Sunday, March 4, 2012

MWA I: Cézanne's Tulips

For a long time now, I've been wanting to introduce a segment on bklynbiblio showcasing works of art with some commentary. If I were ambitious, I would do this once a week, but I could never keep up with that. So I'm going to strive for a monthly contribution, hereby calling this the MWA: Monthly Work of Art. In keeping up with the recent (and still disturbing) news that a painting by Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) had sold for $250 million, and in memory of my recent trip to the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, CA with my friend MP, I thought I would start off with this gem: Tulips in a Vase, 1888-90. I was immediately struck by its minimalist beauty and its rich color tones. (MP loves this painting too!) For some viewers, still life painting can seem boring, but painters (so I've been told) find them to be challenging exercises in attempting to capture the essence of living-but-inanimate objects carefully arranged before them. There's something also to the fact that, although in English we call these paintings "still lifes," the rest of the Latinate world calls them "natura morta," literally "dead nature." This of course conjures up a completely different idea about what the paintings shows. It brings vitality to a subject that one realizes already has expired, showing a single moment in time in which an artist stood before a canvas such as this one capturing the short life of flowers and fruit. Of course, that isn't actually true, as Cézanne painted this over a two-year period. In fact, what makes this picture so fascinating isn't even its still life quality, but that  it skillfully demonstrates two of Cézanne's practices. The first was his belief that all forms could be geometrically reduced to the cylinder, sphere, and cone. In short, he was interested in abstracting nature so as to make a painting first a painting and second a representation of something. To do this, he worked up layers of color and paint to create volume and used black outlines to enhance their three-dimensionality. His second practice was his interest in demonstrating binocular vision on the canvas, i.e. showing multiple viewpoints at once. Looking here, you see the vase frontally, but then you notice the table beneath it has been elevated and that you're looking at it from about a 45-degree angle, which should mean you're looking into the vase slightly, but you're not. In considering just these two ideas and this picture, you can see why Cézanne was considered by most to be a bit eccentric in his day (even by some of the Impressionists, with whom he exhibited). However, he proved to be highly influential on Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and other painters associated with Cubism because of his interest in geometric forms and the flattening of perspective. You can read more about this picture on the Norton Simon Museum's website.

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