Thursday, July 4, 2013

Cezanne's composition: the first look at how it works

Paul Cezanne. Mont Sainte-Victoire. 65 x 81 cm. c. 1890.
Paul Cezanne is often called "the father of modern painting", and that's true in so many senses that it almost becomes false: it's a father who would probably never acknowledge most of his "children". What I mean is that (I believe) Cezanne achieved a new kind of synthesis between different aspects and elements of painting, and his various "descendants" took this fragile whole apart, running away with one or another part of it (and often making it into an all too easy "recipe" for painting-making). So, for example, Cubism (especially the analytical cubism) evidently descends from Cezanne's achievements, but it's very much debatable whether Cezanne himself would have accepted its flat planes without colour modulations as a painting (as we know, he intensely disliked even Gauguin's flat shapes). 

What I want to do is go back to the original synthesis, to try and understand how this all works together in composing a painting. As of now, I am planning a two-months series of (weekly) posts on Cezanne's composition (to be completed before my two-weeks vacation in September), but it may be continued later.    

As one of my starting points, I will be using Erle Loran's classic study into Cezanne's composition, and I have chosen this particular version of Mont Saint Victoire (above) for my introductory post, because Erle Loran uses it to introduce the contrast between Cezanne's way of constructing the space and the (generalized) impressionistic one. The contrast is both in the result (the structure of space within the picture plane) and in the method, the pictorial elements Cezanne uses to construct his paintings.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Montagne Sainte-Victoire (Paysage)
54.4 x 65.5 cm. 1889. 
The contrast is particularly evident in this case, because 
Pierre-Auguste Renoir happened to paint the exact same subject from a nearly identical location and in a decidedly impressionistic way. Here is his painting on the right (it's not the only one Renoir did of this motive, nor the strongest one, but that just strengthens Loran's points). The same trees in the foreground, the same mountain in the background, the same sky -- and yet an entirely different painting.

Now that you have seen these two paintings independently, I'll put them side by side, to make it easier to compare them:  

You may want to take a moment to compare them yourself and note the differences. One question in particular is intriguing, and if you take a moment to answer it now, before reading any further, and give your answer in comments, I would be forever grateful. So, here is the question:
If you try to focus your attention Renoir's version (on the left), does your eye stay there or does it tend to (unintentionally) move towards Cezanne's version (on the right)?  
The concept of "eye movement" plays a very prominent part in textbook discussions of composition, suggesting that a painter can "guide" the viewer's eye into and within their painting; the point is (usually) to provide a clear path for the viewer's eye, which would return them back into your painting once they reach the edge of the picture plane. In this theory, there are two worst things a painter can do: 

  • not to "open" such a path at all, and 
  • to lead the viewer's eye out of one's own painting (and, if it hangs in a gallery or in a museum, right into the next painting, which might just happen to be by another painter...). 

So, my question above really is about whether (as suggested by Loran) Renoir commits the second sin here, and leads your eye diagonally from lower left towards the blues of upper right and directly towards Cezanne's painting, without any provisions for returning your eye back into other areas of his own painting?  

Personally, I am more than a bit sceptic towards the whole theory of "guiding viewer's eye". I believe the concept of eye movement is often confused with a related, but quite different notion of perceived subtle movement within the painting's space. Paintings, you see, are a bit like rivers, but in reverse: the water of a river might seem to just be there, but, in reality, it moves and changes all the time; paintings, on the other hand, can create an illusion of movement(s) within them, their own dynamics and tension, even though they are "in reality" very stable and are just hanging there on the wall. But the tension, and the accompanying vitality and energy, only emerge if there are competing movements in different directions. And Cezanne was really a genius in creating these competing movements. 

What happens here, I think, is that Renoir has created a strong movement in one direction, away from the viewer and the picture plane and into the depth of space, primarily by his use of aerial perspective: receding blues in the background, protruding yellows and greens in the foreground, and softening and disappearance of distant edges (see how the mountain merges into the sky?) The picture quietly but surely moves away from the viewer and into the distant space. 

On the picture plane, though, it means upward movementSince there is a point of interest in the foreground (people), and a major dark area against lights on the right, the movement becomes diagonal, from lower left to upper right, and sinks somewhere into the lighter part of the sky behind the mountain, as though into a hole in space. There is nothing moving back from there, the whole painting nearly dissolves into the thin air: no tension, no energy. 

Cezanne also uses aerial perspective in colour to make the mountain recede into the sky, but his treatment of edges is evidently very different. There is one particularly important area where the contrast is palpable, the right-hand edge of the mountain:

  • Renoir nearly completely "loses" this edge, and lightens this area of the mountain so that it fuses into the sky, facilitating his diagonal movement into the depth of the sky. 
  • Cezanne strongly and distinctly draws this edge with his brush, in a radical departure from the impressionist approach to realistic depiction of nature: such lines do not exist in nature. Within the picture plane, though, it creates a strong counter-movement, back towards the foreground trees.  
This is only one of many ways Cezanne employs to construct his space and create the tension. I will return to other elements of this composition next week.

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