Encountering Cezanne - 3/3/14

Today's guest blog post comes from Sicong Zhu, a recent graduate in Art History from the University of Iowa now living in St. Louis, MO.  

While browsing through the collection of the New Mexico Museum of Art, I discovered a section called “Art You Didn’t Expect”, in which an interesting lithograph of Paul Cezanne (figure 1) caught my attention. The post-impressionist piece stands out in the Museum’s collection which highlights indigenous artists and southwest culture.

Figure 1 Les Baigneurs, 1896-1898 Paul Cezanne (France),1839-1906 
Lithograph 24 1/8 x 30 in.
From the Vivian Sloan Fiske Bequest, 1978

The combination of naked figures and the wild scenery reminds one of the Renaissance concept of Arcadia and the ideal of beauty suggested by the idyllic landscape with perfect-shaped mythological and allegorical figures in it, illustrating the idea of Divine Proportion (figure 2); or, on the contrary, as Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass (originally titled “The Bath”, figure 3) indicated, a bold declaration of revolt against the classical archetype of beauty and nature and a radical manifestation of the rupture between painting and nature: instead of sticking to the Renaissance view of “painting as imitation of nature”, he posed the notion of expressionistic painting by pulling together elements in his atelier and making nature speak for his artistic propositions.

Figure 2 Giorgione, Sleeping Venus, circa 1510 Oil on canvas 108,5 cm × 175 cm Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden.

Figure 3 Edouard Manet, Luncheon on the Grass, 1863. Oil on canvas H. 208; W. 264.5 cm Musée d'Orsay

Here in Cezanne’s print, neither the naked figures nor the nature is ideal. The conventional concept of “nature as female” is rejected. It seems that all four figures are male (which may refer to Cezanne’s bathing experience in his childhood with his friend Zola and their friend Baptistin Baille) and they are rather ordinary-looking. We can see that this print is another version of an earlier, larger painting: Bathers at Rest (figure 4). The figure closest to the viewer also has an earlier prototype in Cezanne’s larger oil painting The Bather (figure 5). The print reflects Cezanne’s late style when he attached much importance to volumes and brushstrokes, bestowing the pictorial space an abstract and expressionistic nature. Instead of smooth outlines and natural gradation, we see aggregation of shapes, done in a sketchy manner, even a bit draft-like. The figures are still natural-looking, but the landscape looks “linear” and bears a kind of rough beauty that later shows itself in some of Matisse’s paintings. The outlines of the table-shaped mountain and the figures (especially the outlines of their arms) remind one of geometric shapes and offer a glimpse of cubism (think about Picasso’s figures!).

Figure 4 Cezanne, Bathers at Rest. 1876-77. Oil on Canvas 32 5/16 * 39 7/8 in. The Barnes Foundation BF906

Figure 5. Cezanne The Bather c. 1885.  Oil on canvas 50 x 38 1/8" Lillie P. Bliss Collection, Museum of Modern Art 1.1934.

I would love to go to the Museum and take a closer look at this print in person. This work can be viewed online in the Museum’s “Online Exhibition” section. It’s under “The Museum’s Collection”, and then “Art You Didn’t Expect”.

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