A pivotal figure in the transition from Impressionism (think Monet's "Water Lilies") to Cubism (Picasso), French Post-Impressionist painter Paul Cézanne invented a new way to represent three-dimensional space on canvas, breaking traditions that had been in place since the Renaissance and influencing generations of artists to come. British author Alex Danchev discusses his new book, Cézanne: A Life, in a Rainy Day Books-sponsored talk at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. In a phone conversation with The Pitch, Danchev explains what makes Cézanne such a noteworthy subject.
The Pitch: You're a professor of international relations. Why have you chosen art as one of your major areas of scholarship?
Danchev: I try to combine the general realm of art or works of the imagination with the realm of politics and international relations. I teach on art and war, for example, and I often write biographies. We should be treating the lives of artists more like the world's historical figures, to bring them out of the ghetto of art and into history. Cézanne was truly one of the world's historical figures in the sense that he is one of the people who created the modern world for us.
You begin your book by declaring Cézanne's 1907 posthumous retrospective in Paris as the most consequential exhibition of modern times. That's a pretty bold statement.
Cézanne died the previous year. When he died, the people who knew most about him were his fellow artists: Renoir, Monet and so on. They collected his work. They tried to understand what he was doing. He wasn't really famous or well-known beyond those artists. Most people had never seen Cézanne's work. They may have heard he was doing amazing paintings, but they wouldn't have been able to see any because they weren't in museums. They were in private collections. Something like 56 Cézannes in the middle of Paris — that was more Cézannes than anyone had seen before. Everyone went. People came from all over Europe and North America to see for the first time what the legendary painter had been doing. Some of the visitors there used what Cézanne had been doing in their own work. For example: Picasso, Braque and the Cubists.
Early on in the book, you use a quote from painter and theorist Maurice Denis: "I have never heard an admirer of Cézanne give me a clear and precise reason for his admiration." How would you explain your admiration clearly, precisely and succinctly?
If you spend 500 pages of a book explaining this, it's difficult to explain it in a sentence or two. Cézanne painted like no one else before him. Quite a lot of people say that. It looked utterly new and strange and took some getting used to. What was new about it was that he often dispensed with the conventions of painting that people had got used to, the usual sort of perspective, where things look smaller as they recede in space. That doesn't necessarily happen in Cézanne's paintings. Things might be at a slant, rather than straight up. The colors might be muddled; you might have a blue tree and some red sky. I admire all this because he made it work. He made you see the world as he saw it — but a new world, a Cézanne world.
Several of Cézanne's associates described him as tormented with self-doubt. That's a recurring theme in the lives of modern artists — the tormented genius in his studio.
Cézanne is associated very much with the torment of self-doubt. Probably the most famous article written about him is called "Cézanne's Doubt." That was written by a philosopher [Maurice Merleau-Ponty] in 1945, well after he died. It was an indication of just how much he was associated with the idea of the great, tormented artist. He has become the great tormented artist in many people's eyes.