Friday, March 12, 2010

What's with Cezanne?

All roads appear to lead through the 19th century to Cezanne, and then all roads appear to lead again from him. At least this seems to be the story told by art history.

If you love the work of Cezanne, then maybe there is no mystery here, but for me, who likes some of it, but is constantly shocked but how bad much of it is, as if there were two artists, a bad one, and an ok one, it makes no sense. The sense of it is, I expect, that it was not the work that made him the figurehead of the 20th century, but something else, something peculiar to the 20th century maybe. This was the hype, I suppose it might be called, and the attraction of his work as it came to be written about.

He can't draw. That is well known, and early identified by Robert Fry, his early champion (well- 1920s anyway). And his contemporaries thought him to be dead, except for a small stash of paintings. What was it that Gauguin saw? That Tanguay saw? What was it that attracted them? Why did Bernard go track him down?

This is what Robert Fry tries to identify, and Clive Bell, and all the apologists who followed those who claimed Cezanne as their father. Such as the cubists, and fauvists. etc. Fry said he never made a mistake with color. I can see that, I see that it seems right. The color is often really great. Not always, sometimes its like a total amateur painted, but sometimes it is amazing. I see that. And his watercolors, as printed in carol armstrongs book (now out of print and costing over $200 used!), are really amazing, though i am suspicious of the way they are printed-she had her career to hang on this peg, and ended up at Yale i think, so I dont really get why his wonderful watercolors never really appeared throughout the 20th century publications in the same way.

And there certainly are acceptable great icons, the fruit, the hanged man's house, his portraits of his wife. But the bathers? What's with that? They are terrible. What am i not seeing? Who goes nuts over these distorted figures? Because he attempted to make Impressionism ok for a museum? Poussin? A triangle of figures- is that so difficult and profound? Its plainly just bad, bad, bad. And he did it again and again, reaching for something. Too embarrassed to actually look at a naked body to get it close to right. That seems like pure craziness, or laziness. And in getting it so wrong, its not even like interestingly wrong. Just bad. What is going on here? Why do so many go nuts over this? What skill or insight is being displayed besides doggedness and frustration?

It isn't as if there hasn't been 100 years of people dissecting this, and learning to love his work, and its importance. Or conversely, hating it. I realize that. I realize that i should like it, that i should be able to get more into his head and understand what he was trying to do in seeing the reality behind the reality, in his "sensations." But even he said he missed the mark in his own work, and was frustrated. He's the legitimized outsider, that becomes main stream somehow. I read his letters, and accounts of him, and there isn't a lot to really like, or understand, except the stereotype of the crazy lonely guy with a lot of issues. An ego, a frustration, a dedication, a mistrust of everyone, a lucky break to not have to make a living, and a plain meaness. How is that so laudable?

They print, again and again, his first works, the totally bad "Ingres" murals, etc. 4 badly laid out, proportioned, and insipid murals of the seasons, in feminine form. As if this were genius? As a sort of primitive grandma moses sort of thing, as an anonymous painter you'd find in an old house, or in the salvation army, they are interesting. But as the first works of a great 20th century genius, father of all 20th century art? I know it to be true, that in fact, in happened, but it is so hard to see. He could NOT draw. Why was he an artist? What was he getting out of it? What was driving him?

It is something Id like to get, and to get behind me, as it would open up so much. All through the 20th century is the undercurrent of the anti-modern, the anti-non-objectivist painters, the Hoppers, and Wyeth's, and Ashcan school, and now, full circle, we're mining that heritage. No one is going back to the great Abstract Expressionists. They are demonstrably NO ONE's favorites, except for snobs and intellectuals. No one paints like that. You have to have a figure, or a landscape. Isn't that interesting? Some day their time will come again. I love the work, but I like everything in the context of its creation, Cezanne included.

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