Cezanne, a Literary Painter

Wood on Cezanne

"I suspect that what all these writers revered in Cézanne was, first, the intensity with which he looked at the world, seeking to penetrate its deep essences while at the same time giving the most acute account of its visible surface layers. Witnesses reported that he would look for hours at his subject - whether apples or a sitter like his gardener or his wife - before committing himself to a few strokes of the brush. Humans had to remain absolutely still; apples were better than flowers, which faded, hence the many sublime still lifes with apples on tables. The dried, equitable colours of the south of France, whose plane trees and sparse firs and ochre rocks look the same for so many months a year, allowed him to return again and again to an unchanging, ancient landscape, and work away at different iterations of the same theme. Best of all was Mont Sainte-Victoire, which rises massive behind Aix and the surrounding countryside; he would paint this rock repeatedly, trying to credit a variety of perspectives.

Behind this determination to see something new, to see something which no one else had painted, was Flaubert's example as much as Courbet's or Pissarro's. It was Flaubert who, like Cézanne, was both a realist and a formalist - a realist because he looked very hard at the visual world, and a formalist because he looked very hard at his own representation of that world. It was Flaubert, greatly admired by Cézanne, who told Maupassant that "there is a part of everything which is unexplored, because we are accustomed to using our eyes only in association with the memory of what people before us have thought of the thing we are looking at. Even the smallest thing has something in it which is unknown. We must find it."

[James Wood, Guardian UK]
[via Conversational Reading]

Cézanne in Britain
National Gallery, London WC2
Oct 4 - Jan 7

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