Paul Cézanne: The father of modern art | National Gallery


Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to the National Gallery
and to today’s talk. My name is Rosalind McKever and I’m the Harry M. Weinrebe
Curatorial Fellow for post-1800 paintings. I’m so glad to see so many of you
have joined today to take the opportunity
to look and to think about Paul Cézanne’s “Large Bathers”. And I say look and think because with Cézanne
you can’t do one without the other. Cézanne is interested in sensations, both the physical sensations of the world
and how we perceive it and how they combine
with our internal sensations. So I want you to think about this as you’re looking at the picture,
as you’re thinking about it, and thinking whether or not you like it. I imagine, given that you’ve come
to hear me talk for half-an-hour about it, that you like it –
I’ll take that as my starting point. So what do I mean “looking and thinking”,
“looking and feeling” at the same time? I’ll give you an example. I am looking at this painting
while at the same time as being stood in front
of a large group of people who are looking at me. Maybe, therefore, I feel some empathy with these women in the picture
that are being looked at, but at least I’m getting to talk. Maybe you, as the audience, as you’re looking at this
with cameras behind you that are looking over your heads, much like these women who are being
viewed from behind for the most part, and you’re there silent,
having to listen to me, maybe you feel some empathy, or not,
with these figures. Maybe something that’s happened
in your day, something that’s happening in the room,
is affecting your looking, you’re not looking without thinking. So if we’re thinking in terms of,
do we like this picture? It’s interesting for me to go back to 1964 when the Gallery first bought it, as this caused a bit of a scandal, people weren’t happy that the Gallery
had paid so much money for this picture. And the cause
of their consternation was… …that it was an imperfect representation of the female form. And I want you to think about this too: is how well Cézanne is giving you
an illusion of space, an illusion of bodies, affecting whether or not
you like this picture? And Cézanne is rather divisive
on this front. In 1905, a year before Cézanne died, in an art journal in Paris, the question was asked:
what do you make of Cézanne? And people gave
rather contradictory answers. He was either an emptier of cesspits or he was the originator
of modern painting. And that’s an interesting point
in relation to the figuration,
the representation we see here, and the beginnings of abstraction
we see here, and where we are stood now. We are in Room 41 of the National Gallery, which at present contains
the most modern pictures that we have in our collection. We’re actually at the southeast edge of the National Gallery, looking at paintings from around 1900. If you want to see paintings made after this, made later than this, in Britain’s national collections, you have to go about a mile and a half through this wall to Tate Modern. And so, when we talk about painting
before and after Cézanne, there is a very physical boundary
in this sense. It’s interesting that I always think
of this painting as the end of the story
that our collection tells of painting in the European tradition, but if you go to the Museum of Modern Art
in New York, it is with a Cézanne’s “Bathers” that they traditionally begin their story. So this is really an artist
at painting’s crossroads. And in this room, if you look around you, you’ll see other artists from this period. We have, to the wall over there,
late Monet, and the wall opposite
we have Picasso and Matisse. Painters of the avant-garde, painters who you’d expect
to be iconoclastic, painters you might not expect to find… …as it once was, in a museum. But Cézanne is a little different. Cézanne, for me, is a museum painter
par excellence. And I’ll come back to explain why. So, a little on Cézanne to get us going. So Paul Cézanne is born in Provence
in the south of France in 1839. His father, who you can see
in the large painting over there, wanted Cézanne to go to law school. Cézanne, however, wanted to be an artist. So he goes to Paris. The painting to the left of his father probably shows Cézanne’s studio in Paris in 1865. And in Paris he met up
with an old childhood friend. He just happened to be childhood friends
with Émile Zola, the great champion of Manet, the great writer and champion of Manet, and so Paul Cézanne gets
a rather good entrée into the modern art world of Paris, but he completely does not fit in. He does exhibit in 1874 with the artists who came to be known
as “The Impressionists”, and this association was very important
for him in that… …Camille Pissarro,
one of the Impressionists, encouraged him to start painting
‘en plein air’, outdoors, and it also really lightened
his colour palette. So if you look at the two Cézannes
I’ve mentioned on that wall, they’re both very dark, but the rest of this wall behind me
is all Cézanne, and you’ll see that it’s much lighter,
it’s much fresher because of that relationship
with the Impressionists. However, Cézanne said
that he had very different goals to the French Impressionists. He said that he wanted
“to make of Impressionism something solid and durable, like the art of museums.” And this is where we see Cézanne
going beyond Impressionism, this is why we refer to him
as a Post-Impressionist, because he has these very different goals, although the word Post-Impressionism
was only coined in 1910, four years after his death. This is a very late Cézanne painting, although it was painted
over a long period, started around 1894, finished 1905, so the year before his death. Now, as you can work out from those dates,
Cézanne was not a quick painter. The Impressionists were famous
for painting quickly. Cézanne, although this is
rather an extreme case, is known for painting slowly. He’s very slow and methodical,
he takes his time, he’s looking and very carefully transferring his sensation of something he sees, so both the external feeling
and the internal feeling, into one of his little brushstrokes. And you’ll see in most of the pictures
along this wall these very particular,
little diagonal marks that he’s making to build up, to construct a picture, rather than necessarily to draw a picture. And because of this… …approach,
because it takes him a long time to make a picture… …we might be surprised
to see bathers here. You’ll notice that other pictures,
we have the one painting of his father, but otherwise we have
still lives and landscapes, because still lives and landscapes
don’t move, they don’t get bored of you painting them they don’t fidget or get up
and walk out of the studio, because you’re taking too long. So it’s really a surprise, then, that we Cézanne painting human figures. And what’s surprising is that he does this
throughout his career. From the 1870s through to the end
of his life, he is painting bathers. He makes nearly 200 scenes of bathers, both male and female, and this is one of three “Large Bathers”, called “Large Bathers”
literally because the canvas is bigger, and the others are
in the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Barnes Museum,
which is also now in Philadelphia. So what do you do if you want to paint people but you want to spend
a long time doing it? You go to the museum, because there you have
an incredible storehouse of bodies, of figures, of poses, that you can borrow, steal,
however you want to phrase it, and include in your works. And this is what the young Cézanne does,
he goes to the Louvre, and he makes sketches
of classical sculpture, he makes copies of old master painting, and he takes all of these forms and puts them into his compositions. Often he does so in disguise, often it’s quite hard to figure out where he’s taken something from, but we think this figure on the right-hand
side here with her arms forward is taken from a Venus in the Louvre, and this woman lying on her front could be taken from
“The Sleeping Hermaphroditus”, a sculpture also in the Louvre. But he’s not just taking these figures from the museum, he’s taking more. He takes from the museum, from the Louvre, from what he sees there, a challenge, a visual challenge. How do you represent
the physicality, the solidity, of the human body in the open airiness of a landscape? And who sets him this challenge? Other artists of the Venetian Renaissance, so artists like Giorgione and Titian, who are making these scenes. Now in them…
So, for example, with Giorgione you get these scenes that are very
– still to us today – very mysterious. They have little clues that suggest
some kind of narrative is going on, but we maybe haven’t figured out yet
what’s happening. But sometimes with Titian
you get a very clear narrative as to why a whole group of women
are in a landscape, apart from the obvious,
which we’ll come back to. You get figures of Diana, and famously we have in our collection but currently not on display
as they’re in Scotland Titian’s painting of “Diana and Callisto”, where we see Diana
with her all-female entourage, who we might associate
with this picture here. You also, in the Louvre, if you’re
looking for figures in a landscape, find yourself with the French painter
Nicolas Poussin, who’s actually working in Rome, who’s interested in more Arcadian scenes, these sort of rural utopias of figures in a landscape. But we don’t have Venus here,
we don’t have Diana, we don’t have necessarily
an Arcadian scene, although that’s questionable, we have a 19th-century picture of a period when modern life was supposedly your subject. Now, I say that because bathers is a theme that was popular with the Impressionists
and Post-Impressionists and Neo-Impressionists before Cézanne. So, 25 years before Cézanne
started this picture, Monet painted a scene of bathers
which you can find a couple of rooms down
in the National Gallery. And 10 years before Cézanne started this,
you’ll see, you can see actually in the next room, a painting by Seurat of bathers. But Cézanne’s is very different. And I don’t know if any of you
have spotted this yet, but there is no water
in this scene of bathers. Towels, yes. An implication of bathing, yes. But where on earth is the water
for these women to bathe in? Now, in the version of this picture in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the women are sort of divided
in the centre, so you have a bit of space here, you have a strip of water
going across the middle. So they’re not bathers. In the version in the Barnes, you get a sort of picnic situation
in the front. I mean, we’ve got some
what seem to be apples here, slightly like the still life
that we’d expect from Cézanne, but we don’t seem to have much narrative. And this is quite different,
especially the lack of water. When Monet paints bathers, you get the feeling
that he doesn’t really care much for the bourgeois Parisians
who have escaped the city of Paris for a day just to bathe, to bob around in the waters of the Seine. With Seurat, you get a sense
he cares a little more about the weary workers who sit in the industrial outskirts of Paris, ready to bathe in that same river. But here you’re very confident
that the water is not the key to what we’re looking at. So if we have no signs of modern life and we have no water, we have some towels and a few oranges, what is our story here? Who on earth are these women? And what on earth are they doing here? And this is what makes this painting
so intriguing and also problematic. They’re not… We don’t have a sense
of their expressions really, the woman here, we get a sense
that she’s looking out at us, but not necessarily that she’s seeing us, and the rest of the women
are looking down. They’re not interacting
with each other at all. In fact, because of how crowded
the space is, it almost feels like
they’re not in the same space, it’s really like a collage of figures,
of female flesh, that he’s taken out of the Louvre and sort of smashed together here. He’s treating them like objects, he’s treating them
like he treats a still life. But it would be naive to think of these pictures in the same way that we think when we talk
about Titian or someone else. It would be naive to think of these forms as just a stand-in
for some oranges. These are nude female figures
who are being looked upon, who are being painted
for a period of over 10 years by a male artist. That cannot be unseen. However, it was not on these grounds
that in 1964 the British press took offence
to this picture, well as they might. It was, as I said at the beginning, this imperfect representation
of female form. It feels like the British press
would be happier if Cézanne had painted “The Rokeby Venus”. So… …what’s the problem here is that the British press
have slightly missed the point. Because as much as we may be offended
that he’s done so, Cézanne is really interested in form, he wants to turn everything, be it a living, breathing woman or not, into the cylinder, the cone
and the sphere. And that’s what he’s doing here. He’s really breaking these down
as objects. And in doing so, he’s fusing the landscape and the figures. And this is where I come back to this visual challenge that was set to him
by the Venetian Renaissance in that he rather than trying
to separate landscape and figure he’s really fusing them together. This is maybe most obvious over here with the woman leaning forward who… …her figure is so aligned
with the tree… …that she almost becomes it,
but at the same time we have half a sense
that she is in front of the tree. It gives a slight inclination of space. And I encourage you to look very closely
at the spaces in between the figures, the spaces where there should be air
but there’s not, these are the most worked-up bits
of the canvas you can really see him
laying on the paint, working these up in this dark blue,
they’re stifling in that sense. And this blue,
that’s the dark blue of the sky, but it’s not in any sense pushed back as you might expect it to be
in a landscape, it’s really pushing forward into the same plane as these women, and then below you have the same blue
on their outline, which is creating
both a sense of flatness, but then also he’s using the tradition
of using blue to shade the edges of the human body to give a sense of three-dimensionality and at the same time a sense of flatness. Now, that has an incredible consequence
for art history. That’s why we’re at the edge here, and we’re at the end of this story. And this is why
many subsequent generations of artists called Cézanne the “Father of Modern Art”. Matisse, whose work as I said
is opposite us here, actually bought a Cézanne “Bathers”
in 1899, about halfway through
this one being painted, he bought another smaller version
of the “Bathers” and he really took from that this idea of colour as dimension, he took lessons of flatness and surface. And in 1907, the year after Cézanne died, his work was exhibited
at the Salon d’Automne in a large retrospective, and that was visited
by Picasso and Braque, on whom this was very influential. So if you think of the
“Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”, a painting by Picasso from the very same year, 1907, that’s a work that shows us
standing and squatting women in this very compressed space. And he’s painting it in the time that he sees this work for the first time. Braque, too, takes from Cézanne
an interest in form, and he takes very literally, he ends up
going to L’Estaque, where Cézanne painted and Braque paints the forms there,
paints the landscape, and breaks it down into little cubes, and when an art critic
sees those little cubes he calls it “Cubism”, and that’s the beginning of the story of modern painting, very much seen as coming from this. The last modern artist I’ll cite you
is actually a sculptor, a great sculptor of the female figure,
Henry Moore. And Moore said of this picture,
when he saw it in the 1920s, “If I were asked to name
the ten most emotionally intense visual moments of my life, this would be one of them.” I think that’s an interesting quote because he calls this, he says, “the ten most emotionally intense
visual moments”. So emotion and visuality together. The thing that Cézanne
was really working towards is the thing that completely Henry Moore
picks up from it. And I want to leave you with that
and with this thought of the relationship between what you see
and what you feel, because Cézanne,
for the reasons I’ve outlined, became an incredibly important painter for all of these formal,
visual breakthroughs that he makes, but then he becomes,
in the second half of the 20th century, a very problematic artist for us because of the emotional side of things, which the Formalists would have us
completely ignore and we just look at how incredibly visual
he’s made these pictures. But if we’re looking at Cézanne
on his own terms, then you have to remember to both look at how important
this work is formally at the same time
as how you feel about it emotionally. So I don’t know if you feel
the same way about it that you did at the beginning. I don’t know if you’re thinking the same
things or seeing the same things, but I do hope that this talk
at least was enjoyable. Thank you very much.

34 Comments

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *