Saturday, February 16, 2013

Cezanne's Magnificent Bathers, Part 1

Cezanne, The Bathers (1898-1906)
During the last 20 years of his his solitary life, isolated and immersed in his work, Paul Cezanne reinvented painting as a crucible in which to experiment with new combinations of sensation and representation.

In his many paintings of "bathers" - mostly nude women and men lounging beside alluvial scenery -  Cezanne achieves a mature synthesis of psychology, private symbolism, tradition, spontaneity, and joyous color and light. A masterpiece of early modernism, The Bathers, also known as "The Large Bathers" because of its size, from 1906. is currently in Boston, on loan from Philadelphia and on display at the MFA. The museum is pairing this painting, on which Cezanne worked during the last six years of his life, with another large-scale important work of post-Impressionism, Gaugin's epic Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? 

Gaugin, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1891)
It's hard not to see each of the paintings as culminations of these great artists' careers: last testaments to the world on a monumental scale. To see them both on one wall is a once-in-a-lifetime treat (and then, of course, turn your head and to the left and you're viewing gorgeous Monets, to the right it's masterworks by Van Gogh - not bad!). 

Cezanne saw Impressionism as liberating but too superficial. He had emerged from the introspective personal mythology of his early work ready to embrace Impressionism's light and color, but he wanted to make out of it something more solid, more "permanent," he said. 

Melding the movement's freedom from the Academic rules of painting with the firm construction and solidity of the more enduring art "of the museums" committed him to objects and vision. The irony is, that despite believing he was an ultra-honest realist in the service of Truth, the work he created, with its deliberately interpenetrating surfaces, objects, spaces, and paint, set the stage for abstraction and modern art; as blogger John Haber has succinctly observed, without Cezanne, "the art of the next century (the 20th) becomes incomprehensible."

To see what he means, one has only to turn to Picasso's Les Damoiselles D'Avignon, painted in 1907. 

Picasso, Les Damoiselles d'Avignon, 1907
This painting changed art forever. It was here, trading in nymphs for prostitutes, Renaissance perspective for shattered space, the Greek ideal for a jarring, brutal quasi-primitivism, that Picasso outstripped the last remaining vestiges of traditional European representation and reinvented art's role as a daring reflection of our uncertain times. Inadvertently setting the stage for Cubism and all that it would mean to modern art, Picasso's work was conceived as an acerbic response to Matisse's La Joie [bonheur] de Vivre, completed in 1906 (note the two female figures with identical poses, arms folded behind their heads). 

Matisse, La Bonheur de Vivre, 1905-06
The idealized utopianism of Matisse's conception ("natural" men and women depicted with a childlike exuberance freely loving, dancing, and existing in a beautiful, bright simplicity) was in turn a direct answer to the Bathers of Cezanne.

And that's all we have time for today..... the art-historical-high-fallutin' artspeak of this post has worn me out already, so a fuller treatment of Cezanne's masterpiece will have to wait until next time.

1 comment:

  1. Note the circle in La Joie [bonheur] de Vivre. Later to become great Dance (Matisse)