The Contemporary Genesis

[PUBLISHER’S NOTE.—This chapter was revised since the publication of the original French edition of the History of Art, and will appear only in the definitive edition in French. We thank M. Élie Faure and M. Georges Crès, his publisher, for having authorized us to reproduce the new version from the manuscript.]

IF the work of Cézanne did not interpret with singular power a thoroughly general desire that was willed by our character, it would not have suddenly gained that ascendancy which has gone beyond the borders of France and has brought Europe flowing back to it, in quest of a new intellectual order. While the fugitive impression and the fact without commentary were establishing around him the endless and yet so quickly exhausted motif of literature and of painting, his work suddenly appeared like a refuge, coarsely but solidly built, and glowing with its somber harmony, in which the artist could find the elements of new generalizations, and through which he was constrained to pass. It presented so radical a type of opposition to Impressionism that it was but natural that men should try to condemn, in the name of Cézanne, that movement of purification and of research which was so necessary for us. This is the usual rise and fall of the balance between action and reaction. In reality, the work of the master of Aix continued, completed, and terminated Impressionism, and reassembled, in view of a new construction, the materials which it had selected and contributed.

The work of Paul Cézanne was even confused for a long time with that of the masters of Impressionism. He occupied a secondary place in the group, standing a little in the background, between Guillaumin and the charming Berthe Morizot. That was quite natural. He was of their age. He had become their companion during their trying times. He exhibited with them. The public linked him with them in its censure, although he was already in advance of them, and although the Philistines of 1875, who condemned Claude Monet in the name of Delacroix or of Courbet, could not foresee that the Philistines of 1900 would condemn Paul Cézanne in the name of Claude Monet. He had made the acquaintance of the founders of the group about 1862, when he met, at the atelier Suisse, the fiery Pissarro, who initiated him into Courbet 's painting. Zola, his companion from childhood, took him to Manet's studio. His tense and fierce sensibility loved the independent nature of his new friends, their passionate ardor, and the power of enthusiasm revealed by their words. He followed them to Auvers-sur-Oise, where they revealed to him the play of reflections on surfaces, where he watched with them the passage of the wind over the water, the eternal undulation of the leaves, and the shadow which the clouds carry over the soil and over the red roofs of the houses, and through the tremble of the flowering apple trees and cherry trees. To them, in spite of his education and habit, he was indebted for the clean eye, the probity of intelligence, and the original and unknown power of his blood. With their aid he shook off the influences which had been tyrannizing over him for fifteen years: Courbet, then Daumier, then Delacroix, then, though less had been seen of his work, Corot; then, working backward over the traces of their souls, Rubens, Veronese, and Michael Angelo. To his friends he was indebted for the laboriously and slowly gained freedom from the despotic seduction of the great works, the freedom to consider the heroes of painting not as guides whom one is in duty bound to follow, but as witnesses whom one has the right to invoke. When he returned to Aix-en-Provence in 1879, he was still far from perceiving in himself the regular and powerful beat of the unknown rhythms which he brought to us later. But he had at least a pure, high-keyed palette, and the moving face of the world impressed upon his sensibility its most fleeting and living images, those freest from literary or sentimental interpretation. That was what he owed to Claude Monet and to Pissarro. And he never forgot it.

It was at Aix itself that he was born, forty years before. It was at Aix that he had lived a studious and wild childhood, that he had learned from Vergil the love of the classic soil and of measure in art; there, with the young Zola, he had spent the days of his vacations, like a little faun drunk with sunlight and cool water, spending nights in the depths of the woods, and the burning hours in the rivers, drying his sunburnt skin in the eternal wind which, through the corridor of the Rhone, whirls the dust of the roads and the pulverized marble of the circuses and the aqueducts. When he returned there, he was alone. No more pagan illusions, no more friends. His art at the time was a weapon which shone, certainly, but which he handles unskillfully. Around him was indifference, slander, folly, prejudice, and a total lack of comprehension of what he was, of what he desired, and of the torturing sensibility which drove him to take refuge in himself, to avoid unknown faces, and to flee the obligatory conversations and visits which make up three quarters of the provincial adventure. This wild, badly dressed man, who lived on his income and who painted, was certainly a lunatic. People spoke of him with severity. He was ridiculous, besides, clean, to be sure, but with spots on his coat; and his red nose, his watery eyes, his small twisted beard, and the impression he gave of being hunted set the whole pack of street boys upon him. The poor loved him, for he had an open hand. But no one took him seriously. Certain people exploited him. And moreover, as he did not wish anyone to "get his hooks" into him, he drew back into himself, like life when it is so sensitive that every hostile or rough shock from without wounds to its depths.

He suffered. No one knew that. He held out until the end. He could have lived in Paris, and found friends and admirers, and their encouragement. He did not wish to. He shut himself up in his strength, fixed his inner images, and around him, sought that which confirmed them. Sometimes he returned to Paris, where he passed three quarters of his time in the Louvre of Veronese, of Courbet, and of Rubens. He made two or three short sojourns in Flanders and Holland. He desired to know nothing of Italy, as if he had feared that contact with the great works which attracted him above all others, would corrupt his growing resolve to reach his own ideas. And that is all. When he regained his native soil, the history of his life was ended. That of his mind was opening.

Those landscapes of Provence, bare and rigid, those red lands sown with thin trees and rising toward the rocky hills whose profile against the dark sky is so pure, and that reddening gold which bathes them at twilight without veiling their fixed lines, were very soon to furnish him with the elements of a plastic vision which he would perhaps never have discovered in the heavily watered luxuriance of the valleys of the north. In Provence the houses pile up like stones, the leaves do not conceal them, the angles of the roofs and the walls cut from the light geometrical figures which bring the mind naturally to simplifications for which it finds reason in the dry, hard bareness of the rocks which bar the horizon, of the sky which is generally without clouds, and of the trunks stripped of leaves which shoot up straight and clean, cutting through space at regular intervals. From no other place could he have drawn more naturally the desire for a sober form, shorn of ornaments, of puffery, and of incident, a form firmly based upon the soil, heavy, deep rooted, and reduced to those masses alone and those lines alone which define its relationships. Each time that he found himself in the presence of a bare wall, of a road, of a motionless pond surrounded by stone bluffs, or a vast space described by the granite chain of the mountains of the country—something straight, rigorous, and categorical —he held the central motive of the poem of color which floated in his inner vision, and which he was ceaselessly seeking to confront with the nature of the senses, in order to justify it and to build it. The houses, the roads, and the hills of Provence brought to the massive lyricism of the painter the monotonous, but compact, sonorous and full rhythm in which his summary phrase voluntarily inclosed itself in order to express the ordered conception which he had of the world. It was as if great verses were unrolling with force, laden with mind, hard with condensed matter, and moving with a powerful swing to strike the rhyme, as if to cause the image to penetrate more profoundly by keeping it at the summits of memory and sensation alone.

The unfinished appearance of Cezanne's canvases gives to those who have not a rounded understanding of his thought, the impression of an incomplete nature, limiting itself to taking notes of the world, which are essential, doubtless, but summary, und instinctively seized on the wing. Each one, in reality, represents enormous work, and a spiritualization, progressively and laboriously obtained, of exactly those sensuous elements which constitute the origin of all his painting. He was wont to say that all the forms in nature may be reduced to the cone, to the cylinder, and to the sphere, and this saying has had its victims. At bottom, it was only a symbolic manner of expressing the final appearance which the forms tended to assume in an abstract universe, whose imaginary limits he took good care not to overstep, when he had the palette in his left hand and the brush in his right. His imagination, quite unsuited to extend itself over surface, however weakly, developed its power when he treated the question of depth. Never has there been an artist less capable than he of inventing and combining figures. of finding in the myth, the event of daily life, or the personal dream, a pretext for exalting and transforming the images. The Spaniards themselves, Velasquez, Zurbarán and Greco—not to speak of Goya, a satanic poet of lust and of death—and perhaps the Hollanders, knew less badly than he how to transport the immediate, outer world into an imaginary world. He seemed to copy what he saw, he tried to recover that innocence of the first ages of life during which curiosity awakens —it is that innocence which, with the man who knows much, having thought much and suffered much, borrows the language of the most self-conscious will in order to assume the majesty and the power of the law, stripped of all commentary. His candor was a victory. His impotence to imagine assumed singular appearances, which would awaken doubt of his power of creation if the plastic quality of his work, comparable with that of the greatest, were not there to reassure us. In illustrated books, in the History of Charles Blanc, in the Magasin pittoresque, and even in fashion journals, he hunted up external silhouettes which he enlarged and colored like a child, incapable of inventing a gesture or an attitude which should combine harmoniously with the attitudes and the gestures round about. He did not invent, he could not invent. It was only "from the motif" that he knew how to abstract and to simplify—to the ultimate limit of abstraction and simplification, remaining uniquely, and despite everything, a painter and nothing but a painter, perhaps, in truth, the most intense, and the most completely bound up with the matter of which things are made, that ever existed.

The universe, in fact, is for him only a pretext for holding, within an architecture reduced to its soberest, but also solidest, expression, a matter magnificent and dense, in which the rocks which pierce the crust of the earth seem to have been pulverized in order to harden, unite, and condense the red soil, the dark foliage, the thick azure, and the lusterless seas of the Mediterranean countries. He took as his pretext the great denuded landscapes, the figures encountered at random on the road, among the people around him, and at the inns of the country—peasants, children, card players around a rough table, women in old-fashioned house dresses, or else those round, heavy fruits which he would throw down on the table amid the unwashed glasses and the half-filled wine bottles. Whatever he painted, he knew well that in starting out from the sumptuous materials with their dark splendor which he drew from one aspect of life as well as another, and in never losing sight of the great, summary lines between which he perceived them, he would gradually succeed in giving to his form the most powerful volume, and in making it turn in space like those geometrical figures which expressed in spiritualized language the directions of his glance. "When color attains its richness," he used to say, "form attains its plenitude" [Cited by Emile Bernard]. The one met the other halfway, sought it out, and defined it little by little, in the measure that it gained in opulence, in somber light, and in heavy maturity. The tone appeared to him like an actual secretion of the form, which itself appeared to him like a gradation of the tone. . . I imagine that in the depths of the silent hearts of the old sculptors of the Middle Empire of Egypt, those who erected the statues, dense, and defined by receding planes, and who saturated the compact grain of their granite with indigo, red ochre, and with emerald, there must have trembled something of the brief fervor followed by the restlessness of despair which beat in Cezanne's heart when, after weeks of exhausting effort, he had been able to wrest from mystery one of those somber harmonies, as much a thing of architecture as a temple, which have revealed painting to those worthy of loving it.

In nature, there is for him no other "subject" than the plane. It is but of little importance that the object be exactly followed in all its contours and finished in all its details. That which is necessary is, that it be in its place in the depth of space as regards the other objects, that, at the same time, the gradations of its edges give it its own existence, and that the object, in relation to the world, and the world in relation to the object, possess complete solidarity. He leaves to those who will come after him the care of polishing the phrase, of rounding the period, and of animating the recital. He put the straight or curved surfaces in their place, like a mason, whose hands are rough, but whose mind is made up of the sense of balance he has acquired, of the calm of his will, and of subtlety. His landscapes have the appearance of a section of the planet seen from a far distance, stripped of its local life, and reduced simply to the essential masses which define its construction. His personages are placed like living statues, frequently awkward and ill squared, but forcefully defined by sustained planes and by profiles whose clearness is uninterrupted by any useless accidental. His still-lifes have the splendor of the heaps of fruit which concentrate into themselves the whole of surrounding life, and which seem to send forth their full and spherical form and their color in its saturation, from the innermost center of their matter. The most immediate and the most material sensation, which is always present with him, is ever carried by the mind of the painter to its maximum of severity, of purity, and of comprehension.

"I remain," wrote Cézanne at the decline of his career, "I remain the primitive of the road which I have discovered" [Emile Bernard]. "The archaic," he might have said. There is in the work of this master an impersonal and general character very different from the spirit of minutiae manifested by the primitives, and this quality of Cezanne's gives to his work a sense whose importance he himself never suspected. As primitivism announces the advent in history of the individual, archaism is at the beginning of the great collective rhythms. . . Whenever one of his pictures of former years was presented to Cézanne, he did not wish to see it and, in his own mind, judged very severely those who liked such things. He forgot his canvases as soon as they had left him. They lay about everywhere, under cupboards and behind furniture; they were used to wipe the stove and the floor. A childhood game of his son's was cutting out the windows and the doors in them. He sometimes abandoned them in the open fields. He rarely signed them. Like all the great anonymous men, he expressed a kind of social need, going beyond the individual in order to erect one of those grand essays of rudimentary architecture which announce in society a unanimous movement of concentration in depth. He went regularly to church. A sincere Catholic, fleeing the priest and the bigot, he was evidently seeking in the past the shelter of one of those imposing social structures which he did not find in the present and did not suspect in the future. There is nothing less sentimental and less moral than his work. There is no anecdote; no thought of pleasing or of interesting. It is a pure metaphysical monument, and the materials with which it is built and which make it perceptible to the senses are the most thoroughly tested and chosen, but also the most summarily cut, in the world. Even when he tries to compose, as in those extraordinary gatherings of nude personages where, visibly haunted by the memory of Poussin, he makes an awkward attempt, amid the great choir of the trees, of the vast sky, and the running waters, to build up a broad sensual melody, even then he is absolutely free of any kind of psychological or literary intention. And even then, his classicism, that need for order and for measure which had been pursuing him since childhood, is unaware of its own significance. He, the provincial, the Catholic, is in accord with the secret rhythm of his century; he is urged on toward the unknown organism hesitating on the threshold, by profound forces of which he is no more conscious than were the masons of the last Romanesque churches whose nave was suddenly to leap, lighten, elongate, and hover like a wing, with the generation which was arising. A lofty and lucid intelligence, as long as there is question of building with the incomparable material which the generosity of his nature permitted him to discover and to isolate in the world, he is, even so, surpassed by the grandeur of his influence. And it is for that reason that this influence cannot be exhausted save by the realization of the organism awaited.

The end of this great man is well known. He took sick one day when he was working in the country to arrest upon a canvas the inexhaustible movement which was revealing to him, by its perpetuity and its constancy, certain concordant directions and certain eternal aspects. He expired two days afterward, and no one, outside of a few dozen artists, knew of it. And this was well. He had always disdained homage and despised those who abase themselves in order to surprise it or to force it. He had desired that solitary life which, to the end, he protected, against the assaults of fools, by outbursts of noble and savage modesty, for which no one understood the necessity and the reason. The shadow which hovers around us from the time when we are forty years old, did not, even if it grazed his heart, turn him away from a mission whose importance he felt, and neither did his tardy and restricted, but so lofty, renown turn him away from it. He knew himself to be the greatest painter in Europe. When one has that power within one, one may go forward alone.

No comments: