Friday, April 26, 2013

Looking at The Large Bathers

The Large Bathers by Paul Cézanne

Paul Cézanne may be unique among great painters in that, well - he couldn't really paint all that well.  

I know that sounds paradoxical; perhaps even oxymoronic. Yet it's quite obvious Cézanne had little natural gift for the art form he was determined to master. It's true that put to the test, he could eke out a solid figure study (as he did in art school); but anyone can see his heart wasn't in it - as soon as he could, he reverted to the thick, bulbous caricatures that came to him naturally.

The flip side of this lack of facility, however, was that Cézanne was never tempted by art-star showiness (a trap that in different ways snared Sargent, Picasso, and Dalí). There would be no easy success in the salon for him; and so he began a long, (almost) solitary trudge toward remarkable insights into how painted images operate, how they can be de-stabilized, and how the resulting abstractions hint at new metaphors, and unspoken questions.

Take The Large Bathers, for instance (above), which since February has been on loan to the MFA, where it has graced the wall next to the museum's major Gauguin (a melancholy comic strip which is certainly in debt to Cézanne, but may not be flattered by comparison with him).  When you look at these Bathers, however, it's best to look hard (I've visited the painting several times over the past few weeks; it returns to Philadelphia on May 12). For it's startling how many subtle optical tricks Cézanne has embedded in this seemingly "primitive" image.

The piece is clearly (though perhaps coyly) posited as a work-in-progress -  even though the artist had been working and re-working it for years (he died with it still in the studio). Despite a half-decade of attention, however - Cézanne's process was famously slow - unpainted patches still make up much, if not most, of key figures (so the canvas is as nude as they are), and the image as a whole is laced with mysterious lacunae. The seated woman on the left, for instance, is missing her head (it takes a while for most people to  notice this, such is the suggestive power of the composition), and it's unclear what, exactly, these "bathers" are up to, anyway.  Are they washing, perhaps?  Or drying their clothes?  It's hard to tell, for the object of the central trio's attention has likewise yet to be called forth from the canvas; Cézanne only supplies a flat glyph that might be intended to read as "motion" (Les Demoiselles d'Avignon and Nude Descending a Staircase may derive entirely from these gestures, btw).

Larger aspects of the picture are similarly unstable - the supine nude staring toward what would be a traditional "vanishing point" is wittily floating in some alternative perspective, while the object of her attention could either be facing us, or turned away.  And beyond the vaulted "frame" of trees, the background landscape is surprisingly evanescent: we can make it out to the left, but it vanishes entirely on the right.  Has it been occluded by foliage?  Again, hard to say, because Cézanne's leafy surround blends directly into his sky; the same luminous carpet of strokes serves for both.  In the end, the landscape has vanished from the right-hand side of the picture simply because it doesn't have to be there.

So The Large Bathers operates as a kind of essay in a new mode of pictorial illusion - one in which the painting persuades us even though much of it isn't there. But perhaps the solidity of Cézanne's structure renders irrelevant the gaps in his pictorialism; the sacred arch of the trees, the soft pyramids of figures - these could underpin a Titian or Poussin, and they anchor and reify what would otherwise be a series of half-realized suggestions. It's almost as if the artist is testing how little he can actually reveal while convincing us he is showing us something in its entirety - which only allows him to leave his actual content ambiguous.

But what is that content?  Here is where an atmosphere of almost wistful depth begins to emanate from The Large Bathers. As with all death-bed statements and famous last words, it's hard to resist the temptation to gaze into its surface and find there a mirror of many of Cézanne's life-long concerns.  Certainly here we can perceive something of the heavy deliberation of his early work - only now operating in a luminous palette that hints at his famous interactions with the sunny Pissarro. The image's tricks of perspective likewise recall the later still lifes, as does the curious sense of the "solidity" of everything on display (even those things that aren't fully painted!). Somehow, we feel, Cézanne's entire technical development is referenced or conjured in this work; it's essentially his Tempest.

The subject matter itself is likewise poignant. There is little sensual playfulness in Cézanne's oeuvre (he once confessed his Catholicism made him uneasy painting from nude models); when sex does rear its head, it's usually in paintings with titles like The Rape. Thus his  nudes splash about in an entirely different manner from Renoir's - and in a river of tears, probably; so it's no surprise The Large Bathers conveys a sense of erotic melancholy, even alienation, rather than joy.

Which only makes one wonder whether the details of the picture aren't so much unpainted as being erased; perhaps Arcadia is fading, and these goddesses are ghosts. Needless to say, for Cézanne, who was always possessed by the solidity of things, by their very thing-ness, this haunted quality is something extraordinary.  No wonder then that the indistinct figure - his face mostly bare canvas - who stands at the center of the image, on the far shore, is looking, Janus-like, in two directions at once: backward at the garden of Eden, and forward to the little bourgeois town that beckons from the horizon.  Meanwhile Diana and her nymphs stare after him, but do not wave or call; perhaps they know modernity means saying good-bye forever.

And yet given all this, it's strange how the painting seems to quietly glow somehow.  Perhaps for Cézanne it was a kind of sunset.  After all, he died working on it. It was quite literally his last farewell.

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