Saturday, July 5, 2014

Cezanne and Young Birds

Great-crested Flycatcher Fledglings. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

You understand Cezanne didn't know what he was doing. He didn't know how to finish his pictures. Renoir and Monet, they knew their craft as painters...
Cezanne's wife speaking to Matisse after Cezanne's death as quoted in Cezanne by John Rewald.

You'll be captivated by his deliberate and compact arrangements, the richness and novelty of his paintings........
From a brochure from the Barnes Foundation advertising The World is an Apple: The Still Life of Paul Cezanne.

Poor Cezanne. I might also have titled this post Cezanne: Eternally Misunderstood, and Undervalued. I've been itching to write about him but remembered his own comment about a contemporary artist he thought would be far more successful as an artist if he spent more time painting and less time studying other artists. Sound advice! It is all too easy to get distracted from art itself.

So I was planning to pursue my art work and not write about him and the marvelous book I just finished reading, based mainly on his writings and those of his contemporaries, by John Rewald. As I thought about what I'd want to write about these young Great-crested Flycatchers seen at Morris Arboretum in Philadelphia today however I thought about how common they are, at least for avid birdwatchers.

Beautiful though they are many birders don't go looking for them or quite a few other striking breeding birds at this time of year. The birds are too predictable I guess. Nothing new to check off the list. Nothing exotic. Cezanne exemplified the opposite of this. He painted the same themes around Aix in France over and over. As he said just shifting his view a bit presented an entirely new opportunity to paint. He didn't need the exotic.

That's the way birds are I think, if you'll just consider them in their environment. They present endless possibilities, a phrase that generally makes me cringe because I know most of the time it means the opposite. Cezanne though shows how monumental art can be made from the most common subjects.

Because Cezanne was so workmanlike in his methods, so devoted to painting and yet also so self-doubting it's sad to see that even his wife, though they weren't at all close, didn't see his value as an artist. And the Barnes Foundation shows itself not to be all that much better when it commends the novelty of his paintings. The last thing in the world that Cezanne wanted to be was novel. I can't believe their copywriters could actually write that and that they'd let it go to press. But in an age where advertising is more important than anything and truth less important than just about anything then I guess it's no surprise.

Still it was shocking to read, and has more or less prevented me from responding to their letter asking me to join. Sometimes you just have to stand for something, just as Cezanne did. It's difficult to think about joining an institution that holds so many Cezannes and yet seems to show such little appreciation for them.

In any case I'd like to say I show some sign of imitating Cezanne in the quick watercolor sketch above. I don't at all. I had to think of this when I read that sometimes he'd spend a year on a painting. This was done in 90 minutes. But there is at least the vague similarity of knowing that all of nature can be a never ending source of inspiration.

For all this though I haven't mentioned what I think is the greatest insult to Cezanne, that he is progenitor of abstraction and modern art. In one sense, the liberation of color, I think he was. Perhaps also in that his paintings often seem flatter than paintings that came before him.But he always used color to try to portray his sensation in front of nature. Modern art, of which I've been a long time practitioner, seems to like to forget about the nature part of the equation. He never intended, nor I think encouraged anyone, to break away completely from nature. He just sought to portray it in the way he experienced it.


Gabrielle said...

This is a great post, Ken. I had no idea Cezanne got such bad press (even from his wife - ouch!). I've always loved his style and his work. I'll have to add the book by Rewald to my list of books to look for in all the wonderful used bookstores in Philly and NYC.

You talk about the great-crested flycatcher as being considered "common" by some birders. Well, I guess those people would be really puzzled by my spending some fifteen to twenty minutes watching a family of white-breasted nuthatches at my father-in-law's birdfeeder this morning. Talk about a common bird! I love their coloring, their personalities, their call. I can never get enough of nuthatches, no matter how "common" they are. It was such a delight to see the young ones chasing the parent up a tree, begging for food.

Ken Januski said...

Hi Gabrielle,

I'm glad that you liked the post. I'm always a little hesitant to post something so strong but in the end I normally do so and just hope for the best.

I didn't realize until I read the book how little self-confidence Cezanne had, though at the same time he could be supremely confident. He was not at all close to his wife so her view is not a complete surprise. But still!

Cezanne tried forever to get into the Salon shows and as I recall never did except for once or twice when his work was allowed as 'the student of so and so.' Even when he showed with the Impressionists who at that time weren't very warmly received, his work was singled out for particular criticism.

I could go on forever but I'd just say he is one of the best examples I've ever seen of someone who struggled tremendously to articulate his vision. And in the end he did. To me he's probably the best, or at least my favorite, painter of the 19th century.

I think that there's no end of enjoyment in seeing young birds and their behavior. I don't think we've ever gotten nuthatches at our feeders but if we did they would be a treat to see. It makes perfect sense to me that you would spend 15-20 minutes watching and enjoying them!