Cézanne

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken June 23, 1996

On your behalf, I took a field trip last week to the Cézanne exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I should probably begin by making it clear that I have no special expertise in the field of art. I have not progressed very far beyond knowing what I like and what I don't like, which means that there are other members of the congregation who have more to say about Cézanne than I do.

Nevertheless, the Cézanne exhibition gives us such a good opportunity to view culture from a Christian perspective that I thought I should try to say something about it. It is the major cultural event in our city this summer, the Major League Baseball All-Star Game notwithstanding. That is because Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) is widely regarded as the greatest painter of the 19th century and because the exhibition of his paintings is being touted as one of the great art shows of all time. It includes nearly 200 of the artist's works and is expected to draw nearly a half million visitors.

But what does it all mean? We learned some of the principles for a biblical critique of culture from the apostle Paul in Philippians 4, verse 8: Finally, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

Paul Cézanne certainly painted many excellent and praiseworthy paintings, and the effect of seeing so many of them at once is awe-inspiring. They are arranged in more or less chronological order, so it is easy to see the progress of Cézanne's artistry. The difference between his early paintings and his mature work is striking. After waiting for half an hour or more to view the exhibition, one enters several rooms of artwork of uneven quality. Suddenly, one is standing in a room full of landscapes that demonstrate real mastery.

Cézanne painted many lovely things, like the passionate greens and golds of his landscapes of Mont Sainte-Victoire, or the solid structure and the luminous coloration of the apples in his still lifes.

But what about truth? Are Cézanne's paintings true? More particularly, are his paintings of human beings true to the nature of persons as God has created them?

My own opinion is that Cézanne's presentation of the person is deeply disturbing. The scenes and portraits in the exhibition evoke neither joy, nor love, nor even pity.

Consider the figures in Cézanne's The Card Players (1890-92). The painting depicts two men, seated at a table, playing cards. The figures are hunched over, their limbs are awkward, their heads almost too small for their bodies. Both men are withdrawn, isolated, introspective. They are so absorbed in their own affairs that there is not the slightest interaction between them. In fact, they are holding their cards so close to one another that they have not left one another enough space to play their hands.

There is a similar sense of detachment in Cézanne's Young Girl at the Piano Overture to Tannhauser (1869). In the painting, one young girl sits on the sofa and sews while another—her back turned—is playing the piano. The girls are almost (but not quite) part of the landscape, as if they are inanimate objects. For Cézanne, the painting is more important than the person.

In the words of one critic, 'the human figure presented mainly pictorial and 'architectural' problems for Cézanne; he could not see its spiritual dimension—role as the subject and object of love' [Edmund Burke Feldman, Varieties of Visual Experience, 2nd edn (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1981), p. 315]. That judgment seems to be confirmed by the retrospective. It could even be applied to Cézanne's crowning achievement: The Large Bathers (1906).

The exhibition is arranged so as to give Cézanne's Large Bathers the attention it deserves. The painting stands alone on a large wall, confronting the observer as he walks out of the main gallery. Because of its monumental size and the delicate beauty of its colors, The Large Bathers has to be seen in person to be appreciated.

The bathers themselves are awkward, clumsy, ungainly, even distorted. They are obviously females, but they are not feminine. They are painted, I think, without a real appreciation for the beauty of the human figure or a love for the human person as a bearer of the divine image. Once again, the figures in Cézanne's painting are isolated. They are not engaged in play, or lively conversation, or even bathing. Instead, they gaze inward, preoccupied with their own thoughts.

It is often pointed out that Paul Cézanne exercised a seminal influence on modern art, bridging the gap between Impressionism and Cubism. The great modern artist Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) called him 'the father of us all.' It is instructive, therefore, to compare Cézanne's Large Bathers with Picasso's painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). Picasso's damsels are disjointed, grotesque, even hideous. Where Cézanne saw the isolation of the person, Picasso saw the fragmentation of the person. Where Cézanne tried to redefine the person, Picasso tried to destroy the person altogether.

While Cézanne cannot be blamed for everything his artistic children have done, he is at least responsible for the ideas which made their art possible. Are his paintings true? They do give some insight into the loneliness of human depravity. Cézanne's paintings are not true to the way God made human beings, but they do tell us something true about what human beings have made of themselves. What they lack is the note of redemption which shows what human beings can become, by the grace of God.

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