UA1-WA:P3-p4-Exercise: Annotation of a still life painting by Cézanne

My selection of works to focus on in course exercises has often been driven by what is reasonably available for me to view in person – and there are no van Gogh or Cézanne still life paintings near by.

Samuel John Peploe Still life: apples and jar circa 1912-circa 1916

Samuel John Peploe
Still life: apples and jar
circa 1912-circa 1916
www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/8049/

I considered this painting by Samuel Peploe at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) – the gallery website describes Peploe as “typical of the many British artists who succumbed to the magnetism of Cezanne in the early part of the twentieth century”. However Cézanne’s work seems to be so pivotal, so pervasive in its influence on twentieth century artists, that I want to try to come to grips with him directly. There’s also a personal twist. When I finished school I followed many Aussies, going on a long working holiday around Europe. It included a couple of months working in Provence, nearest village Ventabren, nearest town Aix en Provence (birthplace and often home of Cézanne). That’s where I “discovered” Cézanne, and many of his landscapes take me back to late summer walks around that countryside, dizzy on the heady fumes of wilds herbs previously only known dried up in little bottles.

So I included a little of Cézanne when thinking about artists’ letters (20-Jan-2014), will look at a still life here, and in a later exercise will attempt to copy a Cézanne landscape which generally is available to see at AGNSW.

All of this means I have been forced onto books and the internet for an image from which to work. To select a specific work I did an image search for still life paintings by Cézanne and chose the one which seemed to me most extreme in its fracturing and deformation of space – Still life with Plaster Cupid, circa 1894, in the collection of The Courtauld Gallery, London (see http://www.artandarchitecture.org.uk/images/gallery/872882ac.html).

Paul Cezanne Still life with plaster cupid

Paul Cézanne
Still life with plaster cupid (1895)
Image source: www.wikipaintings.org/en/paul-cezanne/still-life-with-plaster-cupid-1895 (public domain)

Description
cezanne_plasterOn the right is my rough sketch of the painting, colour-coded to assist following my notes.

The dominating central figure is a plaster statue of cupid, standing on a table top. Cupid’s right hip is at the very middle of the picture, and a vertical centre line runs down the length of his body. It is overall the lightest in value area of the painting (together with a small plate on the table). The top part of his body is mainly left of centre, balanced by the bottom part of his body on the right. However this initial visual impression of balance is lost. Cupid’s body is in motion, twisting, and the painting seems to turn around him.

We seem to be looking just slightly down at cupid’s head, but looking from a much higher vantage point at his feet and base. The space around is similarly distorted and ambiguous. The area to the right seems to be the floor, but it rises up the painting as if a wall. Why isn’t that apple near the top rolling down? There is a series of canvases stacked (or hung), outlined in pinks and purples in my sketch, but the space in the picture seems too shallow for them to fit. And that rear/high apple again – it’s larger than those near the front. For the depth and perspective and relative size to make sense it should be a watermelon! There are some shadows, but they don’t quite work either. Light seems to hit cupid directly on his right side, the shadow from his right foot goes across the table and disappears. Fruit shadows are absent or go in other directions. The blue cloth under the plate on the table goes off to the left where it becomes part of one of the stacked canvas. Part of the onion on the left of the table (green in my sketch) seems to form part of the lower edge of that same canvas, while the top becomes a chair leg within it. There are straight lines going in all sorts of directions, none quite parallel. Curves are repeated everywhere – in yellow on my sketch the belly of cupid, the statue base of cupid and the base of another statue shown in one of the internal canvases; in orange all those apples, which as a whole form a large U curve. I feel as if I’m watching a juggler – everything in motion, circling and twisting and turning, everything is at risk… but somehow it is balanced, controlled, not quite falling.

There are circles in the colours too, revolving around the cupid and palely reflected in his opalescent form. Yellows go from the apples on canvas/chair at the left, swoop down across the table, up to the rear canvas then just little touches on the painting behind cupid to complete the circle. While there seem to touches of a jade-like green across the picture, a more yellow green is carried around by apples and onion tops. There aren’t large areas of dark in the picture. What there is mainly contained behind the rough curve across the painting, formed by the bases of the canvases and cupid’s left thigh.

I wish I could see the work in person, to examine brushstrokes and any variations in the thickness and coverage of paint. However in the photos I see multiple outlines of shapes creating volume and that ambiguity of point of view; I think I see areas of uncovered canvas, bringing light and texture, and reinforcing the artificial nature of the picture; and I can’t really tell if he used the technique he evolved – “a diagonal hatching stroke that – evenly applied throughout the picture, regardless of the texture or nature of the object – unified the various pictorial elements in a tightly interlocking structure” (Dean, 1991, p. 16).

Interpretation

One can examine the symbols and iconography in this painting as in other still life works. Shapiro notes in the combination of apples, Cupid, and the suffering, tortured man (in the painting top right – showing a statue of a flayed slave) a connection to the erotic. Apples and onions contrast in form and flavour, just as the sexes contrast. (Shapiro, 1968, p.11). Shapiro goes on to write a lot more about still life in general, and in Cézanne’s work in particular. Relevant to one of my original reasons for choosing this picture, Cézanne’s influence on later painters, is the conclusion: “the view of the mature Cézanne as an artist who saw in the objects he painted only a plastic problem, disregarding or even neutralizing their meaning or natural charm, is not borne out then altogether by his practice or his comment in letters and conversation” (Shapiro, 1968, p. 28).

An alternative interpretation focuses on philosophy and on the nature of a painting as thing itself. Spigler (2009) “argue[s] that ideas of formation and animation, both in terms of objects of art and human beings, affected [Cézanne’s] own representation of statuary and were tied to his understanding of the philosophies of sensitivity and sensibility—a discourse deeply entwined in his own self-presentation and self-understanding as an artist”.

Spigler notes the additive process of painting, shown in the darker area around the plaster cupid formed as paint is repeatedly applied to the background to more clearly define the statue. However the figure also comes from the sculptural taking away of material, as Michelangelo is said to have carved marble to show the figure within. In the painted cupid the structural support of the statue has been merged visually and the figure is apparently stepping out into full realisation. The canvas at the top of the picture repeats these ideas – the painting shown is of a statue then believed to be by Michelangelo, showing a flayed slave. The original sculpture used a subtractive process to expose the figure, and the figure itself had been flayed – skin removed – to expose the muscles and flesh within. Next the additive process of painting the original canvas created an image of the statue, and finally in the subject painting a further additive process seems to have returned skin and full form.

Further complicating these combinations and tensions of additive and subtractive process, Spiegler suggests the upper part of the cupid, torso and most of the head, fits within the canvas behind it. There is a “division of the vertical figure into two zones of becoming: the upper zone from genitals to crown figures animation as a result of some additive process like painting; the lower zone reflects on the liberation of life by subtracting the mute matter in which it is encased”.

All of these processes also throw into question the nature of two and three dimensional space. They combine to show the statue coming into being – stepping into three dimensions – and yet still locked in the two dimensional picture, that artificial space. The final step is made by ourselves as viewer, bringing the figure into being.

Really I’m not sure that the above is valid even as a partial representation of Spigler’s argument(s). I can’t pretend to understand all or most of the points made by him, so direct you to the link in the References section for full information. However I think he does attribute significant conscious philosophical and theoretical concerns to Cézanne in his painting. It could be that a hugely gifted painter could keep all these ideas front of mind and express them in his work, but it seems to me that a part may be a rationalisation after the event.

This work and others by Cézanne have an importance beyond themselves in the history of modern art. Writing of my focus work Dempsey (2010, p.45) explains “the cupid is presented both frontally and from above: the third dimension is not created by traditional means of perspective and foreshortening but by changes in colour, which both unify the surface and signal depth, a radical shift in pictorial technique”. I’ve noted about the overall unity of colour in the surface, but I find it difficult to identify the depth referred to by Dempsey. The head and torso of the cupid appear closest to me, but beyond that is confusion. The lightest colouring, which I would expect to be closest, is towards the top right – which my mind tells me should be furthest away.

Evaluation

While reading for this analysis I have found a number of passages that have helped my overall understanding of Cézanne’s work and importance.

“There is a truth which is the painting, not the subject, not the object, but the single identity of the painting which is complete as itself – or as complete as it exists undefiled at any stage in its growth” (Copplestone, 1998, p.54). The canvas and the paint were reality, not anything depicted.

“All of Cézanne’s still-lives describe ordinary objects, that are part of everyday life. Their very simplicity brings out by contrast the plastic quality of the forms and the play of light on the objects, which is the real theme of the picture. Cézanne abandons the traditional laws of perspective and constructs an ideal space which each object helps to determine” (my emphasis) (Adhémar, 1983, p. 24). Again, Cézanne carefully observes nature, but in constructing the painting he is not trying to represent the objects present in a narrow, literal way – as a group or individually.

“[Cézanne] realized that the eye takes in a scene both consecutively and simultaneously, and in his work the single perspective gives way to a shifting view, acknowledging that perspective changes as the eyes and head move, and that objects seen together participate in each other’s existence” (Dempsey, 2010, p.45).

That seems to suggest an intellectual concept and prior decision, which is a little different to another explanation which seems to focus more on a working method leading the result. “[Cézanne] worked on this picture over a long period of time, and he himself moved around it. He has pieced together his image by painting what he saw from these changing viewpoints. Little by little he has built up a composite image of the figure that shows more than could be seen from one fixed position.” (Cumming, [n.d.]) The same explanation can be used for the variable shadow. Areas of the picture were painted at different times under different lighting conditions. Each area shows what was observed at the time it was painted. The painting goes beyond three dimensions to show the passing of time.

How much of this was Cézanne’s intention and how much are ideas triggered in those examining his works? A rhetorical question – I don’t believe a definitive answer exists. As part of his discussion Spigler (2009) notes the difficulties of identifying the nineteenth-century understanding of sensibility and sensation – “Due to the great number of discourses using these terms, the ideas associated with them were susceptible to extreme slippage”. Dean suggests “even during Cézanne’s lifetime, fellow artists found ideas in his art that the painter himself did not intend” (Dean, 1991, p. 5). If ideas slipped and changed and merged at the time, how much more slippage must there be in over a century. Cézanne brings together his knowledge of art history (the cupid plaster cast and the flayed slave sculpture, thought at the time to be by Puget and Michelangelo respectively); colour theory (advancing and receding colours to create or negate space and volume); contemporary techniques (the tache and brushmarks); philosophy about the nature of art (the ‘real’ is the canvas and paint)… Dean explains “in a sense, his appeal to so many and various artists is precisely because of this eclectic approach: there is something here for everyone” (Dean, 1991, p.5).

It seems to me that while they sometimes seem to contradict each other each of these evaluations, and the differing interpretations suggested earlier, builds towards a more complete understanding of Cézanne’s work and its importance. While writing this annotation I’ve had the fanciful idea that it is to an extent analogous to the picture itself – copying little fragments that build up to show multiple views that somehow both distort the picture and show more of it, with the actual thing created being a student ‘paper’.

References

Adhémar, H. (1983) The Jeu de Paume Museum . Paris: Ministère de la Culture : Editions de la réunion des Musées Nationaux.

Copplestone, T. (1998) Paul Cézanne. Kent: Grange Books

Cumming, R. ([n.d.]) Cézanne: Still Life with Plaster Cast The Courtauld Institute of Art Art and Architecture Web Site [on-line] Available from http://www.artandarchitecture.org.uk/stories/cumming_cezanne/cumming_cezanne02.html (Accessed 27-Jan-2014)

Dempsey, A. (2010) Styles, schools and movements: The essential encyclopaedic guide to modern art. London: Thames & Hudson

Shapiro, M. (1968) “The apples of Cézanne: An essay on the meaning of still-life” In Modern Art 19th and 20th centuries: selected papers: Meyer Shapiro New York: George Braziller [online] Available from www.ithaca.edu/faculty/wells/201/schapiro2.pdf (Accessed 25-Jan-2014)

Spigler, J. (2009) “Making Matter Make Sense in Cézanne’s Still Lifes with Plaster Cupid” In Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide: a journal of nineteenth-century visual culture. 8 (1) Spring 2009 [on-line] Available from www.19thc-artworldwide.org/spring09/55-spring09/spring09article/62–making-matter-make-sense-in-cezannes-still-lifes-with-plaster-cupid (Accessed 26-Jan-2014)

UA1-WA:P3-p4-Exercise: Annotation of a still life painting by Cézanne
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part three: Modern art and still life
Project four: Still life after 1900
Exercise: Annotate a still life painting by Cézanne or van Gogh

7 Responses to “UA1-WA:P3-p4-Exercise: Annotation of a still life painting by Cézanne”


  1. 1 starrybird February 3, 2014 at 8:43 am

    A very interesting analysis. I come to this studying drawing, painting and printmaking. I am familiar with the original because I visit the Courtauld regularly. Now I must go back and look at it again. He makes you want to draw apples, and skulls….Thank you.


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