Friday, November 3, 2006

Cezanne 1: Multiple Viewpoints and Cubism

Paul Cézanne, Still Life with Apples and Oranges, 1895-1900
The consensus in the art books seems to be that Cézanne was the inspiration for Cubism. But in what way exactly? If one goes into the genesis of Cubism more deeply, to follow the trail back to Cézanne and lay it out in concrete terms, as I recently tried to do, the evidence turns out to be quite dubious. Or, one could start with Cézanne’s pictures and examine them for evidence of a connection going forward to Cubism, as I also recently tried to do. Again the evidence is dubious.

Apples and Oranges (above) is a case in point. Art historians point to it as an example of Cézanne’s supposed use of multiple viewpoints. “Multiple viewpoints” is seen as a founding principle of cubism. It’s claimed that in Apples and Oranges the table as a whole is seen from one viewpoint, while the tilted plate of apples (mid-left) is seen from another viewpoint, higher up. However, Cézanne was known to use things like wooden blocks and books to tilt objects upwards or forwards in his still lifes. Often the block would be hidden by a cloth, but sometimes it was visible (e.g., image at left, Still Life with Basket of Apples, 1890-94, arrow). Therefore it’s safer to assume that a tilted plate in a Cézanne still life is the result of being physically propped up rather than assuming a revolutionary change in the method of picture-making. A supporting block may be more mundane, but it’s more likely to be true.

Of course, if one now accepts the notion that the plate is physically tilted by a block placed underneath it, one might begin to wonder, why did he do that? That is another question altogether. I’d guess if one put one’s mind to it, a logical explanation would emerge, and in any case it’s not unusual for painters to use such devices in still life set-ups to get everything looking the way they want. But I do know that if the initial premise is wrong, the conclusion is likely to be wrong too, and I’m tending to feel that that is the case with the “multiple viewpoints” theory, both in Cézanne’s art and in Cubism.

Both images from Wikipedia

See also Cezanne 2: Multiple viewpoints and tablecloth


Anonymous said...

Look at Montagne Sainte-Victoire. That is cubism in the making

will hauff said...

I have seen paintings by Braque for example that look very much like Cezannes and I don't doubt Braque saw in Cezanne's works something he could use to further his own ends. But ultimately while Cubism was a very important historical art phase it pales in interest to Cezanne. For all the talk of multiple view points in Cubism the paintings themselves are trivial compared to Cezanne. I agree with you that Cezanne probably had no interest in multiple view points --why would he? He was a classic painter and probably thought all that nonsense was beneath him. It is difficult enough to paint a picture from ONE viewpoint. Mostly art historians love to play connect the dots and are to blame for saying that there are unbroken relationships between all artists. Just because two artists have similar looking paintings doesn't always mean there is a connection. Look at all the talk of some modern artists having Giottoesque qualities when they wouldn't know a Giotto from a Fra Angelico. Keep being skeptical I congratulate you for thinking for yourself.

Mary Adam said...

Thank you very much. I only wish I'd seen this comment before, it was missed for reasons 2C2E.

will hauff said...

The older I get the more I am fascinated by the sheer beauty of Cubist paintings. They are marvelous and mysterious things that belong to another dimension, a dimension that lives in our head. And yet they were painted for such a short period of time by the great cubists, the mediocre cubists kept painting them for decades. What strikes me though is that for all the multiple viewpoints they claim to examine, the end result is we get no more "information" about an object than we get from a straightforward one- viewpoint painting. We get multiple views of a glass or a bottle, but we still know nothing "essential" about the bottle. Whereas with Cezanne, his work goes straight to the heart of the matter by getting to the "soul" of a bottle. Only Chardin was also able to do this.

Mary Adam said...

Hello Will and thank you for the comment. I've questioned the validity of the multiple viewpoint theory arguing that the evidence doesn't support it, certainly in relation to Picasso. The essay is here -- it would be fantastic if you would take a look at it and give me your opinion. I could send you a much-easier-to-read PDF, if you would like that please drop me an email at folio12(at)