March 28, 2011

Redrawing Paul Cézanne

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For my spring break I saw art. I love art. My favorite kind of art is pretty. Pretty art is special. My favorite pretty artist is the impressionist painter Cézanne. He makes the most pretty art. This Spring break I saw his pretty art.

There is an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art called “Cézanne’s Card Players.” I saw it, and you should see it too. It was very good. It brought together a group of paintings made around 1890.

Cézanne had a large place in Aix-en-Provence called Jas de Bouffan, where he had some workers working, and those are the people in the paintings, in this group of paintings. They are rural people. The sun made their skin dark. Their faces are all very serious. They do not look sad, though they are not happy. Because he painted his workers, the same people sometimes appear in several paintings. Some lesser-known portraits of these workers were included in this exhibition, which was enlightening because you saw how Cézanne reinterpreted the same people.

Some said that these painting were idealistic portrayals of the country and its peasants. One of these people was Joachim Gasquet, a friend of Cézanne’s. He also loved art, but because he could not make it, he talked about it instead, like me. Of this series of paintings, he said “it was through them . . . that I learned to understand my race completely. They were a beautiful lesson for me.” Maybe, though, this view of these paintings, as an appreciation of a specific region, is wrong.

This may be due to the fact that the paintings depict life, existence and other pretty things, rather than idealize peasant life and the country. Cézanne liked those things too. Cézanne is an artist’s artist, because his technique is so stunning. That is why Matisse thought he was very good, and looked at his paintings whenever he had the chance.

Cézanne had two separate series of paintings named The Card Players. The earlier of these two series depicts three men sitting around a table playing cards. There is a man leaning against the wall behind them, casting a small shadow. There is a curtain on the right of the painting that is a dark yellow. There are pipes on the wall and on the table, linking the themes of cards and pipes, which matters, because there is another painting called The Smoker, that is a part of the group of paintings painted during this time period.

Cézanne was a notable perfectionist, so he never liked his paintings too much. Maybe that is why he kept making new ones. Strangely, though, they did not necessarily get better with revision. For example, the second painting in this series, on display at the exhibition, is often said to be worse than the first painting. I might agree with this, because in the first rendition, the space is more intimate and the people are more alive. It’s prettier.

In the first rendition, the painting is treated like an image out of life, not like a painting. There are small differences that support this. For example, in the first version, a man’s cape ends outside the frame, a vase is cut off by the top of the painting and most importantly, we can only see the bottom of a picture frame at the top of the painting. This suggests a life outside the painting. When things are cut off they seem natural. Does the picture frame, which is itself cut off by the frame of this painting, comment on the objects running outside the frame? Maybe. In the other versions it is not there, and the painting is confined. The cape turns in before reaching the limits of the painting.

Cézanne is greatest in his use of color. I loved it; he’s a master. He knows just where to put it, and that is what really makes an artist the best. Knowing what to put where and when. He is innovative too. The canvas becomes a color, which is fine thinking on his part.  In the first rendition of The Card Players, the canvas comes through several parts of the long blue cape, creating a strong, natural image and sense of light. His patchy application of color creates minor variations of color, even on regular surfaces. The wall in the painting is bluish, but shows splotches of pink and dashes of white.

This is equally true of the other series of paintings named “The Card Players.” There are three of these, and the first two were on exhibit. Once again, there was a scaled black and white reproduction of this painting. The first edition is much rougher. Like the other painting of the same name, the players are absorbed in their game. The blurry composition makes them blend in to their environment. It’s an intimate image. In later versions the image becomes sharper and colors change, in the case of a coat, from brown to blue.

The exhibition makes one point very well: to revise is not to change an old work but to create a new one. This not only applies to separate paintings in these series, all with their own merits, but to this group of paintings as a whole. Because the exhibition also showed older drawings, etchings and paintings, all having to do with playing cards, each piece approached card play in its own way. Some showed cards as a game of chance. Others used cards to illustrate rural simplicity and goodness. And still others used cards to create an image of celebration and vulgarity. Did Cézanne put these things in his paintings? Not so much. To re-emphasize, his paintings celebrate life and existence, and are lovely in their own right, which is what he cared about — making pretty art and that’s that.

Original Author: Ian Walker Sperber