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Toiling alone on the hillsides of Provence, Cezanne developed a new way of painting the natural world. He sought beneath the surface for the essential elements of nature's geometry.
'In all the history of art, there has seldom been a painter whose early style differed so greatly from that of his maturity', wrote the critic Rene Huyghe. Indeed, it is hard to see any resemblance between the subtle, deliberately balanced canvases of Cezanne's mature years, and the morbidly violent and erotic pictures of his twenties, which often give the impression of having been created in frenzy. For a time Cezanne abandoned the brush for a palette knife, slapping on the paint. And as if to emphasize his personal involvement with these fantasies, he often included a picture of himself within the painting: he appears as the balding onlooker in A Modern Olympia.
Gradually, Cezanne turned to the outside world for inspiration. As early as October 1866, he wrote to his friend Emile Zola that 'pictures painted inside, in the studio, will never be as good as those done outside'. But, oddly enough, it was not until the 1870s that he followed up this insight. By that time, Pissarro and his friends Monet and Renoir had discovered most of the techniques of Impressionism, which Cezanne was to learn during his association with Pissarro at Pontoise.
Impressionism turned Cezanne into an outdoor painter a dusty, weather-beaten figure with a broad-brimmed hat and heavy boots who tramped the countryside every day with his pack slung across his shoulders. But though Cezanne never abandoned this way of working, he soon became dissatisfied with some aspects of Impressionism. He had a stronger sense of construction than his contemporaries, whose paintings tended to dissolve objects in a play of dazzling light. He wanted to retain the brightness and freshness of Impressionism but make of it 'something solid and durable, like the art of the museum'.
He adapted the distinct, blocky dash-like strokes, which broke up forms in Impressionist paintings, using them instead to construct form. In the late 1870s, they became a repeated pattern of regular oblongs of paint, arranged in parallel across his pictures, as in the Chateau at Medan. As well as giving solidity to the forms in the picture, the repetition and regularity of these paint marks emphasized the painting's surface unity.
Indeed, as his personal style developed, Cezanne became determined that the flat, two-dimensional nature of the painting should not be denied. He was not interested in imitating the real world: he called his paintings 'constructions after nature', in which essential elements from the three-dimensional world were reassembled on a flat canvas. And to represent the real spatial relationships between objects without breaking up the flatness of the canvas, he devised his own method: the so-called 'flat-depth', which has been called 'one of the miracles of art'.
Cezanne achieved his aim in various ways: by overlapping patches of paint so that one appears to be in front of the other, by depicting objects from several angles at once, apparently pulling them towards the surface, and by exploiting the visual phenomenon whereby warm colours (reds and yellows) appear to come towards us, while cold colours (blues and greens) seem to recede. And instead of modeling his subjects with light and shade, Cezanne 'modulated' form with colour.
This unique system of painting did not come to Cezanne in a flash of inspiration: he developed it slowly and laboriously the same way, in fact, that he painted each picture. He would work on a painting for months, sometimes years, always addressing the entire canvas simultaneously, not painting it section by section. A dab of colour here would be balanced by another colour there, and so on, building up the painting as a coherent whole. This painstaking process was at the opposite extreme to his early emotional outpourings.
Yet in Cezanne's later pictures, from the 1880s onwards, a new kind of expressive freedom emerged. Where his first paintings had been overstated and clumsily executed, these late paintings show the economy and subtlety that comes only when an artist has mastered his medium. His paint became thinner, his colours richer, and the rigidly regular strokes of paint became more loosely painted patches of colour often set beside patches of bare canvas, as in The Turn in the Road. It was a revolutionary way of painting, which laid the foundations for the major art movements of the 20th century, from Cubism to abstract art. Perhaps because of his strong desire to organize nature, Cezanne became one of the great masters of a type of painting that had largely fallen into neglect the still-life. He could choose and arrange natural elements himself, not hesitating to wedge them or prop them up to secure exactly the arrangement he wanted.
Human beings were irritatingly more difficult to arrange. 'Apples don't move!' Cezanne once snapped at a weary sitter. Impatient and uneasy with people, until late in life he could only tolerate his own family or close friends as portrait models.
Cezanne was even less able to cope with nude models, and his bathing scenes were painted with the aid of photographs. These scenes represent a more openly emotional strain in his work, probably related to the painted orgies and violence of his youth. But as an artist, at least, Cezanne had tamed his demons, and in a picture such as The Great Bathers the figures have become part of the landscape, sharing its beauty and order.
Particular places were important to Cezanne. He painted almost exclusively in the environs of Paris and in his native South. The hard outlines of the Provencal landscape encouraged his quest for a 'solid and durable' art: 'I am passionately fond of the contours of this country,' he wrote. He painted certain places many times above all Mont Sainte-Victoire, the mountain that dominates some 60 of Cezanne's paintings.
Even at the end of his life, Cezanne was still advancing yet he still grumbled. 'I am beginning to glimpse the Promised Land,' he wrote 'but why so late and with such difficulty?'
Writer – Marshall Cavendish