimlessly -- or even been lost.

The marvel of it all is that this experience may have been triggered by nothing more impressive than a small painting of two apples, a knife, and a jug. Or a watercolor of some rocks -- or a pencil study of a head.

But whatever it was, its power and effectiveness came from its extraordinary quality of wholeness, its sense that everything in it was precisely where it should be and that every detail of every form related perfectly and "inevitably" to everything else in the composition.

An interesting example of Cezanne's attempts to achieve this quality of "inevitability" is his "Mme. Cezanne in the Conservatory." What immediately strikes us about this picture is its sketchiness and its bluntness -- as well as the fact that Cezanne was obviously more interested in constructing a highly ordered painting than in producing a detailed and convincing portrait of his wife. Nowhere in the picture is there the slightest hint about his feelings for her. As far as Cezanne the painter was concerned, she was a component of the painting, and as such was no more and no less important than the tree behind her or the potted plant in the corner.

Cezanne's initial objective when starting a painting was to find the simplest formal common denominators for everything in the composition and then to build his pictorial architecture upon them. This meant reducing his forms to their simplest geometric shapes, or, as he himself put it, to ". . . treat nature in terms of the cylinder, the sphere, and the cone," which explains the eggshaped head of Mme. Cezanne in this painting, the blunt triangle fashioned by her body, and the perfect crescent-shaped form of her hair.

Painting the picture then became a matter of adjusting thousands of little checks and balances, of making certain that no one shape or color drew too much attention to itself or threw a section of the work off balance. The painting grew all of a piece, and was finished only when its intricate inner workings and subtle formal adjustments were in perfect alignment with one another.

One of the secrets of Cezanne's effectiveness is that he always kept the dialogue between naturalistic appearance and geometric codification open and in a state of tension. Another lay in the fact that, while he tended toward the generalized and the geometric, he never went to the extreme of "dehumanizing" his subjects by actually turning them into cylinders, spheres, or cones -- something that would take place in other hands during the first years of the 20 th century.

A Cezanne painting, beautifully and "inevitably" structured as it may be, always remains a human document, an expression of human experience, sensation, and yearning-for-order.

At the same time we have to realize that Cezanne saw art in terms of natural and divine order, never in terms of idiosyncratic "self-expression" or personal sentiment. And that his passions as a painter were directed toward fusing color and form with a grand and universal vision of order and meaning. That he was, in other words, a visionary, a seer, a seeker after high places.

And that his greatness lay in the fact that he could give all that convincing pictorial form.

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.