3:24am

Thu July 10, 2014
Fine Art

For Paul Cezanne, An Apple A Day Kept Obscurity Away

Originally published on Fri September 12, 2014 6:30 pm

Pablo Picasso once said that the great 19th-century French painter Paul Cezanne was "the father of us all." Cezanne's distinctive brush strokes, and the way he distorted perspective and his subjects, influenced the cubists, and most artists who came after him. In Philadelphia, the Barnes Foundation is showing a group of still-life paintings by Cezanne.

A few months ago, my neighbor Barbara Baldwin went to the Barnes, which has an incredible collection of pretty much every painting you've ever seen reproduced in art books that's not already at the Met or the Musee d'Orsay in Paris. She was wowed by the Pierre-Auguste Renoirs — the largest Renoir collection in the world. "All those naked women," Barbara says. "Good heavens!"

The current special exhibition is all about naked fruit — apples, mostly. It's called "The World Is an Apple: The Still Lifes of Paul Cezanne."

Joe Rishel, of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, describes Cezanne's work as "repetitive apples with apples." But that's not to say it's boring. With Cezanne, Rishel says, "Every game is a new game." That's partly because of the idiosyncratic way Cezanne arranged his apples before he painted them.

"He would stick little wedges of any kind, sometimes fat little coins, underneath them just to prop them up," Rishel says. "Isn't that cute?"

Cezanne propped one apple higher than others, put another at an angle and pushed another into the foreground. Then he painted them. "I want to astonish Paris with an apple," he's said to have said. And, coming to town from his southern country village of Aix-en-Provence, he did astonish.

"They thought he was crazy," says Benedict Leca, the Barnes show curator and director of curatorial affairs at the Art Gallery of Hamilton in Ontario, Canada. "People said he was on drugs, even. People said that he was dabbling in hashish and that he was out of his mind."

They said all that because they'd never seen brushwork like this.

"These are very short, parallel strokes, very clearly painted," says Judith Dolkart, chief curator at the Barnes. "He does nothing to ... hide his hand."

The paint is thick, almost chiseled onto the canvas. You can see the edges of each hatched stroke. And, subtly, within each paint stroke, the colors change. One has more white in it; the one next to it is darker.

Dolkart says, "Every time he is lifting his brush, he's declaring, 'I'm a painter. This is my medium. These are my materials.' "

According to Leca, for a French viewer in the late 19th century, "an apple painted with these distinct strokes in this kind of rough-hewn manner would have been shocking."

In those days, painters made their strokes as smooth and invisible as they could. The taste-making Academie des Beaux-Arts in Paris said that's how paint should be applied. Leca says that may partially explain why there's never been a show devoted entirely to Cezanne's still-life paintings — not in the U.S. anyway. Given Cezanne's fame and how many still lifes he painted (they say "lifes," by the way, "not lives"), it really doesn't make sense, but Leca deconstructs it this way: "There is a historic bias against still-life painting. It was always the lowest genre in the hierarchy of painting as established by the French academy in 1648."

Still lifes, then, were the bottom feeders of the art world. Historical subjects, Bible scenes and mythic figures were most prized; after that came portraits; landscapes were OK, although landscape painters were sometimes seen as slackers — not working all that hard. But apples? A parade of fruit?

Why not! Cezanne took on the establishment. Ambitious and fierce, he was determined to astonish Paris, not just with apples, but by making his mark on canvas and in life.

"He walks around in a blue smock in Paris," Leca says. "He meets [Edouard] Manet on the street and says, 'Sorry, I don't want to shake your hand — I haven't bathed in three days.' "

The raw country fellow thumbed his paint stains at the elegance of Paris. But Cezanne was no bumpkin.

"You're talking about a guy who went to the Louvre, who copied the old masters, who was keenly aware of his historical position," Leca says. "He felt that he was going to go in the history books, so he wanted to make sure to be distinctive."

It took awhile, but it worked. Today Cezanne is in the pantheon of all-time great artists. Evidence of that is in the Barnes Foundation's permanent collection and, until the end of September, its special still-life exhibition. It's an astonishment of apples — and some pears and oranges.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Picasso once said that Paul Cezanne, the great 19th-century French painter, was the father of us all. Cezanne's brush strokes, the way he distorted perspective, his subjects - all influenced the cubists and many artists who came after him. A group of Cezanne's still life paintings are on view right now at the Barnes Foundation, in Philadelphia. NPR special correspondent, Susan Stamberg, went to take a look.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: The night before the show opened, the Barnes had fancy dinner for lenders - people who actually live with Cezannes every day. That one's mine, said one well-groomed lender, pointing - I keep it at the foot of the stairs. My neighbor Barbara Baldwin went to the Barnes a few months ago - that incredible collection of pretty much every painting you've ever seen reproduced in art books, that's not in the Met or the Musee d'Orsay in Paris. She was wowed by the Renoirs, the largest Renoir collection in the world. All those naked women, Barbara said - good heavens. The current special exhibition is all about naked fruit - apples mostly. The show is called, "The World is an Apple - The Still Lifes of Paul Cezanne."

JOE RISHEL: Repetitive apples and apples - how many apples do you need in a lifetime?

STAMBERG: But not the way Cezanne paints them, says Joe Rishel, of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. With Cezanne...

RISHEL: ...Every game is a new game.

STAMBERG: New, because of how he painted them, and how he arranged them before he painted them.

RISHEL: He would stick little wedges of any kind - sometimes fat little coins beneath them just to prop them up. And they're cute.

STAMBERG: Cute? Ingenious. He propped one apple higher than others, put another at an angle, pushed another into the foreground - then he painted. Cezanne - playing with perspective. I want to a astonish Paris with an apple - he has said to have said. And coming to town from his southern country village of Aix-en-Provence, Cezanne certainly did.

BENEDICT LECA: They thought he was crazy.

STAMBERG: Benedict Leca is curator of this show.

LECA: People said he was on drugs, even. People said that he was dabbling in hashish, and he was out of his mind.

STAMBERG: Judith Dolkart, chief curator at the Barnes, said Paris had never seen brushwork like this.

JUDITH DOLKART: These are these very short, parallel strokes - very clearly painted. He does nothing to do to hide his hand.

STAMBERG: The paint to thick - it's almost chiseled onto the canvas. You can see the edges of each hatched stroke. And subtly, within each page stroke, the colors change. One has more white in it, the one next to it is darker.

DOLKART: Every time he is lifting his brush he's declaring, I'm a painter. This is my medium, these are my materials.

LECA: What we lose today, is the shock value of these paintings.

STAMBERG: Again, curator Benedict Leca. He is Director of Curatorial Affairs at the Art Gallery of Hamilton, in Ontario, Canada.

LECA: They were shocking at the time. To a French viewer in the late 19th century, when apple painted with these distinct strokes in this kind of rough-hewn manner, would have been shocking.

STAMBERG: In those days, painters made their strokes smooth, and invisible as possible. Not Cezanne, which may be one of the reasons Leca says for this shocking little dab of Cezanne information.

LECA: There's never been a show entirely devoted to his still life paintings.

STAMBERG: In the U.S. anyway. And given Cezanne's fame, and how many still lifes he painted, it really doesn't make sense. How come, how is that possible?

LECA: There is a historic bias against still life painting. It was always the lowest genre in the hierarchy of painting, as established by the French Academy in 1648.

STAMBERG: Seems still lifes, they say lifes, by the way - not lives, were the bottom feeders of the art world. Most prized were historical subjects - Bible scenes, mythic figures. After that, portraits. Landscapes were okay, although landscape painters were sometimes seen as slackers, not working all that hard. But apples? A parade of fruit? No. Paul Cezanne took on the establishment. Ambitious, fierce? He was determined to astonish Paris, not just with apples but by making his mark on canvas and in life.

LECA: ...Walks around in a blue smock in Paris. He meets Monet on the street and says, sorry I don't want to shake your hand, I haven't bathed in three days.

STAMBERG: The raw country a fellow thumbing his paint stains at Parisian elegance. But, Cezanne was no bumpkin.

LECA: You know, you're talking about a guy who went to The Louvre, who copied the Old Masters, who was keenly aware of his historical position. He felt that he was gonna go in the history books, so we wanted to make sure to be distinctive.

STAMBERG: Well, took a while, but it worked. Today Cezanne is in the pantheon of all-time great artists. Evidence is at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, Masterworks, in their permanent collection. And until the end of September, a special still life exhibit - that astonishment of apples, and some pears - and oranges. And I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: And you can see some of Cezanne's work at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.