Cézanne … The Thing That Persists

July 27, 2017

Paul Cezanne, The Basket of Apples, c. 1893
(Art Institute of Chicago)

Let’s talk about Cezanne.

I spent a few weeks in Chicago earlier this summer and had a chance to take some long looks at paintings by Cézanne at the Art Institute of Chicago. Visually, these paintings are forceful and deeply satisfying, but what I find to be especially compelling are the ideas they embody.

First, a contrast.

Cézanne followed the Impressionists and absorbed some of their ideas, but ultimately went in a different direction, choosing to pursue substance over surface. The Impressionists wanted to capture the fleeting moment—what something looks like right now rather than an hour ago or a month from now. They focused on the way the light plays off the surfaces, because it’s the surface that changes as the light shifts according to the time of day, the weather, the season.

Cézanne was more interested in that which persisted even while the light changed—the thingy-ness of the thing. Here, it’s the round firmness of the apple, the smooth solidity of the bottle, the dry crispness of the biscuits. The cloth, for example, is not simple a backdrop for the fruit; Cézanne makes it substantive. It has a real presence as it bunches up around the fruit. These things are real, solid objects in a physical space, not just a collection of surfaces for the transitory effects of color and light.

This choice gets at a philosophical difference regarding metaphysics, or what is really real.

What is more real: the way we perceive things from our specific and subjective point of view or the way those things actually are apart from our perception of them? Cézanne seems to assert that truth is found in the thing that persists, not in shifting perceptions. I appreciate the Impressionists’ awareness that modern life is inherently superficial and ephemeral. They capture not only images that are fleeting, but also the “reality” of subjective experience, all in the guise of pretty pictures.

But Cézanne rejects their interest in surfaces, which are ultimately empty, even meaningless. Instead, he tries to convey the substance that exists behind the surfaces. That substance is what is real because it is the thing that persists—it is both consistent and universal. That’s what is true.

This extends beyond how he paints individual objects to how he approaches the overall composition—the structure of the painting itself. The strong diagonal, firmly planted on a broad horizontal base and balanced with the vertical and horizontal elements of the bottle and biscuits. It is both stable and dynamic, precisely because he draws upon the time-honored fundamental principles of composition.

When I look at an Impressionist still-life, I see shimmery, effervescent forms that could dissolve in a moment. But in Cézanne’s I feel as if I can reach into that painting, grab a hold of that fruit, and sink my teeth into it. It’s satisfying.

Perhaps it’s satisfying precisely because I am keenly aware of how subjective experience determines our understanding of truth. We can’t escape our point of view entirely, so knowing objective truth seems virtually impossible.

But at the same time, I long for truth to be objectively known. I want to know. I want others to know.

So Cézanne offers a compelling vision. Forget all the subjective surfaces, and trust that truth—real objective truth—is real, persistent, steady, and compelling. It’s as real as that taut round pear or that starched linen tablecloth. Hold on to that.

And take that, Impressionists. Ha.


One Response to “Cézanne … The Thing That Persists”

  1. Obviously, you are not a Buddhist, nor a physicist. Your solid apple is a mass of energy, millions, trillions of subatomic particles spinning around each other in ever changing patterns. The solid nature of Cezanne’s apple is as much an illusion as Monet’s shimmering landscapes. The only constant, the only truth is never-ending change.

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