I’m one of those painters who is forever fascinated with the work of Paul Cezanne. I’ve tracked down his locations around Mont Sainte-Victoire and peered out at the village of Aix through the wavy glass of his studio windows. Looking closely at his paintings and trying to figure out what was going on in his head has been a major preoccupation of mine. So I paid attention when Dewain Boyce sent me his latest findings.
Dewain is making a case that Cezanne imbedded cones, ovals and other geometric motifs in his work. Dewain claims this is the basis of structural strength in the compositions. He leaves it to someone else to figure out whether this was conscious or unconscious. Why should we care about Dewain’s well conducted research? It’s just possible that Cezanne shows us a way to give weight, mass, volume, compositional integrity and harmony to our paintings.
Cezanne gave us lots of clues to the pictorial harmony he was seeking. He told Emile Bernard that one needs “an invisible scaffolding of spheres, cones and cylinders.” Like the Classical tradition of entasis and other devices in Greek architecture, he had an understanding of hidden structure. “To paint is not to copy the object slavishly,” he said, “it is to grasp a harmony among many relationships.”
Cezanne was a plodder, never far from feelings of personal failure. Persisting in relatively uninspiring subject matter, he worked and reworked until a distinctive style emerged. In a way, it was his sense of failure that drove him in his obsession — trying to get it right, trying to improve on his ideas. There’s a lesson in this. By his own admission he was not a great artist. “Chance has not favoured me with self-assurance,” he said. At another time in a rare moment of bluff, he said, “I have come only to show the way.” Indeed he did. Lineups, implied and continued curves and other forms of linear activation are now basics of abstraction. Realistic painters also need to know about these compositional strengtheners. As in the work of Cezanne, many an unresolved or wispy painting can be saved and made compelling by hidden scaffolding.
PS: “Beyond the three dimensions of length, breadth, and perspective depth, there is a rhythmic, voluminous movement, or a poised spatial relationship that speaks emotionally to the spectator. In a great many of Cezanne’s canvases one detects a fluctuation of the volumes and planes — a palpable feeling of emotional organization.” (Art critic Sheldon Cheney, 1886-1980)
Esoterica: Of interest and concern to observant realists is the apparent pervasive amateurism of much of modern art. Consciously or unconsciously, Cezanne was one of the first to ask people to look at something else — something beyond the simply real — a request made possible only by the advent of Impressionism. “The Impressionist’s style,” says Dewain Boyce, “is the perfect method for camouflaging ellipses, cones and cylinders and hiding them among sketchy images, loose outlines, colour and tone changes, arbitrary marks, squiggly lines, washed-out lines and bare canvas patches.”
Dewain Boyce, Ghosts in the Forest — Cezanne’s Geometry
by Gina Mollicone-Long
Regarding Cezanne’s feelings of failure, failure is feedback, nothing more. Failure is just a reflection of something that isn’t working on the inside. It doesn’t hold any hidden meaning about our worthiness and doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try. It is feedback about what worked and what didn’t work. It contains all the necessary information for us to go back and change something on the inside so that we can produce a different outcome. If you can master the art of learning from your failures, you will find that you can literally direct your life exactly as you want it.
(RG note) Thanks, Gina. Gina Mollicone-Long is the author of The Secret of Successful Failing. Gina is trying an interesting experiment. While her excellent book is available on Amazon and other places, people who buy her book today, October 16th, 2007, will receive access to over $5800.00 worth of bonuses — plus they will be helping her raise money for some of the charities she believes in. A lot of sponsors who have found value in Gina’s book are participating in the event. You can find out about it at www.ginaML.com/bookbonus.htm
Nothing new here
by Gretchen Van Cleave, Spring, TX, USA
I am a photographer and have been teaching photography and basic design for over 11 years at the college level and at guest lectures. I picked or should I say Cezanne picked me to fascinate over his paintings. He is my favorite of all Impressionists because of his use of design elements. Your Dewain is only stating what is obvious to all experts of design: Everything is made up of parts of lines and parts of circles. I have taught this for years. Add only shadow to give dimension. If you see a cone in Cezanne’s work, it is only your eye (brain) giving depth to the simpler elements which he laid down so carefully then added his wonderful color to give that depth. Gestalt to the max.
Cezanne had Asperger’s Syndrome?
by Jane Alcorn, Australia
I have been fascinated by Cezanne for many years, and recently read a biography by Philip Callow. As I was reading, it was uncanny to come upon references to his sadness, strange moods, fear of touch and unusual appearance. I have several people in my immediate family who have varying degrees of Asperger’s syndrome, and I can’t help but think that he might well have had a similar condition. One of my sons who has quite severe Asperger’s is an artist also. All of them have particular skills and are narrowly focused on those skills. It made me wonder whether Cezanne might have been similarly obsessive about his work.
If Ghosts Could Speak
by Richard Hawk, San Diego, CA, USA
I don’t know what Mr. Boyce is smoking, but I want some! It is true though that everywhere in Cezanne’s work there is the air of a plan — some principle or principles that he held in his mind and applied as he worked. If only we could truly know exactly what he was up to! Then maybe we’d understand how many of his paintings, which seem homogenous at first glance, hold our attention with some underlying core.
Cezanne knew what he was doing
by Jon Rader Jarvis, Vashon Island, WA, USA
When I was in grad school I was playing with a hypothesis. The fact that we see with two eyes means that we learn to ignore second images instinctively. A thumb at arms length will give the illusion of a double background when you focus both eyes on the thumb. Likewise focusing on the distant landscape makes the thumb appear as double. Used in a painting, a tree at the edge painted as a double gives the feel of causing a focus on a distant object, and a double church steeple or double mountain peak produces a large depth of field effect and focuses on a near object. I put the conjecture in my thesis paper then saw, a few years later, a local museum exhibition of Impressionist work, including Cezanne paintings with double church steeples, double mountain peaks (Mont Sainte-Victoire) and double tree trunks at the side of his paintings. He had seen and realized the truth, using it to demonstrate his expertise at enhanced illusory depth. I had admired his varied back edges that implied a moving eye experiencing edges between still life objects as spatial objects in real space, the moving line that affects the viewer. I knew he was sophisticated, but he was also a clear-eyed genius who knew what he was doing.
by Faith Puleston, Herdecke, Germany
I always think of Cezanne taking his morning stroll ’round the local street market, choosing fresh fruit according to quality, shape, size and colour for a new composition, bartering at the flower stall, calling in at the wine store for another interesting bottle, than taking it all home, finding a fresh cloth to drape over the rickety old table and setting it all up. I’m sure all the edible and drinkable bits of his still lifes wandered either into a cooking pot or straight down his gullet. Identifying with Cezanne is easy. His humanity, striving and refined simplicity are an inspiration.
Cezanne’s struggle and perseverance
by Susanne Kelley Clark, Dallas, TX, USA
Two worthwhile books are Erle Loran’s Cezanne’s Composition, first published in 1943 and Cezanne Landscape into Art by Pavel Machotka. To me some of Cezanne’s compositions seem to focus on variations of one geometric shape, such as his The Great Bathers, but most of them include multiple layers of all the basic shapes, masterfully integrated into compositions which always seem to present something new. I have always loved the way he is able to distort space and convince us that it is completely real. Looking at a Cezanne in person is a rich experience, seeing all the layers of color sparkling through one another and also realizing how much time, struggle and perseverance went into the making of his paintings. We are fortunate to have his work to learn from.
There is 1 comment for Cezanne’s struggle and perseverance by Susanne Kelley Clark
Cezanne a master of colour
by John Mullenger, Oakville, ON, Canada
The underlying geometric structure in Cezanne’s paintings, as Boyce points out in his research, is paramount to the success of his paintings. But I feel this is merely a “given,” for no painting will succeed without it. Every great painting utilizes a geometric framework based on basic shapes. Whether it is a conscious or subconscious thing is a moot point — If you do a thing long enough consciously, eventually it will become “second-nature.” Where I believe Cezanne excelled above all, is with his colour. He is the master of colour and he is the artist’s artist because of this.
Humility in Cezanne
by Jane Champagne, Southampton, ON, Canada
Too much analysis kills the joy in great works of art; it’s a left-brain exercise. Cezanne was a humble man, who probably never knew how influential he would be. Someone once defined humility as “low, of the earth.” When you’re “low” — that is, close to the earth — you’re a realist, you’re in touch with the reality of the world as it is. To say that he painted “relatively uninspiring subject matter” is another way of saying that he painted the reality of his, not someone else’s world. Yes, he was a plodder; he walked and walked to find what his vision searched for. And died out in his beloved Provence, while walking, easel on shoulder, cane in hand, searching the earth. Humble. We could use more of this.
Hidden scaffolding in digital art
by Peter Ciccariello, Providence, RI, USA
“Hidden scaffolding” resonated for me. And certainly Cezanne has always been the “painter’s painter.” The natural world, created by systems of greater and greater complexity is metaphorically represented in the exterior by the internal structure of how we transpose what we see and experience from the interior. In my own work The process begins with using a variety of 3-D imaging software to create a virtual three dimensional space, arranging and composing simple primitives shapes (spheres, cubes, tori, columns), and sometimes more complex polygon mesh models. This “virtual” composition is then texture mapped using fragments of text and letters, digital photos, and real-world textures. Lighting is introduced and positioned to either create the illusion of a landscape, or a generic interior. The resulting three-dimensional render is then brought into an image editing program where it is treated as one “pass” of a multiple composite image. Digital art, and the use of geometrics in virtual space, is analogous to the hidden scaffolding present in Cezanne’s later paintings, which was, as I see it, further explored by the Cubists and Futurists by the use of plural viewpoints and the exploitation of the picture plane.
Cezanne’s Magic Eye
by Ruth Armitage, Tualatin OR, USA
This is fascinating stuff. When reading your letter, I thought “Aha! Finally a way to understand Cezanne’s genius!” But when viewing the painting maps, all I could think of was those “magic eye” posters that were so popular a few years back. I just can’t see it. Now I’m trying to decide if it is my vision that is deficient, or if Dewain Boyce is just like many art critics: a big talker, trying to make himself sound intelligent. I wish his article had talked more about how he sees the maps. Does he visualize the cones in 3 dimensions by looking at the color? Is it the line that leads the way to finding them? I am stretching my imagination to the utmost, but still can’t see the connection.
Cezanne transcendent of subject matter
by Alan Soffer, Wallingford, PA, USA
What a wonderful way to start my day, hearing about the way great representational work is strengthened by the underlying structure of abstract geometric forms. More importantly, though, is the fact that Cezanne made his way by honing the process and proving once again that perspiration will win out over inspiration. One of the reasons we value this work is that it transcends the obvious subject matter, and probably led to our present day approach of expressionist and non-objective subject matter.
Emperor’s new clothes
by Jamie McDonald Gray, Calgary, AB, Canada
Although I can see how it may be true that Cezanne used intentional structural scaffolding in his work (and what artist doesn’t really, in one way or another), when I went to look at the examples you provided of Cezanne’s paintings with the shapes superimposed upon them I felt very skeptical. Because I suspect that instead of ellipses you could just as easily take cylinders or cones, find those shapes suggested in the structure of the painting and voila you’d see a bunch of that particular shape. Sous Bois with revealed ellipses is particularly suspect to me — I see more triangular than elliptical shapes myself. Plus, where exactly is the structure and harmony in how those ellipses have been laid out? Is this a case of theoretical “spin”? Or the emperor’s new clothes maybe.
More emperor’s new clothes
by Suzette Fram, Mapel Ridge, BC, Canada
I wonder how much time Mr. Boyce has spent drawing shapes where there were none. It seems like a lot of nonsense to me. These shapes appear to have been drawn completely arbitrarily with no real basis to them at all. They could be drawn anywhere on the painting. Frankly, I don’t get it. I don’t see where he gets these shapes from and I don’t see how these shapes provide “structural integrity or harmony.” Seems to me more like a case of ‘the emperor’s new clothes.’ If an expert says something exists, then everyone agrees with him for fear of appearing ignorant. I find the whole thing to be nonsense, and quite pointless. I hope this is not his life’s work.
Still more emperor’s new clothes
by Pepper Hume, Spring, TX, USA
Sorry, I don’t buy it. I’ve studied Mr. Boyce’s cones and the paintings without them and I don’t see the “clues” he sees for placing them. His cone placements seem totally arbitrary and unrelated to the colors, forms, or images. I need some sense of how he discerns the placement of these cones… surely Cezanne didn’t scatter them willy-nilly like so many scraps of paper dropped on the canvas. If Cezanne used these cones for scaffolding, wouldn’t there be a sense of structural relationship among them? Wouldn’t that relationship harmonize with the image? The point of scaffolding is to support, not rattle around independently of the image. I understand the concept of distilling shapes and forms into geometrics and then building a pictorial reality upon that… I use it myself in figure drawing and sculpting. I have also seen how an underlying line or shape can exist across various objects or color changes across a canvas. I recall a seascape painter (whose name escapes me) who carried the lines of a sail or a shadow on to the edges of the canvas with a change of color. His brushwork had a Monet quality of dabs of color working together. Granted, this scaffolding was clearly obvious in the final image, but he could well have implied other shapes within his color. But Boyce’s secret, invisible cones smack of an emperor’s new clothes. An interesting premise but not very edifying, if not downright obfuscating.
Art nothing without ‘Heart’
by Nikki Coulombe, Lewisville, TX, USA
That someone is serious about “stating a case” with “in-depth research” and is actually trying to prove that Cezanne, or any other master, did not already know the basics is preposterous. Questioning whether he was consciously applying knowledge is ridiculous; of course he was, if only by way of practice and experience. Sometimes Art logic becomes so far removed from the real thing, and I can hardly believe what I’m reading! To summarize and combine comments I’ve wanted to make to a few of the recent clickbacks: without Heart, Art is nothing because it maintains and is the origin of enthusiasm — but without structure Art is only chaos and is not enough to grab the viewer and maintain their enthusiasm. (Without proof we’ll all progress just fine).
Impressionism still being promoted
by Alex Nodopaka, Lake Forest, CA, USA
What disturbs me most is Impressionism, after some 150 years, still being at the forefront of what is stale representative art. Despite having held the stage for this long, too many contemporary writers, however indirectly, still promote Impressionism by reference. I am guilty of it myself. Such doings explain its longevity. Popularity still rules, that’s why it is named popular and therefore common and it is lowering instead of raising the common denominator for art making or selling.
Forgetting the illusion of reality
by Frank Armistead, Regina, SK, Canada
In the classic The New Cezanne by Charles Biederman, he gives the understanding that Cezanne, in his later works, had come to identify with the painting itself as a flat plane and attempted to represent the complexity of the subjects he painted as the planes that they presented which were facing the viewer — as if rounded or receding shapes were flat forms when brought to the surface of the painting. This meant that the painter should forget about trying to create an illusion of reality and focus instead upon seeing what was before him/her as a complexity of flat interlocking planes on the surface of the canvas. He was also intrigued by the use of warm and cool tones to create a sense of balance and depth. No doubt Cezanne used all sorts of compositional techniques, including the geometrics. One he really was expert with was creating harmony and balance with color. I’m sure I’m about to learn a lot more.
Misunderstandings add new energy
by David Schwindt, Tucson, AZ, USA
I, too, am one of those painters forever fascinated by the works of Cezanne. One of my favorite quotes comes from a Cezanne scholar, Lawrence Gowing, in The Logic of Organized Sensations, a chapter in the book edited by William Rubin, Cezanne, The Late Work. He states, “One might write the history of that order of originality which this century identifies as the essence of artand eventually it must be writtenas a history of inveterate misunderstanding. We cannot claim that the view of Delacroix that inspired Cezanne represented a true evaluation of him. The guiding star that Cezanne followed shone far more steadily than the flawed jewel of Romanticism ever did. And Delacroix himself, how shallow his interpretation of Rubens! Then Rubenswas not his merely sensuous appreciation of physical rhythms as the basis of style a gross misconstruction of the philosophical meaning that the human body held for Michelangelo? And so on… Yet this succession of creative misunderstandings was as nothing by comparison with the way that the twentieth century used Cezanne. The interpretations to which his example was subjected in the years after 1906 converted art into something new, something he would certainly have accepted even less than he accepted Gauguin, an order of image and a function of style neither of which had ever existed before.” So I say, more power to those who continue to draw from tradition and the work of other artists. May their misunderstandings also add new energy to our contemporary body of work we call ART.
Symphonic movement observed
by Dan Auerbach, Bronx, NY, USA
I’m a long-time student of Cezanne’s work. He did have a color approach to his work and did talk about reducing things to their basic shapes: spheres, cones, cylinders and cubes… which he did do so well. Master painters throughout history have been great spatial designers and Cezanne carried on that tradition. His own vision of that tradition uses strong warm and cool colors contrasted with neutralized colors, the reduction of objects into their solid geometric forms and, importantly, the control of the “planes” on those massive objects, by the control of the play of light… that is his magic. I looked at Mr. Boyce’s analysis and, as a painter, totally disagree with his findings. Any artist examining and studying composition throughout the history of art would find Mr. Boyce’s analysis alien to the construction of paintings. In the overall pictorial design of paintings we find the very deliberate use of closed or open forms such as triangles, rectangles or sweeping “C” or “S” shapes, “X” shapes… these are not small imbedded “hidden” forms but gross design schemes within which other movements take place. In the great works you’ll find successful two dimensional design overlaying “3” dimensional space. It is true that certain old masters used the Greek’s Golden Rule to partition space, and also true that you find 3rd rate painters who used these same proportional rules exactly, to no avail, producing dead work, work without that magic. Rather than looking for hidden ovals and cones in Cezanne’s work, Mr. Boyce should allow himself to be swept through the non-hidden forms that perform symphonic movement of masses, planes, and color, so solidly perceived and executed.
Corruption by analysis
by Rick Rotante, Tujunga, CA, USA
The “genius” of Cezanne has always eluded me. I understand from reading volumes on the Impressionists of the time, he was the granddaddy of painters to those who painted during his period. I’ve looked at his work and I don’t see a “genius” lurking there. Your comments about hidden circles, cones, rectangles is amusing at best. Every artist from childhood started drawing circles, cones and rectangles. My first drawing experience 55 years ago was from a morning television show by the artist John Negy, who started everyone with these shapes. He spent many sessions telling us about core shadows, reflected light and all this IS the basis of all objects every artist paints since the caveman. Artists from Michelangelo to Velazquez to Andy Warhol have painted images all based on circles, cones and rectangles. Without being mundane, a head is based on a circle, an arm is based on a rectangle. In a previous email response I commented on the basis of sound drawing technique. Fundamentally, all good drawing is based on these shapes in one form or another. Good design is based on these shapes. Enough of Cezanne “hiding” these shapes within his paintings. We are all hiding these shapes within our paintings. So, having established this, let’s move on to “seeing beyond the image.” I believe Cezanne falls short here again. While I find his “technique” interesting, I don’t find it satisfying or earth shattering or groundbreaking in execution. Many of his still lifes are wonderful to look at but I feel he may have been experimenting and never quite got it right. These paintings are what we see today and have come to think are an approach or method and see something that is simply not there. Whenever anyone today questions a noted “master” of the past, we are vilified. It’s slander to question artists that have reached a level of note. But life and art is about questioning. All we do today is based on the past and artists that have come before. New art movements have been created because of artists questioning their peers. The Ashcan artists rebelled against the past. The Impressionists rebelled, The Renaissance happened because artists rebelled. Russian art today is a rebellious response to the oppression of Communism. I believe artists in particular have been brainwashed. Many have stopped thinking and have succumbed to being told what and who is a genius. In fact the words “master” and “great” are so overused as to be meaningless. Cezanne’s contribution to art will be debated ad infinitum and that is a good thing. I just want to add my two cents into the pot for the other side. As much as I have incalculable respect for the artists of the past, I don’t consider Cezanne to be among the uppermost crust. If we are to look at Cezanne, we have to do so without rose colored glasses and examine truthfully not what history tells us but what our eyes and hearts and knowledge and experience tell us. Every artist should be appreciated and understood for their contribution to art itself. Without art, life would be a dark shadow of a hollowed out tree.
Enjoy the past comments below for Cezanne’s Ghosts…
Expulsion of Eve
wooden Sculpture, 15.7 inches tall
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Angela Treat Lyon of Kailua, HI, USA who wrote, “Oh, please! If Cezanne had really spent all that time on all those geometric shapes he’d never have had the time to paint. What mental hooey. Dewain should pick up a brush and start painting and seeing if he can really see how an artist sees. Maybe he’d paint more than geometrics. Good grief.”
And also Paul Kane of Bloomington, IN, USA who wrote, “Only Cezanne knew what he was trying to do. It was something about the way he was trying to combine the action of the brush with the creation of a visual image, with the realization of an underlying structure. No one has inspired more of the very greatest artists.”
And also Leni Friedland of Mt. Sinai, NY, USA who wrote, “I am always leery about historians on painting and biographical writers putting more into paintings than what is really there. No one knows what goes on in an artist’s head while painting, no matter what little quotes are confiscated from letters or other books. Yeah… I am very cynical about any interpretation of fine art since art is really so subjective.”
And also Adria Klausner who wrote, “I highly recommend the contemporary movie: Goya’s Ghosts.”
And also Selwyn Owen of Toronto, ON, Canada who wrote, “In a Cezanne retrospective in Philadelphia I perceived the cones, ovals and geometric lines of perspective in three different works. They made the difference from just a landscape to really strong, enjoyable, indeed almost hypnotic works.”
And also John Lathrop who wrote, “Your elucidation helped me understand this better, a simple but brilliant explanation of Dewain’s thoughts.”
And also Blanche Raphael Weinberger of Dallas, TX, USA who wrote, “I’m sorry but I felt the cone, etc. shapes overlaid in black on the Cezanne work were simply in someone’s imagination. Looking closely at the work I saw none of the supposed shapes… the work may have had them but not where the writer imposed them. The ‘study’ is worthless.”
And also Robert Bissett of Naples, ID, USA who wrote, “I recommend David Friend’s book, Composition, A Painter’s Guide to Basic Problems and Solutions, Watson-Guptill, 1975.”
And also Joseph Guggino who wrote, “Cezanne’s paintings aren’t so much about painting as they are meditations on the nature of reality.”
And also Sarah Wood of Simcoe, ON, Canada who wrote, “Today’s letter is just so interesting and well written that I feel compelled to thank you. Since beginning my subscription to your Twice-Weekly Letter I have been alternately entertained, educated, and amused by your letters. But today’s letter is brilliant. Your letter has to be one of the best offerings on the Internet!”
And also Peggy Small of Gibsons, BC, Canada who wrote, “I didn’t know there was a “Fools Day” in October. Surely you’re putting us on, Robert!”
And also Barbara Haddad who wrote, “All you painters are nutz.”