by Richard Nilsen The Arizona Republic Jun. 27, 2010 12:57 AM
Modern art. Wow. Who saw that coming?
Well, Paul Cezanne, for one. The French painter, who died in 1906, is the artist most often credited by 20th-century artists as the fountainhead of Modernism.
Who'd have thought that a schlub with little appreciable art talent - at least as it was understood at the time - and who didn't really have a talent for anything else, would lead the way to the 20th century.
"He is the father of all of us," Picasso said.
The direct line from Cezanne to Modernism in America is drawn in a new show at the Phoenix Art Museum, "Cezanne and American Modernism," which includes 16 works by Cezanne and 85 works by 33 American artists, all before 1930.
"He was the source, and there's a river that follows him," says Jerry Smith, the museum's associate curator of American Art. "Somebody pulled the cork out of the dam, and it has rolled on; it just hasn't stopped."
Law and a new order
Modernism is the name we have given to the primary direction of art through most of the 20th century.
To understand the influence of Cezanne, you have to know something of the artist himself.
He was born in Aix-en-Provence in southern France in 1839. His father was a well-to-do banker who disapproved of his son's interest in art and forced him to study law instead. Law didn't take; paint did.
Cezanne was a rough, stubborn man, with intense dark eyes and a Mediterranean face, later dipped in a thick Ulysses S. Grant beard.
His boyhood friend was the novelist Emile Zola, and when they were young, the two planned to change the course of art and literature.
Zola remembered, "We were drunk with the hope of overthrowing everything in the future so as to reveal a new art of which we would be the prophets."
Cezanne went through many periods of experimentation, moving to Paris, studying with the Impressionist godfather Camille Pissarro, failing miserably to attract a buying public and eventually skulking back to Aix - a little like failing to make a dent in Manhattan and moving back to Omaha.
"The world does not understand me," he said. "And I do not understand the world. That is why I have withdrawn from it."
Sense of substance
This lack of understanding is the failure of the past to see the future: Painting was then understood to be a visual depiction of the world; a canvas was a metaphorical window through which we were meant to "see."
But for the revolutionary painter, the canvas was an object in itself, not a window to something else. This was the breakthrough that led to Modernism.
The great 20th-century critic Clement Greenberg described the problem that preoccupied Cezanne as "translating volume and distance to a flat surface without denying its flatness."
Cezanne was showing not this is what an apple looks like, but rather, this is how an apple looks in a painting.
His critics thought he was an awkward painter who couldn't draw well. But he simply wasn't interested in whether the apples created the illusion of reality. He wanted you to pay attention to the paint, not the fruit.
If you were to compose music to describe those apples, you could not literally transcribe them, but would find some aural analogy - in the language and vocabulary of music. Cezanne finds that analogy in the language and vocabulary of paint.
The result is what Woody Allen, in the film "Manhattan," put into his list of things that make life worth living: "Those incredible apples and pears by Cezanne."
There were other things that made his paintings memorable: His sense of formal structure was classical, he used brushstrokes to create the sense of weight and substance in his apples and pears, he knew how to balance color across a canvas and how to use contrasting colors to make each seem more intense. He may not have understood the world, but he understood green better than anyone who'd ever lived.
No painter had a wider range of greens and blues, each as distinct as a word in a dictionary.
He also freed the painting from its snapshot sense of time.
The Impressionists who came before him were seeking to capture fleeting moments, their instant impressions of the way things looked in a certain light or season.
Where Monet painted the moment, Cezanne sought the monumental, the eternal: what this apple or landscape would look like if time didn't exist.
"I want to make of Impressionism something solid and lasting, like the art in the museums," he said.
To do that, he sought the primal shapes of things, and not their idiosyncratic particularities. He generalized, the way he believed the Old Masters did.
"Treat nature by the cylinder, the sphere and the cone," he said.
A new point of view
Look for the simplified shapes. There you will find the solid structure of things.
"If one word ties Modernism together, it is simplification," says Jim Ballinger, Phoenix Art Museum director. "It is bringing the work of art down to the essence of itself, down to its core essence and putting that on canvas in an expressive way. For Cezanne, that meant in geometric or mathematical ways, like Cubism in gestation."
And finally, he ended the tyranny of the single point of view. We take it for granted, with our reliance on the photograph, that we see from a single point, like a lens when the shutter is snapped, but Cezanne recognized that we see from two angles at once - from two different eyes, with different vantage points - and that we see in continuity as we move around a subject. He decided to try to put that multiple viewpoint into his canvases.
"He painted what it looks like from above, and from the side at the same time," Smith says. "You can see the jug from the side, but the top of the jug from overhead. That's something the Cubists could take from Cezanne."
And take they did. More than any of his contemporaries, Cezanne opened up into the future. It's what the painter himself would have expected. He never quite felt he had finished the job he set for himself.
A few great painters sum up an era, capping it with their work; Cezanne is instead a beginning, setting up problems for later artists to work out.
"With Cezanne's death came his apotheosis," wrote author Willard Huntington Wright in 1915. "Thousands rushed in and cleverly imitated his surfaces, his color gamuts, his distortions of line. His . . . ruddy apples and twisted fruit-dishes have lately become the etiquette of sophistication. . . . Cezanne's significance lies in his gifts to the painters of the future, to those serious and solitary (individuals) whose insatiability makes them . . . explorers in new fields."
'Cezanne and American Modernism'
When: July 1-Sept. 26. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; noon-5 p.m. Sundays; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Wednesdays; and 6-10 p.m. First Fridays. Special hours: Noon-5 p.m. next Sunday, July 4, and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. July 5.
Where: Phoenix Art Museum, 1625 N. Central Ave.
Admission: $10, $8 for seniors and students, $4 for ages 6-17, free for children 5 and younger.
Details: 602-257-1222, phxart.org.
View 'Cezanne' art
7/1-9/26: 'Cezanne and American Modernism' at Phoenix Art Museum
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