What Cézanne saw

Paul Cézanne’s Portrait of the artist at fond rose was probably created in 1875. It’s on loan to the Art Institute of Chicago from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris for this exhibition. Credit: Adrien Didierjean for RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource NY

“Cézanne, he’s the greatest of us all.” – Claude Monet to Georges Clemenceau in conversation, cited in translation in The Paintings of Paul Cézanne: A Catalog Raisonné (trans. John Rewald, Abrams, 1996).

There are some entities and influences on our work that we take for granted, as though they were always there and it’s impossible to conceive of a world without them. I felt that way at the Chicago Theater over a decade ago listening to Leonard Cohen in concert. The idea that the old man in the sharp suit on stage wrote all those songs was a circle I had trouble squaring. Same with Cézanne. For anyone involved with perceptual painting, he’s like a giant boulder blocking the path. No way to ignore it or pretend it’s not there. No turning back either, unless you’re content playacting an alternate reality. What Cézanne did was figure out how to render the act of seeing.

It’s intimidating for a painter like me to write about Paul Cézanne. It’s like trying to describe or explain God. Why bother? No words suffice. It just is and what I do could not exist without what this guy did over a hundred years ago. It’s not a debt that can be repaid or even adequately grasped.

It is a vision that centers subjectivity, motion, and change, rather than stability, hierarchy, or order. Probably no coincidence that he worked out his methods at the same time when Nietzsche was killing God. Nobody who believes in a benevolent creator fashioning and guiding the universe could see their surroundings in the slippery and undependable way Cézanne saw his environment.

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