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

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

"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.

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.

Most striking is the Cours Mirabeau, Aix's grand central avenue dominated by cafes on its north side. On one end is the Café Oriental (now Bistro Romain), where the artist spent hours in conversation in the late afternoon. On the other end is his father's hat shop with the stenciled letters Chapellerie still visible on the upper floor. Not far from the hat shop, the artist was born. He died only a few blocks away.

This insular city quieted Cézanne. His last decade was the most spectacular. Who he was and what he painted were fully integrated. Unlike those remarkable views of Mont Sainte-Victoire from his studio area north of Aix now spoiled by modern apartment buildings, locations for his late landscapes can still be found to the east, along a small country road that winds its way around the abrupt southern flank of Mont Sainte-Victoire.

Over his lifetime, he painted this mountain 87 times. He struggled to clarify his vision. In his earlier images, Cézanne placed the mountain in the far distance, with a wide fertile plain fed by the Arc River below.

How easily accessible that mountain appeared from a distance. But it is only by being on it – hiking up its steep northern side – that you actually feel this mountain. And that's exactly what Cézanne did in the fall of 1895. It would mark the last time he hiked the mountain. The trail, which begins on flat grassy brown ground, quickly moves up through a densely tangled green forest, up to the purple-blue limestone switchbacks – up, up, up, until the summit is reached.

The late paintings of Mont Sainte-Victoire, especially those done during the last four years of his life, were all about climbing this mountain, struggling to get to the top, doubting if it were even possible to reach the summit. Is it any wonder Cézanne used a Japanese perspective in those late works – three bands of color that move the eye up, not back, in space? He never kept his eye off the summit. Did he reach it? We would say, "Yes." He would say, "No." He felt humbled before nature and knew his contribution was only one small link in a very long chain.

So what would Cézanne think of the proposed high-speed rail that would rip through his beloved countryside? Would he agree that "they have all gone mad?" He would! Speed and ease were never part of his being. Cézanne was not about finding the most expedient way but about deepening his feeling for the place that fed him, and continues to feed us.

The French minister of ecology will announce the final decision on this project June 30. Residents of Aix can hope some of the artist's humility before nature will be embedded in the decision.

Jeanne Colette Collester, a former professor of art history at Principia College in Elsah, Ill., is the author of "Rudolph Ganz – A Musical Pioneer."

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