Cézanne, Paul

Image Le Mont Sainte-Victoire

1902-04 (170 Kb); Oil on canvas, 69.8 x 89.5 cm (27 1/2 x 35 1/4 in); Philadelphia Museum of Art; Venturi 798

Discussing the juxtaposition of photographs of motifs with the corresponding paintings, E. H. Gombrich differs markedly from Erle Loran in the attitude that he adopts:
``Historians of art have explored the regions where Cézanne and van Gogh set up their easels and have photographed their motifs. Such comparisions will always retain their fascination... But however instructive such confrontations may be when handled with care, we must clearly beware of the fallacy of 'stylization.' Should we believe the photograph represents the 'objective truth' while the painting records the artist's subjective vision--the way he transformed 'what he saw'? Can we here compare 'the image of the retina' with the 'image in the mind'? Such speculations easily lead into a morass of unprovables. Take the image on the artist's retina. It sounds scientific enough, but actually there never was one such image which we could single out for comparison with either photograph or painting. What there was was an endless succession of innumerable images as the painter scanned the landscape in front of him, and these images sent a complex pattern of impulses through the optic nerves to his brain. Even the artist knew nothing of these events, and we know even less. How far the picture formed in his mind corresponded to or deviated from the photograph it is even less profitable to ask. What we do know is that these artists went out into nature to look for material for a picture and their artistic wisdom led them to organize the elements of the landscape into works of art of marvellous complexity that bear as much relationship to a surveyor's record as a poem bears to a police report.''

Max Raphael devoted a long study to this painting, in the course of which he stated: ``The complex relationship between art and nature cannot be defined as one of imitation of a model given once and for all. Just as nature alone does not determine the mind, so the mind, conversely, cannot dictate its law to nature. Man's active, creative mind is never identical with itself for any length of time. For the very reason that in art the human mind neither imitates nature nor imposes its own laws on it, the work of art possesses specific reality and is governed by laws of its own. Whatever form art may assume in the course of history, it is always a synthesis between nature (or history) and the mind, and as such it acquires a certain autonomy vis-a-vis both these elements.''

Speaking specifically of this landscape, Raphael observed: ``Cézanne restricted his palette to four main colors--violet, green, ocher, and blue--which he used in sharply contrasting ways. In the foreground we see a triad whose components--violet, ocher, and green--do not show the slightest inner connection, for although the red in the violet is complementary to the green and the blue in the violet is complementary to the ocher, the two greens he chose are not complementary to this red and the ocher is not complementary to this blue in the violet. The mutual exclusion of color qualities is not overcome by any external means of connection or mediation; the three colors in the foreground do not form a harmonious chord, but a shrill dissonance of tremendous force.'' As early as 1884 Cézanne had written to Zola: 'The external appearance of art is undergoing a terrible transformation, taking on too much of a very paltry form. At the same time the ignorance of harmony reveals itself more and more through the discord of colors and, what is even worse, the aphony of tones.'

Cézanne's capacity for differentiation is extraordinary: the abundance of color gradations to be found in his works could be created, recorded, and mastered only by an exceptionally strong artistic temperament, a superior intellect, a stubborn will, and an uncommonly sharp eye. His general principles of differentiation, in addition to light and shadow, involve contrasts between warm and cold, opacity and transparency, brilliance and dullness, thickness and thinness, smoothness and roughness, structure and absence of structure; degrees of intensity and magnitude, and relative position. There are brighter and darker greens, violets, etc., warm and cold ochers, greens, blues; all the main directions--the vertical, the horizontal, and many slanted ones; all tendencies to movement--reclining, standing, and extending; every sort of positioning on the surface and opening up in depth, and every kind of transition from rest to movement. The thicker layers of paint are more opaque, more structural, and rougher, whereas the thinner layers are less opaque and smoother; the result is a play of textures, with transparency in depth and relief in the foreground...

Mont Sainte-Victoire is not painted in consistently clear tones; light and dark colors alternate continually in an austere rhythmic structure. At the bottom plane of the painting a darkness of violets and greens is used throughout. The middle plane can be divided into three bands, each showing three articulations: in the lowest the values are disposed horizontally as light-light-dark; in the middle one the disposition is reversed (dark-dark-light); in the upper reigns symmetry (dark-light- dark), preparing the bipartite division of the sky into a cold and a warm dark. The distribution of light may also be described as follows: the painting is divided by a line which runs from the lower left corner to the center top; to the right of this line a shadow falls dramatically across the path of light; to the left a light and half-light area falls across the shadow, producing a contrast which gives way to symmetry at the top. But this distribution is nevertheless only the external, regulative aspect of the composition of light. It must also be noted that the lower part shows a number of violent contrasts both in depth and horizontally. In the upper part, however, the contrasts penetrate and pass into one another; the middle part is transitional in the sense that many small lights and shadows are concentrated in a small space in the form of external contrasts which begin to interpenetrate in a hovering manner, but are not yet as clearly outlined as in the mountain. But in studying this rich compositional development we must not overlook the presence of conflict--the fact that the light is merely a path which runs horizontally between two different kinds of dark, trying to penetrate them, but without brightening them...

As for the role of color in the composition, the division of the painting into three horizontal bands is again of crucial significance. At the bottom the principal colors are violet, green, and ocher; they are strongly concentrated in relatively large masses which together form a kind of oval. The lower section of this oval consists of rising violet tones pressing into depth, rhythmically interrupted by dark greens. The upper section of the oval consists of various greens which check the movement in depth. The warm dark green at the right has a heavy downward movement; the brighter, cooler green at the left, a slightly upward movement. The two parts of the oval are linked by the ocher of the farmstead (with the red roofs), whose linear boundaries extend into depth, while the intense cold color seems to be immobilized between the two opposed movements, forward and backward.

© 19 Sep 2002, Nicolas Pioch - Top - Up - Info
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