Sunday, 16 January 2011

What was Cézanne doing?

Finished De Tocqueville, Ancien Régime (but still intend to read some more appendices, including that on Frederick the Great; I found very interesting the one about French Canada displaying in its purest, most oppressive and most dysfunctional form the absolutism of the ancien régime). He keeps referring by way of contrast to Voltaire’s three years stay in England, so I've now started Letters on England (in English, Penguin).

That was on the train to Waterloo this morning where I was en route to the Courtauld Gallery for opening time of the last day of Cézanne’s card players. It was one room, about 20-25 pictures, all on the same theme -- just right for a single gallery visit. Not too crowed either -- I suppose not that many people know where it is.

They weren’t all card-playing scenes but were all peasants, portraits with and without pipes, some playing cards in two or three and studies for them, none doing peasant stuff in the peasant environment but all indoors in the studio, the space traditionally reserved for posher people. (The notes and captions were -- for once -- good; not a hint of Tate Modern’s post-modern bollocks.)

So, a good chance to look properly, an activity to which I was impelled by an article on the show by T.J. Clarke which was either very profound or rather silly, I'm not able to decide, but was certainly interesting and not post-modern.

So here’s some of what I saw.

Well, they were beautiful, if you’re allowed to say that these days. The atmosphere was calm and contemplative, the figures dignified despite their clown’s hats and pipes. The colours rich and wonderful.

I could see where this way of painting was headed: you could have taken passages of paint from these works and transferred them to a cubist painting of a decade and more later: painting that looks like paint marks applied with a broadish brush and close up doesn’t look like anything else.

I.e. if you looked closely at the actual jacket or its sleeve (sleeves are big in these paintings) as the chap was wearing it, you wouldn’t see what the painting shows. Each brush mark doesn’t represent something corresponding in that position in reality. But the whole effect does look like a sleeve or jacket: solid, volumetric, dipping away, protruding, lit and shaded, borne up and drooping or falling. It’s a mystery how he could do this, since to apply the paint he must have worked so close up that the marks lost their bigger context and were emptied of meaning.

So what’s the process? Perhaps: form a concept of the the whole effect and of the bits that will go to make it up; then, keep that firmly in your head and approach the canvas, but in painting keep the idea in mind and take no notice of the meaningless of the marks you’re making.

Or was it like this? He’s evolved a language or vocabulary of types of brushstrokes. (Of course it’s wrong to say that it’s a language -- in many ways it’s nothing like -- but the idea of combinable elements, some arbitrary -- not representational -- is similar.) He’s found another way than copying each minute bit to convey the effect of an object, using instead an ensemble of brush marks, each meaningless in itself but together delivering the idea; he’s found that human perception can be relied on to produce that transformation. So, having that language, he looks at a sleeve, forms a concept, and then paints the concept -- constructs the sentence ‘sleeve’, something that means sleeve just as the sleeve as seen for real does but getting there by starting somewhere quite different.

I'm interested enough to want to know more about this, so -- something I never do -- I bought the catalogue and to hell with the expense. The articles looked as if they’d be helpful. Then I want to know how he got there from, presumably, being a conventional young painter.

What’s the best book on Cézanne’s life and career?

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