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Cezanne Burnout

At the start of the 20th century Cezanne’s family, generally, wanted to disassociate themselves with the works that came into their possession. Now, so hard to imagine what they were not seeing? After the Artist’s death, sketchbooks were torn apart and paintings sold for relative smidgens of dough. The following is about an Artist’s perspective on not necessarily the best ‘painter’ in modern times but undoubtably the most important and contextually influential in terms of Modern Art… that led to Contemporary Art… i.e. now!

Since the opening of the Cezanne exhibition at Tate Modern I have heard four different expressions of mild disappointment. I have also talked to others that have loved it. However, when you see a rat in a city apparently that means that there are many more close by. Definitely not comparing these people to rats, my point is that if as many as four people go so far as saying such things as ‘were those really the best Cezannes?’ or ‘I was just a bit under whelmed’… then it may suggest a wider problem. It is sticking one’s neck out in polite conversation, to criticise such an Art giant. Not an easy thing to say, so they must have meant it!  A theory began to form as to why this was. If you were disappointed that the exhibition did not deliver what you had imagined then here is my guess as to why. It is about how a society grows and perhaps wilts too, as a collective cultural mass. How the bar of our acceptance of challenging imagery raises and falls again. And how Artists traditionally raise that bar. Especially when Cezanne was working, they challenge their audiences to join them in new territory. So.. deep breath… The people I refer to were not Art historians, Art writers or serious Artists, simply Art enthusiasts and occasional exhibition goers.

Firstly, ‘Go back’! You will see new perspectives. It is sure to be a ‘once in a 20 year opportunity’, at least?

I will assume most readers of this text will not have grown up with the fantastic bright and glowing nuggets of gold, the iphone and such like. Despite, in my view, the Art book being the most beautiful way of seeing and learning about Art, second to being in the presence of it, there is no doubt that the digital world that most of us have succumbed to is a gargantuan influencer. It has opened a way for infinite possibilities and allowed the progression of Art to accelerate so fast. Today we can all be Artists, Chefs, Garden designers and so on. By using the best examples of Abstract Art on Youtube, Instagram and the www. you can become an Abstract Artist within days. Or at least make Art that looks like Art.  I am a strong believer in Artists needing to earn the accolade of ‘Artist’ through a commitment to specific skills, interests, approaches, sensibilities. Apologies…going off on one!

With our infinite accessibility and now natural ability to visually digest and accept, without question, that even 20 years ago may have seemed alien and difficult. We have, as a cultural collective, made huge advances in opening up. As a teacher of Art the phrase ‘Anyone could do that, Sir’ or “They are taking the piss’. Those properly dismissive remarks fired at Modern and Contemporary Art were relished opportunities for fun but informed chats that, if allowed, I would use to excite and (9 times out of 10) allow in curiosity rather than suspicion. But these conversations became less and less frequent. The once shocking drips, vibrancy, tears, pourings, constructions and conceptualisations have now become everyday currency. And this is great news! But… and I am near to the core, imagine this: Paris 1888, exhausted and drained, you walk out of The Louvre into the cold air of winter, you see the Tuilleries ahead of you and walk with a spring in your step towards the gardens with the idea that you will re-charge somewhat. A day of academic studying of huge religious scenes and paintings of War with bizarrely posed power gestures in the heat of a heroic battle. You accelerate out and towards the gardens… the gravel crunching audibly below you… bang !! Your body shakes. You bump, quite forcefully, into a small scruffy and bearded red head. He protectively takes a canvas away from under his arm, away from the direction of impact. One thing leads to another and the chap enthusiastically swings around the canvas for your eyes. Vincent speaks with alarm now ‘ Il vient de sercher, … S’il vous plait ne toucher pas, c’est pour decoure ma maison dans le sud’   You ponder… you struggle to interpret.. are they sun flowers?… or thick multiple, vibrating daubes of hue and oil? Before you know it and shouting from the top scaffold planks of the era, you reply ‘Mon dieu! Emmenez le vers le sud aussi vite que vous le pouvez! Loin de ce maitre-autelde l’art! * Unbroken by his burning self-belief, that his Art is the future, Vincent turns and marches on… towards his Art materials supplier on the left bank.

But what did happen, allegedly, that same day in 1888, inside Julian Tanguys Art Shop (a supporter and paint seller to the avant-garde)? Vincent arrives in the Art shop. ting a ling a ling …. in he comes out of the cold. After 5 minutes of debt settling and complaining about the philistines that surround the Louvre nowadays (not true but possible) with Tanguy. Then.. ting a ling a ling.. Paul Cezanne walks in to join them. One of the only reported meetings between two of the greatest Artists this earth has produced. They are introduced and Vincent quickly starts showing Paul his canvases, that were being stored in the shop. Cezanne concludes ’Truly, you paint like a madman’. This extraordinary yet ordinary meeting says so much about progress and pushing on. That our collective visual perceptions change so quickly. And in this case even the radicals themselves who were quietly (in Cezanne’s case) or loudly (in Van Gogh’s case) transforming how we, the collective, would view the world of the future.

 ‘At the Salon D’Automne of 1905 people laughed themselves into hysterics before his (Cezanne)pictures’ wrote Leo Stein the Californian collector, ‘In 1906 they were respectful and in 1907 they were reverent’. You see, it didn’t take long ! And another example of shifting perceptions:  Leo Stein saw a Matisse painting ‘woman with a hat’, ‘the nastiest smear of paint’ that he had ever encountered.  For 5 weeks he and Gertrude Stein visited the grand Salon until they succumbed and bought the painting off Matisse for 500 francs. A purchase that apparently was key to boosting Matisse’s career as well as establishing the Steins as the new collectors on the (Parisian)  block !

Henri Matisse, surely the greatest ‘painters’ painter’ of all time (after Cezanne?), quicker than anyone, recognised Cezanne’s importance and brilliance. And he bought, Three Bathers from the visionary Art dealer Ambroise Vollard. There was a period of time when each morning Matisse would start his day in his studio with a meditative gaze at the Cezanne as the dawn sunlight passed across its surface. 153 years since 1888 and our ‘cultural mass’ has learnt to cope with the very idea of creativity and boundary pushing. This once radical imagery now the stuff of biscuit tins and back drops in shopping centres. Fully immersed in our everyday. Cezanne, Pissarro, Van Gogh, Matisse and Picasso to name but a few, at the time, smashed through the thick ice of the accepted academic status quo like a nuclear submarine surfacing in the Artic (see youtube; top 5 submarine surfaces through ice). And briefly, as I would like my next text to touch on this, what will you see if you look closely with your time travel goggles on? You will see an Artist that elevates the everyday to the heights of Fine Art. ‘Make room for me and my sugar pot, apples and mountains’. That’s how it must have been like to the Art Authorities and at first they didn’t want to see. His incredible colour palette of shimmering hues that smothered his ’sensations’ upon normality. He seemed refreshingly able to make his life, his landscape, his studio the celebration. An Art that spoke in a refreshingly vibrant language of what was ordinary life.

Back to 2023. With so much saturation of  ‘cultural overload’ through social media particularly, that perhaps our attentions could be distracted when faced with this undoubtably great exhibition. The endless labels that Art history have written on Cezanne including ’The father of Modern Art’ only point towards Art Superstardom.  It is possible that we have taken an eye off his poll position because we carry so much knowledge of what has come since? Re-boot and go back. Switch off and on. Or go. And see what a radical he was in his time. To sum up I would like to suggest to pop your time-travel goggles on. Try to push aside the clutter of your today when visiting an exhibition about yesterday. His story, his impact will then bounce back and, ironically,  become more relevant to today!?  This works for all exhibitions. And then enjoy the excitement in comparing where Art has travelled to since. My view is that Art has arrived at a point today where each and everyone of us could be called an Artist. ‘Schools’ of Art and Art movements have evaporated. Artists although set free have a bloody difficult time negotiating their way through this complex arena.

* It’s still drying! Please don’t touch, It’s to decorate my house in the South.’ ‘ My word! Take it away from the South and as quick as you can! As far away from this, the high alter of Art’ (i.e The Louvre)

Written by George Irvine


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