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Stand and Stare

After Impressionism: Inventing Modern Art

The National Gallery
March 25–August 13, 2023


Tate Modern
October 5, 2022–March 12, 2023


In A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway speaks about “learning something from the painting of Cézanne that made writing simple true sentences far from enough to make the stories have the dimensions that I was trying to put in them. I was learning very much from him but I was not articulate enough to explain it to anyone. Besides it was a secret.” Hemingway never quite revealed what this secret was. We know that when he was living in Paris writing the stories that make up his first collection, In Our Time, he frequently spent early afternoons in the Musée du Luxembourg staring at the three landscapes by Paul Cézanne that were on display there. It was his substitute for eating lunch. He was by no means starving: his midday hunger was by choice. It helped him concentrate his attention on the pictures.

What did he see in them? These days, nobody seems to understand how to look at Cézanne’s paintings, or anyone else’s, for that matter. At a recent Cézanne exhibition in London at the Tate Modern, it often seemed impossible to see anything. Modern museum-goers have the habit of standing no more than five or six feet away from the canvases that they are pretending to enjoy. Much of this is simply the result of macular degeneration, of course. But most people also seem to think that this sort of close-up scrutiny is how cultured, educated people ought to behave when looking at art.

Obviously you cannot inspect a miniature portrait, or an Old Master drawing or engraving, except up close, otherwise you will be unable to see the details which amount to the main reason to look at these things in the first place. But paintings are different, at least in the Western tradition. Any oil painting that is larger than a standard laptop computer ought ideally to be examined from ten feet away or more, and most pictures are created to be viewed from at least twenty feet away. Cézanne seems to have created much of his best work to be viewed from a distance of thirty or forty feet, ideally without half a dozen old people’s heads in one’s way.

When you stand far enough away from a Cézanne to see it properly, you begin to see that the blocky masses of color and seeming crudeness of how the paint is handled are not, in fact, important. Cézanne is trying to render light and color as they are experienced by someone who is standing too far away from what he is looking at to register details. Once you realize what he is trying to do, he becomes far more “realistic” than a photo-realist. His effects can be startling, but only if you look at his pictures from a distance that enables you comfortably to ignore the finer points of his technique. You are not supposed to notice the technical elements or care about them.

Cézanne was an eccentric artist, to be sure. He was weak in many of the conventional technical skills that even his most mediocre contemporaries could take for granted—perhaps this is why his pictures look so good from forty feet away. Only a genius can overcome a lack of basic competence, and even then only through patient, dogged hard work. But once you have learned how to look at—or through—his pictures, and see what he is trying to make you see, then you can begin training yourself to engage more deeply with the entire Western tradition of art.

Cézanne, like every other artist who was active from the 1860s onwards, had to grapple with the ever-growing popularity of still photography. Prior to the advent of the snapshot, well-trained draughtsmen and painters were indispensable where recording and preserving visual information was concerned. But at least he could rely on an audience that was not yet substantially different from previous generations in the way that it looked at pictures. In fact, this was one of Cézanne’s greatest professional obstacles as an artist: he was painting in a world where even the most sensitive and refined connoisseurs could not look beyond his obvious basic weaknesses. He struggled painfully to find ways of communicating something that nobody else had expressed before him, and few others could see. But how was anybody to see his genius, or trust his judgment, when he could barely compete with his contemporaries when it came to depicting conventional subjects in an ordinary manner?

Throughout his life, Cézanne was confronted with the reality that only other geniuses could grasp when he was trying to make people see. He himself did not have the natural talent easily to make his insights visible or comprehensible to normal people. Or to other great painters: Édouard Manet, one of the most pivotal figures in modern art, dismissed Cézanne as “a mason who paints with a trowel.” In fact, Manet refused to participate in the Impressionists’ first exhibition in April 1874 because he did not consider Cézanne a peer. To be fair to Manet, much of Cézanne’s work from before 1880 is awkward, and some of it is simply awful. Even with hindsight it can be difficult to see much promise in him. He often appears to be inept rather than innovative; certain “experimental” elements in the early work could easily be mistaken for clumsy shortcuts. We only know that there is something worth staring at in Cézanne’s pictures thanks to the efforts of fellow geniuses, including Camille Pissarro, who was the father of the Impressionist movement—and perhaps of the “Post-Impressionists” too (he was as shrewd as he was generous).

It makes sense to look at Cézanne first if you are trying to learn how to look at pictures: he had little interest in symbolism, imagery, metaphor, narrative, or any of the elements in a painting that require explanation. He simply wanted his viewers to see what he saw, in the simplest possible sense. This idea seems easy enough to grasp at the most basic verbal level. Even so, Cézanne’s original audience was in many senses far too sophisticated and visually literate to sympathize with such a radical aim. We moderns suffer from the opposite problem.

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