You can’t tell by their style name, but the Post-Impressionists had nothing to do with Impressionists – unless you count their rebellion against the Impressionists’ willingness to limit painting to momentary visual effect. British art critic Roger Fry gave the rebels their style name. But dubbing their insurgency Post-Impressionism is a little like calling Abstract Art, say, Post-Academic Art.
Post-Impressionism is in the news now because Princeton University Art Museum is featuring a leading Post-Impressionist – “Cézanne and the Modern: Masterpieces of European Art from the Pearlman Collection.” The collector, Henry Pearlman, was a self-described “worshipper of Cézanne.” The painter’s work fills half the show.
Not that all Post-Impressionists were alike in the way they rose up against Impressionism. Van Gogh followed his heart rather than his eyes and used color to express his feelings. Paul Cezanne sought more structure and permanence than Impressionism offered. Rather than suggest a subject, he practically carved it in paint to emphasize its solidity.
The style’s name also does nothing to acknowledge that Post-Impressionists gave modern art its start – that Van Gogh’s dedication to feeling led to Expressionism and Cezanne’s focus on form led to Cubism. For inventing his own rules in painting, Cezanne has been called the father of modern art.
Rather than try to capture nature, Cezanne was big on evoking it. He did this by simplifying nature into basic geometric shapes: cylinders, cones, spheres. In this way, he gave nature a look of permanence.
“L’Estaque,” a view of a town from a hilltop, is filled with trees, buildings and a waterway but his vision is far from the shapeless, edgeless imagery of Impressionists. Cezanne sought not only to delineate forms, but also to show them in an interlocking oneness. He did the same thing with everyday objects, seeking their solidity by emphasizing their form and giving them each equal weight.
Even the human figure got the Cezanne treatment. By reducing the lap of the seated female in “Woman with Coffee Pot” to a triangle and her arms to cylinders, he gave her the look of an enduring monument. The coffee pot received equal attention in form. Cezanne’s attention to purifying his forms helps the viewer to perceive them more clearly than reality itself. So say historians.
But to hear his friend, writer Emile Zola tell it, Cezanne’s effort to make the female in “Woman with Coffee Pot” look less like flesh and blood may also have something to do with his attitude about women. Zola mentions in notes for his 1885 novel, “L’Oeuvre,” that Cezanne was “afraid of women. He never brought girls back to his place [and] used to say, ‘They disturb my life too much. I don’t know what they’re for, and I’ve always been afraid to find out.’” So says Zola.
Certainly Cezanne had his own way of looking at the world and believed his was the right way. In letters to fellow painter Emile Bernard, Cezanne touted his way like this:
“May I repeat what I told you here: Treat nature by the cylinder, the sphere, the cone, everything in proper perspective …One can do good things without being very much of a harmonist or a colorist. It is sufficient to have a sense of art… Do not be an art critic, but paint; therein lies salvation…”
This column endorses that last sentence.