Recently we visited the Princeton Art Museum. I'd been thinking about going for awhile. The current show "Cézanne and the Modern" was one I very much wanted to catch. Paul Cézanne was indeed a key figure in the historic "break through" represented here. One may justifiably ask, why the need for a break through, anyway? A few thoughts on the matter.
During the Renaissance the use of perspective was developed. Utilizing this new tool artists began to enjoy giving paintings the illusion of space. For centuries after that (and the predilection still persists) artists seemed primarily interested in representing visible reality.
In the new art artists began to acknowledge the two-dimensional expanse of the canvas in a new way. Though they continued to allude to the visual world, they set about to create an arrangement of color, design, and texture on the flat surface which was satisfying in itself. I’d like to call this the both/and of the new art.
Personally I am very grateful for what Cézanne and other "moderns" have done. I am so much more interested in the seemingly impossible than I am in what I know through experience to be achievable. This is why I’ve always been particularly drawn to the work of van Gogh. To Vincent the potential of the new art was not just an idea. It was a passion, a desire to transform all things.
Van Gogh and others after him (I think of Chaim Soutine, Marsden Hartley, Paul Klee, Jackson Pollock, Arthur Dove and Charles Burchfield) began to create works which had, apart from being based upon nature, a complete, yet parallel existence as unabashed paint on canvas. The either/or was being challenged by the both/and.
Art was taking up a torch which religion had mislaid. In the middle ages, painting had been an emblem of realms beyond the confining limits of space and time. But unfortunately religion has its own shackles. It’s understandable why a Renaissance and an Enlightenment ensued. But the new “reality” in no way made us more free. It just emphasized with greater clarity our captivity. We were, in a greater way than before, faced with only the either/or.
Vincent again in my view was the pivotal character in the sea change. His was a headlong pursuit, necessarily so, for it was a daunting, lonely, and seemingly impossible task. He wrestled bravely with the angel of paradox. That’s what this striving for the both/and is, a wrestling match. Matter is crying out to spirit, “Give me what is mine..transfigure me!” He drew faithfully from nature while at the same time took up with impassioned brush the desire “to paint the infinite,” and thereby console all men. The “Starry Night” attests.
"I should so much like to imbue you with a large share of my faith that we will succeed in starting something that will endure."
Vincent van Gogh to Paul Gauguin
Notes on the vicissitudes of the creative life.