Sunday, November 30, 2014

Good Morning Jack

Letter to my Son
Sunday, 30 November

Cezanne:  Mount Sainte Victoirie

Good Morning Jack…

You know you are in Florida when you see a flock of Ibis, about the size of a large family reunion at Thanksgiving, using their long curved bills to pick off tiny animal life that lives amidst the leaves of a thick lawn.  They moved methodically as a tight mass, pausing once they’d reached the yard’s end, then crossing the street in their stately manner and to resume feeding as a group once they had reached a neighbor’s yard.  Overhead was a clear sky, free of clouds, one like you’d likely see most any summer day over the Mojave Desert, but something a bit rare in this tropical part of the country.  This is one image I feel my mind will retain of Thanksgiving 2014.

I saw a Cezanne at the art museum in St. Petersburg while I was here.  There were also a few impressionist paintings by Monet and one by Renoir.  They had a pleasant topicality – one like you’d expect to find on a postcard displayed on a revolving rack in the museum’s gift shop.  The Gauguin exhibited in the same room somehow didn’t leave an impression on me and it slipped my mind to examine it more closely as I had intended to do later before leaving.  Maybe it was because of my mood.  I wasn't interested in art, brilliantly resolved.  Isn’t that a marvelous rendering of a scene’s mood?   Yes, probably; I didn’t care. 

No, it was the Cezanne I really came to see.  I knew that as a fact before I even stepped inside the museum.  Cezanne was the name that struck me among those listed on a brochure I had picked up at a motel.  I didn’t know what picture it was I would view.  I would have been happy to find one of his iconic Mount Sainte Victoire paintings exhibited.  After all, they seemed a logical precursor to Braque’s and Picasso’s experiments with Cubist vision.  It would have been an experience somewhat on the order of seeing a Van Gogh sunflowers in vase painting.  Yes, I actually once saw a Van Gogh.  It was everything I thought it would be.  The paint was so thick.  It gave me the impression of being rapidly applied.  He had such conviction, such passion.  Truly he was someone fully living the moment.

Actually, I did once have the opportunity to view a Van Gogh but I didn’t bother.  There was such a mob of people around the painting.  I hated the celebrity aspect of the moment.  Of course, if Vincent has been there to autograph my program I would have thought otherwise.  As a matter of fact I ran across Van Gogh at the National Gallery in Washington D.C.  I was embarrassed asking him to sign my program but he did.  The intensity in the man was quite remarkable.  He was so white- knuckle taught I believe he shook just standing in front of me.

I’ve seen Van Gogh posters and pictures of his paintings in books.  Who hasn’t?  Until a couple of days ago that is all I could say about Cezanne, as well.  Now that I’ve seen a particular Cezanne I can say the experience viewing a reproduced image is not the same.  The print version is too general in scope.  The intent is to provide a pictorial whole.  The details of the artist’s investigation are lost.  The Cezanne painting I viewed was not one I’ve ever seen.  It was a canvas broken up with vertical trunks of trees and surrounding foliage.  As such, it didn’t make for a likely postcard.  There was no narrative to the picture.  It wasn’t about a particular place or the depiction of a scene illustrating the enchanting light of a specific time of day.  There wasn’t anything noteworthy of this view of trees.  They were simply a prop to be investigated much like a mandolin might be viewed in a cubist representation.  The subject matter had more to do with the internal processing of Cezanne – how he analyzed what he was seeing.  It was a fully completed painting but it presented itself more like a study.  It was going beyond one’s ultimate findings and viewing the research that was the basis leading to the final product. 

The painting is for me a demonstration of the eye and mind working together to present something suggesting our external reality.  It’s not like the picture of a clock giving us the time of day.  Maybe it’s more like viewing a transparent clock enabling us to understand how the clock arrives at portraying a particular time.  How is Cezanne’s analytical approach different from Seurat’s use of assembled dots of color to provide us with a recognizable visual image?  Seurat seems intrigued with the scientific approach.  His method is based on formula.  His technique is methodical, almost something I might characterize as mechanical – emulating the action of a camera and the subsequent processing of exposed film.  While Seurat is constructing an image from fundamental primary colors, Cezanne is deconstructing the image. 

The impressionist relies on his sensual experience to provide a rendition particular to him of his subject.  Cezanne’s approach is less formalized than Seurat’s and less sensual than the spontaneous colors of the Impressionists.  He has more concern for rendering shape, depth and solidity through the use of a less saturated palette.  This set him apart from Renoir, Pissarro, Monet, Seurat and Van Gogh – enraptured so much with color that they paid small attention to form.  Cezanne analyzed form then depicted structures often as simple geometric shapes, like cubes and cones.  His fascination with the nature of structure drew the attention of artists that made up the next great artistic wave, notably Picasso but also Kandinsky, an artist better known for his pioneering efforts into pure abstraction.

I sat on a bench a short distance from the Cezanne in front of me.  Small fields of color combined with adjoining fields of color to produce a patch of paint.  These patches in turn interacted with adjacent patches to create illusions of depth and form, warmth, coolness, and solidity.  There was a narration here, but not about a summer day or a picnic by the lake.  It was the story of a particular artist’s eye probing and of a mind analyzing what is revealed to it.  The image appears dispassionate because it lacks a familiar emotional focus.  Yet this painting is art because it is a testament – not of scientifically based fact but of one’s curious, loving reach for something tangible beyond one’s own limited self.


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