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ART

The geometry of representation

MADHU JAIN

A landmark exhibition in Washington celebrates the work of Paul Cezanne.



Ubiquitous mountain: The Montagne Sainte Victoire, in a Cezanne oil painting, from 1896-98. Photo: AP

SOME years ago, in a major show of a dozen contemporary French artists at the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi, there was an intriguing series of "paintings", each one made up of just frames. The author of the work declared that Paul Cezanne had taken painting to the end of its journey: there was nothing any artist coming after him could add. It was the last word, or, should one say, stroke of paint on canvas — the reason this painter had eschewed canvas.

Paving the way

Cezanne (1839-1906) occupies a godly place in the canon of art, rather like a master-guru for the artists who followed him. Younger painters like Braque, Picasso, Matisse and Mondrian were to derive the foundations for cubism and glean the embryonic stirrings of Modernism from his later oeuvre. It was the landscape of Provence in southern France that enabled Cezanne to pick up the European tradition of art where he found it, take it by its hand and yank it forward, leading it into totally uncharted directions. He did this by carrying out fundamental changes to painting, breaking as it were from conventional representation. And most importantly, colluding with geometry. Among the painter's most quoted statements is: "Render nature by means of the cylinder, the sphere and the cone, all placed in perspective".

A landmark exhibition titled "Cezanne in Provence" that opened recently at the National Gallery of Art, Washington to commemorate his death centenary cogently depicts the importance of Provence in the life and work of the painter.

Cezanne's muse

Cezanne was born in Aix, once the capital of Provence, and returned to the countryside around the city for good in the 1880s after the mandatory years in Paris and later in Pontoise and Auvers, during which he stalked the museums, learned to paint, was drawn to the work of Gustave Courbet and familiarised himself with impressionism, especially the paintings of Camille Pissarro who impressed upon him the need to get out of the studio with his palette and paint outdoors. The show (comprised 87 paintings and 30 watercolours, a majority of them from museums and private collections in the United States) will, fittingly, move to the Granet Museum in Aix-en-Provence this summer. A coming home of sorts.

What makes this show particularly exhilarating is the way it depicts Cezanne's gradual shedding of the academic influences of Paris and his trajectory towards inventing his own pictorial vocabulary and grammar, with the Provence countryside as his muse. Though limited to the work Cezanne did in this region, the range of the paintings is wide and diverse, from his early efforts to, literally, his last work: a melancholic portrait of his old gardener with arthritic hands and sunken cheeks — like a late Rembrandt self-portrait where the passing of time has been unflinchingly cruel. Initially, the painter used a knife instead of a brush and a sombre palette with heavily impastoed paint. Apparently a Parisian critic sarcastically remarked that with his "Provencale temperament" Cezanne "painted not only with knife but a pistol." His later, more nuanced work, has lighter brushwork and his obsession with pictorial structure and nature is evident. The brilliant Mediterranean sun had obviously changed his palette: blues, greens, oranges predominate.

Parallel track

Cezanne once said that "Art is a harmony that runs parallel to nature". The painter never strayed from this parallel track: it changed his perceptions of colour and forms. Pines, rocks, alleys of chestnut trees increasingly inhabit his work. Montagne Sainte Victoire in particular became his touchstone — even when he moved from one village or town to another (it is to Cezanne's work what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris) he was always within painting distance of the ubiquitous mountain. Critics have described it as the "leitmotif of the show". When Cezanne returned to settle permanently in Provence, he moved to his father's summer home in Jas de Baffon. In his early paintings of his home you can merely glimpse Montagne Sainte Victoire, but then as the painter moves around in the area, he includes more and more of the mountain and you see it from every possible angle.

And towards the end of his life and the exhibition the mountain quivers into abstraction: something strange appears to be going. It's almost as if the painter's beloved mountain has imbibed human passions. Moreover, these landscapes with the mountains, houses, fields and trees, comprised "patches" of colours in the many renderings of it between 1902 and 1906, veer towards abstraction. Cezanne's interaction with Pissarro had convinced him that he should "paint patches of colour" rather achieve the desired results by "modeling tones of light and shade". "To read nature is to see it," he said, "by means of colour patches, following upon each other according to a law of harmony."

In a sense Cezanne was a strange hybrid, not quite free of the academic traditions of Western art in his compositions and penchant for landscapes and uncannily precluding the future with his use of "patches of colour" and cubes and other geometrical shapes to construct landscapes.

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