In Part I, we entered the world of Cezanne. He’d never been understood fully when he was alive, he’s been more often misunderstood than otherwise since he died.
Art critics tear apart his correspondence with friends and relatives into “holy” quotes, museum & gallery curators keep writing verbose texts on what Cezanne wanted to say or how he felt when he was in the process of “saying” it, but the only purpose of their flowery wording is to hide the absence of meaning inside. So, we will be applying common sense and a bit of knowledge to understand what is so great about this landscape, Lac d’Annecy by Paul Cézanne, 1896.
When talking about this painting, art critics refer to “vibrant colours” and “monumental structure”. One of them went as far as praising Cezanne for the way he “changed a benign view he feared might be “picturesque” into an almost apocalyptic spectacle”.
When I read something like that, the word “sublimation” comes to mind. Someone has been sublimating, once again proving to the psychotherapeutic community that art reviews should be written after having great sex, not instead of it.
The good thing is that Cezanne left us a cue. He not only painted the scene, he wrote about this view.
“This is a temperate zone. The surrounding hills are quite lofty. The lake, which at this point narrows to a bottleneck, seems to lend itself to the line drawing exercises of young ladies. Certainly it is still a bit of nature, but a little like we’ve been taught to see it in the albums of young lady travellers.”
Let’s just see what Cezanne saw. The view has not changed much (if at all) since 1896.
Mountains, hills, high skies, the mirror of the lake mixing up the plush green foliage of the hills with the blues and whites of the skies, a village (Duingt) on the other side, a church, etc.
Isn’t it beautiful enough to stop a “young lady traveller” right in her tracks and make her start drawing it? Or for a photographer to freeze momentarily for taking a picture? Of course it is. And then both the photographer and young lady traveller would forget about this beauty because they’d see a nicer castle, against a more picturesque background. It is fleeting beauty. Something that strikes you when you see it, but gets quickly erased by new impressions. Cezanne was not against young ladies. He just didn’t think an accurate, photographic representation of this view should be considered Art. He revolted against the notion that nature should be loved for its nice bits and “picturesque” views. If you love nature, and you love God who created it, then you must love it all, for you can’t love only the right arm of God. Why do I bring God into this picture? Because five years before Cezanne painted it, he turned catholic, in a serious way. And even regardless of this, he was right about the psychological effects of “nice” views. We see them, we want to capture them, we capture them and we then forget them, taking no lesson from our experience. Watching that view did not make our ability to experience emotions any more refined. There are a zillion photographs like this on the Web, but watching through all of them will not sharpen our perception of beauty. It would rather blunt it. Cezanne set out to prove that a painter can change that, using even “trivial” scenery as his subject matter.
Now, we have to cut this view to resemble Cezanne’s cropping idea.
Let’s compare Cezanne’s landscape to this accurate view and spot the differences. First, I am sure the photographer used zoom to get the pic, because if we just stand on the bank of the lake, it’s about 2 kilometres (or 1.5 miles) to the castle. We won’t see the castle that close. Second, there’s no village in Cezanne’s painting! Just one building that seems to be there today, though in Cezanne’s painting it is smaller. Third, the hills are rolling and smooth, while Cezanne made them into sharply edged cones. And then he planted that big tree. .
He wrote, “certainly it is still a bit of nature”, and he then removed the village that did not belong there. The village is not the point, not the focus, it is an unnecessary character in the drama between the world Cezanne created in his painting and the viewer.
Cezanne made all these changes to create a “closed eco-system” as opposite to the open view on the photograph. The roof is made by the tree, which branches intertwine with the hills at the background, becoming the hills’ dark sides in the process. Look at the brush strokes that blend the hillside and the branch (1) and the way the brushstrokes in the branch are directionally united with those in the hill below (2).
Where does three-dimensionality come from?
Cezanne was building this landscape using his favourite forms. The cone, the cylinder, the sphere. Why did he insist on using these forms? Because people have two eyes and bipolar vision. When we look at any of these forms we see slightly more than just a half of them. So, this is what gives this landscape its slightly 3D look. The eyes of the viewer see more than in a photograph, because Cezanne gives a glimpse of what can be found just beyond the edge of the form he is using.
Cézanne to Emile Bernard, 15 April 1904 “May I repeat what I told you here: treat nature by means of the cylinder, the sphere, the cone, everything brought into proper perspective so that each side of an object or a plane is directed towards a central point. Lines parallel to the horizon give breadth… lines perpendicular to this horizon give depth. But nature for us men is more depth than surface, whence the need to introduce into our light vibrations, represented by the reds and yellows, a sufficient amount of blueness to give the feel of air.”
I’ve shown some of the cones here, and you can try to find other cones, especially in the reflections in the lake.
The cylinder is in its obvious place: the tree trunk and the tower, but what about the spheres?
First of all, the viewer is in a sphere, even though the work is rectangular, and this compositional trick is marked by (2).
Then, the focus of the painting is built as a sphere (3). Then, there’s a sphere hidden in the tree (1) , along with a few cones.
Spheres here are important to stress that you, the viewer, are in the “closed eco- or beauty system” Cezanne created for you to venture to and explore.
And finally, if you read my posts on rhythm in landscapes (Part I and Part II), you can easily understand how Cezanne built rhythm in this painting, that makes your eyes and your mind roam through this world. Look at the rhythm of warm and cold tones, and think of what kind of music you can associate with it!
P.S. It took Cezanne 100 sessions to complete a landscape, on average. His genius would not allow for any “accidental” brush strokes or compositional choices. In a way, he was the Einstein of painting.
An art lesson truly awesome and wonderful. The reading of this work of Cezanne is truly stunning.
Thanks a lot.
You are very welcome! Almost each of Cezanne’s paintings is just as complicatedly beautiful and simple at the same time. That’s why I love him
This was a very insightful lesson of Cezanne’s work. Thank you.
Thank you for saying it. I see a lot of people reading the blog without ever saying a word ) It helps tremendously to see that what I write resonates with artistic minds!
On first viewing the painting the impression is blue and green and then turquoise followed by light, yellow, warm umber on the tree barks and finally the rich off centre orange of the small house by the lakeside. This colour journey allows one to firstly make contact with the complete scene unlike in the photograph which delights by focusing the eye on the detail, placing the human influence before nature. In the painting Nature is the power, the buildings tolerated and once again the tree is the observer. Interestingly the trees circular forms are a result of both man and Nature ( the removal of the side limbs which is an act of an instant and the slow curving growth which takes time. True art is multi-dimensional allowing itself to be viewed from many perspectives. It is always separate from the artist who is the creative conduit. Thanks for this fascinating piece.
Thank you for this interesting and insightful comment! I loved the “colour journey” concept and the thought about removed limbs of the tree. Very true!
Was waiting for the Part II! Very interesting and as always gives a lot of food for thought. My thoughts are not surprisingly controversial. Feel a bit disappointed now when I know he was sure what elements to use and how to do it (and it took him 100 sessions). Always feel like this when understand how much of ‘math’ was brought into a certain piece of art. Being a sociologist I even like it as it shows kind of hidden mechanics, using such mechanics in different spheres one can create or kill whatever, even love. But at the same time, for me, art loses a bit of its magic when it goes not only from heart and soul but from head as well. Recently I’ve read ‘Math and the Mona Lisa’ by Atalay, it’s right about inseparability and confrontation of ‘science’ and art. For me it’s especially fascinating when the artists create something absolutely intuitively but after that one can prove ideal proportions, the golden ratio or whatever else inside like in some works of ancient artists.
It doesn’t make the painting less beautiful of course.
If something goes unexplained it does not mean it is magic. Intuition is not magical at all, and as a sociologist you know (and I know that you know) that it is just another name for heuristics, a mental shortcut an artist takes, based on years of learning and decades of experience )) Thank you – I am glad you liked this post!
There still must be some place for the blessing from above not just experience I call mechanics. Otherwise it would be too easy to get. Probably it’s just my internal conflict as I believe in both)
Blessing from above, alas, has nothing to do with it. As one catholic bishop said once, Leonardo and Michelangelo would be the first to burn in hell, because they were seeking immortality in their art, and this is an obvious blasphemy. THere’s nothing bad about mechanics. It can be simple, it can be quantum. Quantum is not easy to understand, that you can believe me on ))) And, ultimately, it is not mechanics, it is neuropshychology )