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Theoretical Brutality: Cézanne And Gauguin

In his conversations with Emile Bernard, Paul Cézanne had very violent words about his fellow painter—someone who had actually been his friend for a while: Paul Gauguin. When Bernard tells him, “Gauguin liked your painting a lot, he imitated you a lot,” the master replies harshly, and with anger, “Well, he never understood me; never have I wanted nor will I ever accept for painting not to be modeled enough or graduate enough, it doesn’t mean anything. Gauguin was not a painter, what he did was only Chinese pictures.”

Paul Gauguin, "Portrait de femme à la nature morte de Cézanne," 1890. Oil on canvas, 25.6 × 21.7 ̋.

Such brutality might seem somewhat strange, especially in regards to the friendliness of their acquaintance some 30 years before these words. In the 1870s, Camille Pissarro introduced his two friends, the two Pauls, and Gauguin became one of the very early collectors of Cézanne’s work. He notably acquired the still life “Compotier, verre et pomme,” which he described in 1888 as “an exceptional marvel,” and actually included himself in a painting from 1890 entitled “Portrait de femme à la nature morte de Cézanne.” Such a tribute is to be paralleled to “Bonjour Monsieur Gauguin,” whose title and structure is reminiscent of Courbet’s similarly titled work.

Once we take into account how fond Gauguin seemed to be of Cézanne’s work, the question arises: why was Cézanne so critical of such an admirer, who not only emulated his work, but also actually bought it—and thereby helped him make a living? The comments that immediately follow his assessment of Gauguin may provide useful information: “then, he [Cézanne] would explain all his ideas on form, on color, on art, on how an artist should be educated; everything in nature is modeled according to the sphere, the cone, and the cylinder, we need to teach ourselves to paint on these simple figures, and then we will be able to do anything we want.”

The most fascinating part of that sentence is not located where it could be expected: it actually lies in the adverb “then,” by which Bernard implies that Cézanne felt compelled to express his ideas on art because he had just discussed Gauguin’s paintings. Cézanne seems to fulfill a sort of inner necessity by antagonizing them: unveiling his own ideas appears to be a way for him to contradict the other’s conception of art. The intensity of such a reaction reminds us of Picasso’s famous comment on the death of Marcel Duchamp: “He was wrong.” In 1969, listening to the radio, Picasso uttered this simple sentence, he summarized the divide between the two of them: they both formulated—or refused to formulate—answers to the same question, the need for art—and painting as art—to redefine itself from the end of the 19th century onwards. At that time, four simultaneous crises occurred in the realm of belief and representation: a political crisis—due to the rise of the nations and the emergence of new social categories; a religious crisis—the fall of illiteracy led to a considerable decline of faith; a literary crisis—the word and fiction became difficult categories in a modern world where everything seemed to be possible in a foreseeable future; an artistic crisis—the notion of painterly visual representation having been brought to a timely ending with the development of photography.

The way reality was perceived shifted, and painting, conceived as the representation of a perception of reality, had to change as well. Cézanne and Gauguin made two antagonistic choices—while they had actually started on common ground, both were fascinated with literature very early on. Cézanne actually started out as a poet, writing poetry in Latin, as Rimbaud did, both wanted to renovate art from the inside, by altering and redefining painting as a medium—and from the outside—by including the literary language in the making of a painterly work. Cézanne actually did it earlier and more radically than Gauguin, with such paintings as “Olympia Moderne” and “L’Eternel Féminin,” which still today remains an enigma.

Then, Cézanne’s perspective changed, via his decade-long contact with Impressionism, and he strove to become another Poussin, and to change painting from the inside only, to leave aside all attempts to connect painting to the world of modernity, by making it the most experimental medium, and yet the most “classical”—“painting before anything else,” to paraphrase Verlaine. He worked on making it the simplest possible, the purest possible, and to work as a man of craft and technique.

He knew very well the path he had taken before, kept his passion for literature vivid, but decided to be a painter, a painter only and exclusively—a master. His fascination for Balzac’s “Unknown Masterpiece” supports this evidence—the tragedy of the ideal, of the perfect painting. The fact that he never wrote literature ever again, but always had others write about him signifies his desire to limit his world and to explore this limited, and yet infinite, universe of painting.

Gauguin did the exact opposite: the skill of painting became the central element of an elaborate system, which included literary language on the canvas—proper letters—and thematic otherness. Cézanne challenged painting with painting, while Gauguin also challenged painting with otherness—be it linguistic, cultural, geographic, or religious. The considerable changes he brought to the technique of painting were part of a broader strategy of otherness, artistic, literary, political, and, yes, religious, too. The paintings were total works of art, whose narrative he expanded into other media, such as sculpture and, most notably, literature.

Here lies another interesting sign of the discrepancy between Gauguin and Cézanne: while the latter is very critical towards the former in his remarks to Bernard, Gauguin, who talks at length about Van Gogh in his memoirs, Avant et Après, never even mentions Cézanne. The gap between these two artists, the Platonist who wanted to seize the ideal in matter, the materialist spiritualist who felt that something else needed to be tried, was so deep that no word could even begin to fill it.


Donatien Grau

Dr. Donatien Grau is a scholar of 19th and early 20th century art, literature, and culture. He is the author, editor and translator of a number of publications on these and other topics.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2014

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