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Personally, I think his torment has been overdone. I try to explain how he was more normal and less pathological than many people think. There's a famous story of Cézanne meeting van Gogh, another famously tormented artist. And I think it's only a story — it's too good to be true. Van Gogh showed his work to Cézanne, and Cézanne said, "My God, you paint like a madman." The very existence of this story is an indication of his association with torment.
You devote several lines of your book to disputing prominent myths about the artist. What misconception is so strong that you expect it to linger even when you've disproved it?
Probably the misconception, in my opinion, that he was pathologically afraid of women and, by extension, that he had difficulty conducting normal relations with people, including his own wife. I think that misperception is very deeply ingrained. I've tried to fight against it in my book.
The Nelson-Atkins has one of Cézanne's paintings in "Mont Sainte-Victoire" in its collection. That's a subject Cézanne returned to over and over again. Can you explain his fascination with the subject?
He painted that mountain about 40 times — a lot, a lot. He would be spending sometimes days, sometimes weeks looking at the mountain and painting the mountain. For him, it symbolized the land, the country, his country, that he felt he knew so intimately and meant so much to him. He had a profound understanding of the land.
One of his friends was a geologist, and in one of his sketchbooks, there were sketches of the various periods of the Earth's formation. Cézanne understood very deeply, very personally, how the land had got to be like that — why there were mountains, why there were forests, how long they had been there. He had a profound love of the land. He was in his own way an environmentalist, before the environmentalists. I think the mountains spoke to him in that context.
You include a quote by Ernest Hemingway in the epilogue: "I learned to understand Cézanne much better and to see truly how he made landscapes when I was hungry." What do you think he meant, and why did you include it?
I was intrigued that Hemingway had spent so long looking at Cézanne's paintings in Paris, and he felt he had gained something from looking at them for his own art. One of the things that interests me most about Cézanne is how he's been an exemplary figure for all sorts of artists, writers, philosophers and poets, not just other painters, but all kinds of people — including, for example, Hemingway. I put him in as an example of that, of the sheer breadth of his influence.
What he meant by it is hard to tell. I think it's partly a joke on Hemingway's part, in that some of the paintings he was looking at were still lifes and they were chock-full of things to eat while he was hungry. Perhaps that made him hungrier, or perhaps it sharpened his vision or senses, so he had a keener appreciation for what he was looking at. I think it's partly a sly sense of humor on Hemingway's part. Cézanne's sense of humor was also a little sly in that it was hard to tell if he was being serious or being funny.
Alex Danchev speaks about his book, Cézanne: A Life, at 7 p.m. Friday, November 9, in Atkins Auditorium at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525 Oak. For details, see nelson-atkins.org or rainydaybooks.com/alexdanchev.