I’ve just finished reading Alex Danchev’s recent biography of Cezanne. It’s a fascinating book, if occasionally irritating. (The author uses “ballsy” as an adjective one too many times…) But the reader is taken into the complex world of Cezanne and his contemporaries and I appreciated the detailed information about the painter’s process and the changing values of his palette.
I’ve always thought that memory was an abiding obsession in Cezanne’s work and this biography bears that out. So often the landscape in a Cezanne painting — the fields and hills below Mont-Sainte-Victoire near Aix-en-Provence for instance – is one where he roamed as a boy, often in the company of Émile Zola, plunging into rivers and climbing the fragrant pine trees of the region, reciting verses to one another. The landscape paintings are not cool representations. In a letter to his young friend Louis Aurenche, written late in life, he said, “For if the keen sensation of nature – and I certainly have that – is the necessary basis for all artistic conception, on which rests the grandeur and beauty of future work, knowledge of the means of expressing our emotion is no less essential, and is acquired only through very long experience.”
In the fall of 2010, I spent a morning in the Leopold Museum in Vienna, looking at the work of Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele. Klimt’s canvases shimmering with gold leaf, Schiele’s figures: all so beautiful – and yet I felt left out. Or maybe what I mean is that I couldn’t find a way in. Then I went in to a gallery hung with pictures on loan from the Fondation Beyeler in Basel and one of them was this, Cezanne’s “La route tournante en haut du chemin des Lauves 1904-1906”.
It’s a length of road just above the studio Cezanne had built for himself in 1902 on a south-facing hillside above Aix. Everything is dense with possibility – the dark trees, the road itself, that high quilted sky, the angular blocks of the buildings. For me, it’s the geometry of remembering: how a road rises, then turns, the sky clear and blue, fields beckoning, young men heading out, their heads full of poetry and girls. And it’s mysterious too, the way the chemin des Lauves disappears behind the trees. In a letter to his son Paul, Cezanne said, remembering his time with his friend Pissarro, “How far away it all is, and yet how close.”
That morning in the Leopold Museum, I felt a sense of recognition. I understood the language of this small landscape by Paul Cezanne, its geometrical forms and planes in service to something recalled and summoned to the moment. I remember that I sat on a bench and fished a tissue out of my pocket to wipe the tears from my eyes.