Paul Cezanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire, 1897, Oil on Canvas, 81 x 65 cm
Picasso said of Cezanne: “He is the father of us all.” In this essay I want to take the “us” expansively. Evoking murder and rape, Cezanne’s dark paintings of the 1860s eschewed the protection of mythology and, in stripping away the socially uplifting with blunt emotions and visceral paint, usefully seeded the ground for Expressionism a half century to come. At the other end of his life the three Large Bather paintings turn back to invented forms after decades of discoveries through observation. In these strange late works the id of the 1860s is replaced by a distancing from human emotions. R.B.Kitaj says these figures are “as close as we get to us as seen by aliens,” or they are about alienation, the subject that will concern many artists a half century later. Beckett and Giacometti come to mind.
Paul Cezanne, Murder, 1868, Oil on Canvas, 31.8 x 25.8 inches
There then are the three fathers that Cezanne embodies: of Expressionism, of Modernism and of Alienation. I want to offer a fourth: the Mont Sainte-Victoire Seen From the Bibemus Quarry from 1897 is the first example of collage space—prefiguring Postmodern pastiche. For all of the paintings of Mont Sainte Victoire and all of the paintings of Bibemus Quarry this is the only one that cannot be seen from any vantage point in the real world. It is as if he glued a painting of one above the other.
A photoshopped image of Mont Sanite-Victoire from near Le Tholonet by Phil Haber
This, like the early emotional paintings and the last alienated bathers, is an invention, one that will not come into use again until the 1907-14 period when Braque and Picasso add paper to paintings. This anomalous Cezanne is actually something more fundamental, bringing together pictorial parts to create new pictorial space—what we might find in certain formal approaches we equate with Postmodernism. This device returns in the 1980s with works like Malcolm Morley’s 1984 Farewell To Crete, which, like the Cezanne, stitches together an eccentric yet coherent, readable space.
Paul Cezanna, The Bather, 1885, Oil on Canvas, 50 x 38 1/8 inches
Artist Unknown, Standing Model, c. 1860-80, Photograph
Cezanne’s life’s work is wrongly but understandably described as unblinkingly devoted to the “little sensation” of looking and seeing. I think we need to recognize the breadth of his inventions and see the other Cezanne’s as forbearers of Expressionism and Postmodern collage space. Finally, utterly unlike the Bather from 1885 created from a photograph, we have the Large Bathers, faceless figures at the end of the painter’s life. This Large Bathers detail provides another example of collage as the two figures on the right merge. He pictures the human body with none of the assurances of a lifetime of painting but with painfully awkward limbs and marks of something unknown. A life of masterful work offered no help in negotiating creatures so foreign.
Paul Cezanne, The Large Bathers (detail), 1894-1905, Oil on Canvas, 50 x 77 inches
Gary Stephan, The Future of Reading 5, 2016, Acrylic on Canvas, 20 x 20 inches, John G. Inch Collection
Born in Flatbush Brooklyn, Gary Stephan now lives and works in New York City and the Hudson Valley. A fourty year survey, The Future of Reading, is currently at the Kienzle Art Fdtn in Berlin. garystephan.com