The Studies of Cezanne.
The artist Paul Cezanne (1839 – 1906) is without doubt one of the greatest painters of modern times. And yet he has only rarely considered his own paintings as accomplished works. He called them studies.
It is a small detail which might not provoke much thought for many of us, assuming that we have been sufficiently alert to notice it. But submitting to the wisdom of a great art historian like Jean-Claude Lebensztejn, it becomes a starting point of a magnificent exposition on the work of Cezanne to the birth of modernism.
Let’s listen to him now:
When working on Cezanne I was intrigued by the most unusual frequency in the way which Cezanne uses the word study to talk about his paintings. In his last ten years the painter, who no longer signed his paintings left only the studies of which none could be said to be finished.
The word study comes from the Latin studium. A noun which appears in the French language in the 12th century in the masculine estudie or estude and it indicates first of all, this word etude indicates first of all the application, particularly the intellectual application intended to acquire the knowledge and also the specific place intended to protect it, then much later at the end of 17th century only the work which is referred to in this way. It was used in the language of the Beaux-Arts at the time when the Beaux Arts desired a status comparable to the status of poetry, which is to say a liberal status, at a time of growth in the academies. The academies established a number of refinements: an esquisse is the first attempt to decide the main lines of the composition, a ebauche is the trace of the same composition on the definitive support, and an etude is a detailed work on a natural or artistic model, that can be plaster for example, aimed to be included in the finished work or also to give the artist practice in the different areas of his work.
It is the era of the Romantic Movement, at the end of the 18th century, when the idea of the study was merited:
I quote constable: “All truly original painting is a study separated and governed by laws which are peculiar to it”. In other words the study becomes an experimental ground not just for the thing being painted but for new artistic laws against the academic pretension of imposing universal laws on the arts. The cannon of works submits to a pre-established form, the study creates its own form. That’s its character, let’s say, revolutionary.
During the whole of the 19th century you see the conflict between the romantics and the defenders of the cannon of works, which saw a terrible drift in this love of the studies.
The spirit of the impressionist arts does not adapt well to a system of division as industry does. We have even seen an important method of working through fragments and of making these separate pieces extinguish, be it in poetry, be it in painting the facility to compose large and to create a whole. It is in a whole there is something other than the parts, there is the worth of their union, the principle of life and movement in a work, there is the charm of the unity or of the harmony which becomes its spirit.
Baudelaire accuses Theodore Rousseau of error, I quote “in the famous modern fault which produced a blind love of nature nothing but nature. He takes a simple study for a composition, a shimmering marsh a mass of wet grasses and inlaid with luminous patches, a rough tree trunk, a cottage with a flowering roof, a little piece of nature has finally become to his loving eyes a picture sufficient and perfect.”
Talking of a study, it is in a certain way reducing to nothing the established society. It is a sentiment which passes throughout the 19th century. Flaubert for example wrote to Louise Collet on 23rd October 1846: “I am obliged to write for me alone, for my own personal distraction, I have no need to be supported in my studies by the idea of any recompense, and the most strange thing, is that occupying myself with art, I do not believe any more in other things because at the bottom of my belief there is nothing else to have.”
The process which became achieved with the impressionist era where the work finished the sketch and the study collapsed one upon the other for making only one category starting with the romantics. And one could say to this point of view that Cezanne is a more profound romantic.
If Cezanne comes out of the romantic in a certain way, his eye is on the future.
What is clear is that Cezanne hasn’t the least doubt about his own genius. In 1874 when he was plunged in the impressionist bath at the time of the first impressionist exhibition he wrote to his mother: “I am beginning to find myself much stronger than those around me. And you know that the good opinion that I have of myself is only wise”. And 32 years later and a week before his death he confided to his son: “All my compatriots are stupid next to me”.
Cezanne wasn’t a defender of the study in itself: he believed in the complete work. He was fanatical in his search for perfection:
At the end of 115 sittings, Vollard said that Cezanne would say to him the celebrated expression: “I am not displeased with the front of the shirt”.
For him, these studies were searches for form, of representations which corresponded to the world on the move to which he belonged. At the time of the romantics, the questions on the nature of the representations had already begun to be asked:
There are not the designs in nature where everything is complete. There are only the outlines. It is the outlines which make the drawing. Roughly speaking for the romantic tradition, let’s say, like Delacroix.
Cezanne pushes this research further:
Cezanne himself completely transforms these views by saying that there are not only drawings but equally there are not outlines there is only what he calls adjustment, there are only relationships, discontinuous relationships of elements which create a fragmented whole. That’s to say that which in some ways substitutes itself to the outline to the continuous original between fragments and totality, it’s the idea I would say of a kind of crystallisation of fragments.
This generally held idea of discontinuity is something you find equally in the scientific world, in the world of mathematics with Quantor, in the world of quantum physics, all this at the turn of the 19th century and of the 20th century in structural language or pre-structural when speaking of that of Saussure, all the elements in which the ideas of discontinuity become a driving force for the research of avant-garde. And I think it is in that context that, let’s say, the Cezanne study can be understood.
There are parallels in music as well:
Let’s say that the musical form at this time, let’s say roughly, of Debussy, who broke up the key system, who did it as if there wasn’t a previous form, a united form but which made it as if the form created itself starting with itself in a certain way is really the order of the etude in the sense that the etude creates its own form. One could say the opposite, I would say between the formal academic and the formal avant-garde it is the opposition between that which Debussy I think calls, I believe the sonata box, in which there is a pre-established form in which one pours in some way its form, and a form which is above all of the last Debussy, exactly that of games or studies, of studies of Debussy which are a work in which the form gradually creates itself as the idea progresses. I think that it is just there that the study brings some thing new with regard to the study, let’s say, romantic or romantic tradition. You have the same idea of form which creates its form.
Cezanne believed in the work but unceasingly he put off his working. To the critic Roger Marx who had according to the rules of painting formed favourable opinions on his part, Cezanne wrote a little before his death in January1905: my age and my health will never permit me to realise the art dream that I have followed all my life but I would be always grateful to the amateur public who have had throughout my hesitations the intuition of that which I wanted to try in order to renew my art. “It is the idea of definitive realisation which is in some way reported definitively in the Greek calendar and which there replaces in Cezanne the idea of progress of slow progress. With the word study the term of slow progress appears more and more in his letters. He says to Emile Bernard on 12th May 1904: “I proceed very slowly and nature is very complex and the progress to do is incessant”. And in 1905: “As you wrote to me I believe in effect I have again achieved some very slow progress with the studies that you saw at my house”. And a month before his death he wrote to him again: “I always study nature and it seems to me that I make slow progress.
The slow progress of Cezanne is taken up again by his successors. The question of the nature of representation is going to take a central place in modern art. And the irony is that in this evolution, the idea of the study which was conceived by Cezanne is going to disappear as well.
It is all there, the place the spectator takes in its entirety; these are the terms that he uses, which become the method of expression. Not this bit, that bit, not the other bit, Cezanne who stayed fixed for 20 minutes on one point of his design to pull it from the motive to nature and put it on his picture, it’s more than that. It’s truly the totality which comes out. I would say the place of the structure. So there is a kind of reversal because at the bottom the design has no place to be in a particular way. The design has almost disappeared. It is now in the head. With this period, let’s say, of expressionism and abstraction, of the first abstraction, there is now no return to nature, so there is no study. The study is that which must make itself in the presence of a pattern nevertheless. That’s to say you must always have this taking of the natural fragment to make it an artistic object, and after Cezanne that in some ways disappeared.
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