What Cezanne Saw – Chicago Reader

Paul Cezanne’s Portrait of the artist with a pink background was probably made in 1875. It was on loan for this exhibition to the Art Institute of Chicago of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Credit: Adrien Didierjean for RMN-Grand Palace/Art Resource NY

“Cezanne, he is the greatest of us all.” – Claude Monet in conversation with Georges Clemenceau, quoted in translation in The Paintings of Paul Cézanne: A Catalog Raisonné (trans. John Rewald, Abrams, 1996).

There are some entities and influences in our work that we take for granted, as if they were always there and it is impossible to imagine a world without them. This is how I felt at the Chicago Theater over ten years ago when I listened to a Leonard Cohen concert. The idea that the old man in the sharp suit on stage was writing all those songs was a circle that I struggled with. The same goes for Cezanne. To anyone into perceptual painting, he’s like a giant boulder blocking the path. No way to ignore it or pretend it isn’t there. There’s also no turning back, unless you’re content with playing an alternate reality. What Cézanne did was figure out how to represent the act of seeing.

It is intimidating for a painter like me to write about Paul Cézanne. It’s like trying to describe or explain God. Why bother? No words are enough. It is normal is and what I do could not exist without what this man did over a hundred years ago. It is not a debt that can be repaid or even properly understood.

It is a vision that focuses on subjectivity, movement and change, rather than stability, hierarchy or order. Probably no coincidence that he was working out his methods at the same time Nietzsche was killing God. No one who believes in a benevolent creator who shapes and directs the universe can see his surroundings in the slippery and unreliable way Cézanne saw his surroundings.

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