Tuesday, May 27th, 2014

Paul Cézanne: Site/Non-Site

Report from… Madrid

Cézanne Site/Non-site was at the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, February 4 – May 18, 2014


Paul Cézanne, The Chestnut Trees of Jas de Bouffan, c. 1885.  Oil on linen, 65 x 81 cm.  Volkart Foundation, Switzerland
Paul Cézanne, The Chestnut Trees of Jas de Bouffan, c. 1885. Oil on linen, 65 x 81 cm. Volkart Foundation, Switzerland

In this exhibition, curated by the museum’s artistic director Guillermo Solano, two concepts coined by the New York artist Robert Smithson during the 1960s have been used to explore aspects of the landscape and still life paintings of Paul Cézanne. For Smithson “site” was the outdoors and “non-site,” the studio. As well as nearly sixty watercolors and paintings by Cézanne, this exhibition includes twelve paintings by artists associated with him, including Pissaro, Gauguin, Derain and Braque. In 1967 Smithson argued that Cézanne’s formal achievements had been over emphasized — beginning with the Cubists — at the expense of the important relationship he believed the paintings held to location and environment. Although it might actually seem impossible, to overestimate Cézanne’s formal impact on painters who came after him – only two names need be mentioned, Matisse and Picasso – the consideration of the physical context in the production of Cézanne’s painting is indeed very rewarding. The exhibition rigorously explores the dialectic between open air and studio, convincingly demonstrating an eventual synthesis of the hitherto mutually exclusive experiences.   Whereas the impressionists concentrated on landscape alone, Cézanne consistently painted both landscape and still life, eventually seeking to integrate the two, erasing the boundaries  (both imaginary and physical) of inside and outside.

The exhibition has been sub-divided into five parts each addressing specific aspects of this two-way traffic. Portrait of an Unknown Man, which opens the exhibition,presents just a single painting, Portrait of a Peasant, 1905-1906.  One of the last paintings he is known to have completed before his death, the identity of the sitter is unclear and could easily be the artist himself,. Its inclusion illustrates how – given that the wall on which the figure sits is effectively dividing the studio area from the out doors beyond –the subject is situated at the juncture between inside and outside. There is much intermingling between broken brush mark and echoed color: the blue jacket, sky and rocks appear as if made of the same material and are treated across the surface in the same way, conflating distance and proximity. Cézanne appears to be proposing that human beings are just as much part of their environment as other organic elements are.

Paul Cézanne, Portrait of a Peasant, 1905-06.  Oil on linen, 65 x 55 cm. Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid
Paul Cézanne, Portrait of a Peasant, 1905-06. Oil on linen, 65 x 55 cm. Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

The point being made in the second section of the exhibition, The Bend in the Road is that rather than use the disappearing road as a means to lure the viewer into the recessive space of landscape, as is traditional in a landscape painting, the exact opposite happens in Cézanne. Rocks or trees block the view effectively closing off distance like a screen. A focusing of the gaze within a shallow picture plane is noted extensively by Michel Foucault in his lectures on Manet (Manet and the Object of Painting,2011) and this rejection of renaissance space and perspective that had already begun in Manet continues with Cézanne. In the studio, the “non-site,” still life is the structural mode.

Nudes and Trees explores the possible equivalence of these motifs. A key difference between the two, however, is that over a period of 30 years, Cézanne never painted a nude from life, in clear contrast with trees.  In the Chestnut Trees of Jas de Bouffan, (1885) with its sequence of trees through which – rather like the shaped, negative spaces between things in Piero della Francesa’s paintings – the relationship between figure and ground is clear but equal, with the ground acting laterally, a shape in itself. His trees can be viewed as sublimated anthropomorphic substitutes, again proposing the simultaneity of man with nature. The Phantom of Sainte-Victoire segment of the exhibition returns to the integration of landscape and still life by identifying the motif of Sainte Victoire in some of the still life paintings. The Buffet (1877-1879) and Stoneware Picher (1890-1893), both have crumpled, raised areas of tablecloth that in their faceted surfaces and silhouettes recall the mountain. Much as in Matisse’s paintings of his studio, the introduction and increasing use of cloth to cover angular forms suggests a desire for a less structured, more fluid subject. The control possible with the intimate space and form of still life rather than the expansive size of landscape is no longer seen as an alternative approach as structures from one can now be found in the other.  This leads directly to the final rooms of the exhibition titled Construction Game.

In still life, Cézanne brought haptic, concentrated and relational qualities to the fore.  Each object is precisely measured and visually placed so as progressively to undermine and transform their relationship, treating the objects and their closed surroundings to the same restless interrogations as geological contours found in mountain and rock surfaces. In the other direction, Cézanne finds equivalence in the use of built structures – houses and walls – when he isolates them like still life elements in the landscape. The house of House in Provence (1885) sits between vertical mountainous background and a horizontal grass foreground as if an object on a tablecloth, surrounded by comparable folds and layers. Smithson’s description of his studio sculptures as “indoor earth works” resonates with this commonality of still life and landscape, generating an unanticipated exchange between Cézanne and an entirely different engagement with landscape on another continent and half a century later.

Paul Cézanne, The Buffet, 1887-79.  Oil on linen, 65 x 81 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest
Paul Cézanne, The Buffet, 1887-79. Oil on linen, 65 x 81 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest