Art Thoughts, Week 4 – Cezanne & Contrast

Bathers at Rest, Paul Cezanne (French, 1839—1906), 1876-77, oil on canvas, BF 906.

I’ll begin with two suppositions, which will soon connect. One: Dr. Albert Barnes supposedly included “bad” (in his estimation) paintings by genius artists, mostly for didactic purposes; i.e. to perhaps illustrate the difficulties – and the interrelatedness – of not only seeing art well, but also making it well. And two: Paul Cezanne, the master of Aix-en-Provence, supposedly made two major types of paintings; en plein air, and studio. I don’t know the history of Barnes’s opinions on Bathers at Rest, but it is, in some ways, not the most beautiful painting by Cezanne. And in some other ways, it is a really wonderful picture (shown above; an unfortunately dark version).

Remember those compare-contrast papers from grade school? This painting is a study in compare and contrast; a studio painting in the true sense (studious). But most comparisons end up being contrasts. Each of the four figures is striking a different pose: stretching; supine on the grass; forward, arms akimbo; leaning against a rock. Another contrast is found in the marked variety of trees: some feathery and frond-like; others straight and spindly; one even suggestive of a spreading chestnut. These two contrasting groups seem almost like illustrations from a guidebook to tree forms, and a study book of figure drawing.

Another dominant contrast is that of dark and light. The light primarily emanates from the background – on the mountain, valley and river in roughly the center of the painting – while the rest is in shadow. The only protrusion of light into the foreground’s shade is a small triangle and a thin bar of lemon-lime colored grass, the very edge of the background’s light draped over the closer knoll.

Color too, is influenced by this bent towards contrast. The warmest of them are clustered around the painting’s center: warm bricks and terra-cottas under the spreading tree and in the central figure’s limbs and skin; Provencal reds and salmons in the valley behind the bathers. Besides the lemon-lime shafts of light which anchor the foreground to the background, the rest of the colors all around this warm core gradually grow cooler and cooler. These warm colors form a type of hub around which the cooling day rotates, connecting the heat in the figures directly to the heat from the sky and rocks. In fact, a line of light begins in the sky – a central cloud dabbed lightly with cadmium orange – and falls to the mountain’s edge, continuing through the valley and underneath the spreading tree, and then jumping the river to the triangle and bar of limey light. It then moves to the human element, in the central figure’s hands and thighs, until the very tip of the warmness in his toe touches the water at the very bottom of the canvas. Thus we’ve returned, in a way, to the warm sky: the reflection is the sky’s doppelganger.

A painting which I’m always reminded of when looking at this Cezanne, is The Mountain, (pictured here) by the Polish/French painter Balthus. In it we also have varied figures; contrasts of light and dark, cool and warm; a definite cut of light near the center of the painting. But while Balthus, as usual, is deep into his Prussian psyche, Cezanne is simply struggling to get outside his craft, while stuck inside on a rainy day – (despite what Dr. Barnes – or Freud – might try to persuade us of otherwise).

Jim Erikson  – (Monday, 04 February, 2008)  

Here's a playful comparison to the Balthus: a Degas from the National Gallery, London.

I like your visual description of Bathers at Rest. I've been imagining doing a copy of a Cezanne painting and the more I look at his work this way the more I feel like I understand it. I think it's difficult to explain Cezanne's paintings to a non-artist, non-art-lover -- it's a visual thing -- just like I find it difficult to explain my own work. I've also been reading Barnes' book on Cezanne from the 30's, The Art of Cezanne.

Well, keep it up Tim and come over soon, neighbor.


GIERSCHICK  – (Monday, 04 February, 2008)  

Thanks for the comment Jim; a real nice Degas too. I like the comparison. I admire your delving into a Barnes book; I find his writing rather pedantic. But I've never read his Cezanne book.
Hope things are well; I'd love to do a studio visit soon.

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