Posted: May 11, 2009 in Braak

Paul_CezanneWhat?  I can write about Cezanne if I want to.  I am cultured.  I know about art and shit.

Paul Cezanne was a famous, late 19th century “Post Impressionist,” and was apparently very important.  They just did an exhibition about him at the Philadelphia Art Museum, and they had his paintings, and a bunch of paintings by people who were influence by them (Picass, Braque, Matisse, Johns), along with effusive quotations about how great he was.

I don’t know if he was great or not, I don’t know a god-damn thing about art.  I didn’t even listen to the audio tour at the exhibit, because I hate being one of those people in a crowded room, wearing headphones and drifting insensibly around, bumping into people, getting in everyone’s way.  I hate guys like that.

So, I will tell you what I know, which is that I like Cezanne.  There’s something about his brushstrokes, especially on the oils, that make it look like you’re looking at everything through a rainy window–it’s particularly obvious when you see the paintings in person; kind of hard to tell from these.


He’ s got these bold outlines around everything, forcing your eye to prioritize certain things above others, making you look at a subject the way he sees it.


In a number of his watercolors, he’s left the sketch lines in, so the line of limbs here or there might actually be the sum of a half a dozen incomplete lines, again actively forcing us to make sense of what we see–instead of capturing a particular instant or image, Cezanne is giving us a painting as a process of seeing.

He’s interested in painting things the way he sees them, not the way they look, which must be why he was so appealing to Picasso.  Once Cezanne says, “Yes, I don’t really care about using the actual, natural image as a test for how good my painting is,” he opens the door to Picasso saying, “Yes, I want to see if I can draw all the sides of this woman’s head at once.”  Picasso (and Braque) leap through Cezanne’s open door, and aggressively distort form and perspective, experimenting with how deformed a shape can be and still be recognizable, with what something would look like if you were some kind of weird Martian with the power to look at an object from all directions at once.

And then there’s Matisse.  Matisse is actually the most weirdly narcissistic of Cezanne’s fans–the quotes from him are things like, “I knew if Cezanne was right, then I must be right–and Cezanne must be right!”

And also, I hate his ugly paintings.

Or, at least, I hated the painting that were in the exhibit.  Where Cezanne has what looks like a deliberate incompleteness, and Picasso’s work has this studied sense of distortion, Matisse just looked like he wasn’t trying very hard.


“I am Henri Matisse,” he said, “I will paint tits however I want!  There, ten minutes, done!  Someone bring me a prostitute!”

I assume this is generally how Matisse conducted himself.  But, for real, there’s just something about a painting like this that makes it look like it’s not very good.  Like, when you were a kid, and they made you look at a famous work of art, and then make a copy of it using chalk?  And the final product is recognizably the painting you were look at, only instead of looking like it was made by a brilliant painter with oil paint, it looks like it was made by a fifth -grader using chalk?  This looks like my chalk copy of some really good painting somewhere.

In conclusion:  I don’t know.  Cezanne is cool?  Matisse can suck it.  That’s all I’ve got.

  1. V.I.P. Referee says:

    By “art and shit” I’ll assume you’re referring to Chris Ofili’s “Holy Virgin Mary” to which I’ll add “truly, it stinks”.

    “…There’s something about his brushstrokes, especially on the oils, that make it look like you’re looking at everything through a rainy window…” —what a perfect way of describing Cezanne’s work. Not only do the strokes themselves give the glassy impression of composition-through-a-rainy-window, but he seems to have captured and secured the characteristic textures of wet paint—the unexpected depths, velvety nuances and uncured pigment blends. His paint seems forever wet, vibrant–immediate.

    I agree with your Matisse criticisms, despite the unique expressiveness I’ve found in his early work—-from what I’ve gathered, he refused to acknowledge that shadows had a place in painting and went through this self-grandiose period, raving that paper cut-outs pasted on poster board was the product of only his creative brilliance. Not so. Case in point; Picasso had already mastered paper-cut-out pieces, having fashioned exquisite bulls and animals in free form. He decided to move on from that period at seven years old, having realized his unique perspective required more exploration than what cutting paper would allow. Matisse decided to pursue paper-cutting after painting for most of his youth—by the 50’s, his work was primarily about totally simplistic contrasts of form and color…oversimplified, perhaps, to the point of erasing the essence of an image.

    Warhol later played on similar irony after having developed his artistic eye between the 30’s and early 60’s–an explosive growth period in the realm of graphic design. I’m not a particular fan of his work, but at least it doesn’t give the impression of a subject taken too seriously—up close, you immediately feel a sense of the mundane, presented with a strong eye for object arrangement and design, but little technical, artistic skill (contrasted with the highly structured, labored, hand-heavy works of earlier Dutch masters). Warhol explicitly marketed “Warhol”, tyeing already iconic images to his name, inevitably establishing artistic monumentalism because of it. Matisse cast-off both creative perspectives and decided, instead, to make “Matisse” the focus of his art–not influences of culture, not form, not abstract theory. Point: It’s likely the most significant tool in Matisse’s studio was Matisse.

    Something else: Many famous artists have been identified as synesthetes—those who experience overwhelming sensory projections and overlapped sensations (kind of like experiencing everything in hyper-technicolor and smell-o-vision, all put to the sountrack of a “THX” trade trailer/sound test)–some have even been identified as having rare optical disorders. Cezanne may have been seeing shadows and lines strongly contrasted against color–like a synesthete would. Perhaps he painted more than what he saw and how he saw it, instead entering the realm of taste and scent associations and how those made him feel. More than painting a peach, he painted sensory sensations associated with “peach”.

  2. threatqualitypress says:

    Hm. Jasper Johns had a few really neat comments on “The Bather,”–that the richly textured image had a synaesthetic quality, turning “looking” into “touching.” There’s something interesting about an artist that not only relates the object of his inquiry, but also shares with his audience the process of that inquiry.

    It might even be, dare I say, the point.

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