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On seeing the Cézannes at the Vancouver Art Gallery

Paul Cézanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire (La Montagne Sainte-Victoire), c. 1904–06 from the VAG website

All these years, I have seen Cézanne’s paintings in museums in Europe and North America. I have paused and noticed the loveliness characteristic of French painting of the period—apples, fabric, figures, light, the sea—and moved on to what I thought of as more interesting work. Even in the Pearlman Collection now on view at the Vancouver Art Gallery, I was eager to get on to the Modigliani portraits, the one gorgeous yellow van Gogh, and the paintings by Chaim Soutine. My interest was always in the ones who came after Cézanne more than Cézanne himself.

All these years, I have walked by Cézanne’s paintings without really seeing a thing.

Until now.

Something shifted for me, and it had to do with another show at the VAG: Unscrolled: Reframing Tradition in Chinese Contemporary Art, in particular the work of Qiu Shihua. I entered a room full of what looked like blank canvases. A sign on the wall suggested standing slightly to the side of each painting and looking at it for a time. I tried that and saw what looked like a warp in the stretcher that buckled the canvas. No. The canvas was flat. I looked and looked—staring and then softening my gaze, and still didn’t see much except what looked like water stains or shadows. Then a friend pointed out a path in another smaller painting, and I could see it, very faintly, and yet there it was. As I continued to gaze at the canvas before me, I began to see a landscape emerge, delicate and shadowy, but more and more clearly discernable. These canvases were not about what was on them as much as they were about inviting, indeed forcing viewers to stand in stillness and wait—otherwise nothing would appear. What was there would not be visible until we became still enough to see it.

So I went back downstairs to reconsider the Cézannes and tried to see beyond the lovely and lively surface. And I began to understand something about the way they were painted, the nature of Cézanne’s struggle, and the enormity of his task: to paint reality itself, which is not the same as rendering, but to get at the essence behind and within what we see. The spirit of the thing. Yet not an abstraction.

Cézanne walked the razor’s edge between painting as it had been and painting as it was destined to become, as least for a good many years. It was not a question of style, technique or philosophy. It was a battle waged in the painter’s soul when confronting the world he saw—the achingly beautiful and terrible world that lay outside his studio door in Aix-en-Provence.

“The most interesting figure in modern art,” D. H. Lawrence writes in 1929, “is Cézanne: and that, not so much because of his achievement as because of his struggle.”

Earlier in the essay, Lawrence says, “Our instincts and intuitions are dead, we live wound round with the winding-sheet of abstraction. And the touch of anything solid hurts us. So that Cézanne’s apple hurts. It made people shout with pain.” 

It is Cézanne’s ability to make me see and feel the world as reality not abstraction that compelled me to take a deeper look. The longer I stood there, the more I came to see Cézanne as a deeply religious painter, not in his subject matter but in his method of working.

In one of the letters the poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote to his wife from Paris in 1907, he says of Cézanne: “With regard to his work habits, he claimed to have lived as a Bohemian until his fortieth year. Only then, through his acquaintance with Pissarro, did he develop a taste for work. But then to such an extent that for the next thirty years he did nothing but work. Actually without joy, it seems, in a constant rage, in conflict with every single one of his paintings, none of which seemed to achieve what he considered to be the most indispensable thing. La réalisation, he called it …”

Heinrich Petzet, in his Forward to the collection of Rilke’s Letters on Cézanne, writes: “The poet was well aware that he was not only observing a turning point in Western painting … But rather, he saw more clearly from day to day that the process revealed in these pictures demanded one’s participation, not just one’s understanding … The poet did not take the teaching he had received as artistic dogma; what had happened, and could happen again to anyone, was the same shock of recognition he had felt before the archaic torso of Apollo: ‘You must change your life.’”

Rilke writes, “Surely all art is the result of one’s having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end, to where no one can go any further.”

This insistence on participation and even a sense of the painter having been in danger underlies the active, lovely surfaces of Cézanne’s paintings.

Describing the Cézanne room at the Salon d’Automne, Rilke says: “Here, all of reality is on his side: in this dense quilted blue of his, in his red and his shadowless green and the reddish black of his wine bottles. And the humbleness of all his objects: the apples are all cooking apples and the wine bottles belong in the roundly bulging pockets of an old coat.”

Cézanne’s attention to the ordinary objects of the world point to his religious feeling, and Rilke often compares Cézanne to Van Gogh. Like his Dutch contemporary, Cézanne worked out of deep and consuming love for everything he saw. Not in the least sentimental, this love approached religious awe.

Rilke writes to his wife:

“Today I went to see his pictures again; it’s remarkable what an environment they create. Without looking at a particular one, standing in the middle between the two rooms, one feels their presence drawing together into a colossal reality. As if these colors could heal one of indecision once and for all. … You also notice, a little more clearly each time, how necessary it was to go beyond love, too; it’s natural, after all, to love each of these things as one makes it: but if one shows this, one makes it less well; one judges it instead of saying it. … It may be that this emptying out of love in anonymous work, which produces such pure things, was never achieved as completely as in the work of this old man ...”

And in a letter dated four days later: “Behind this devotion, in small ways at first, lies the beginning of holiness: the simple life of a love that endured; that, without ever boasting of it, approaches everything, unaccompanied, inconspicuous, wordless. One’s real work, the abundance of tasks, begins, all of it, behind this enduring ...”

Cézanne and the Modern: Masterpieces of European Art from the Pearlman Collection is on view till May 18 at the Vancouver Art Gallery.


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