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Cezanne and Van Gogh: Beyond Perception

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Impressionism was one of the most fruitful of artistic movements for what it inspired in the artists of succeeding generations.  It was fruitful, certainly, in the new ground it explored, in light and color, but equally fruitful in what it excluded from the enterprise of art, significant segments of reality that it deliberately ignored.  A “hard line” impressionist like Claude Monet limited himself to the reality of visual perception, of the impulses of color and light which reach the eye, out of which we interpret the rest of what we know or believe about the world.  Cezanne expressed succinctly both the strength and limitations of the approach when he described Monet as “only an eye, by what an eye!”  Cezanne, whose “Bibemus Quarry” we see here, was one of several artists who tried to address the inherent limitations of pure perception.

It is very apt to label the generation of artists who followed Monet, including Cezanne and Van Gogh, as “Post-Impressionist”, because each was dedicated to exploring the new palette which the impressionists had introduced, but each reacted against the limitations of the strict impressionist enterprise.  If we look at self-portraits by Cezanne and Van Gogh, we are struck by how completely they have absorbed impressionist ideas of color and surface, yet how far each has come from a simple recording of perceptual information.

For Cezanne, what was unacceptable in impressionism was the loss of reference to the classical understanding of the world as solid objects in space.  At the same time he has accepted the lesson of Monet that the only direct experience of the world which we have is the impression of light and color reaching the eye, or being transferred to the canvas.  So, Cezanne took on what may have been the most ambitious enterprise a painter could address:  to reconcile the classical understanding of a world of solid objects in space with the reality of paint on a flat surface.

In Cezanne’s self portrait we recognize the lively paint surface which Monet introduced, by instead of Monet’s dabs and flecks of paint we have a structure of square-ended strokes which seem literally to sculpt the solid form of the head.  From the hollows of the eye sockets to the majestic dome of the scull, the solidity of the form seems the equal of anything done by Michelangelo.  Yet, when the head tries to turn into space, it meets an equally dense surface where there should have been air.

A dense and lively surface also describes Van Gogh’s work well, but how different are the character of the strokes, and the ultimate effect of the image!  The strokes here writhe and flow with a restless energy that is totally unlike the analytical calm of the Cezanne.  For Van Gogh, what was unacceptably excluded by the impressionist approach was not solid form in space, but inner truth.  The world for Van Gogh is what we feel about it, and the powerful impact of the self-portrait comes from the intensity that he projected onto the world.

As we look at the two works together, we realize that we end up knowing nothing about Cezanne from his self-portrait except the nature of his art, while with the Van Gogh we know everything essential about this tortured soul who could only reach out to others through his paintings.


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