The Laws of Nature

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Cezanne & Critics

Conversations with Cezanne
Michael Doran, Ed. (2001)

Cezanne had a lot to say about critics. For instance, in a conversation with Joachim Gasquet, son of Henri Gasquet who was Cezanne lifelong friend from childhood, Cezanne said:

Above all he [the artist] must shun all opinion not based on the intelligent observation of his own temperament. ..

I’ve said it a hundred times, those critics …. I want to write them all, all of them who haunt me, and tell them that there are three things which make up the basis of our craft, which you will never have and toward which I have been working for thirty-five years, three things: scruples, sincerity, submission. Scruples before ideas, sincerity before myself, and submission before the motif.

Although he may sound embittered, I think Cezanne’s observation is true. I’ve always been a little skeptical of “professional art critics” who don’t create art themselves. The internal process of creating art is just as important as the external act. Critics may understand art history, and, therefore, the importance of a body of work in that context, but do they really understand the act of making art for any particular artist? I don’t know. Maybe some critics do and others don’t. They can’t all be lumped together.

When I go to a museum or gallery to view paintings I first view the work intently to try and understand what the artist is saying to me before reading the explanation on the wall or pamphlet. That explanation will alter the way I see the work. Sometimes that’s good because it offers a historical context for the work. Other times it detracts from the work because the explanation is just someone’s opinion that instructs the viewer what to think. As an artist, I’d rather not have someone else’s opinions stand between my work and the viewing public.
Of course, my work hasn’t been subject to the intense scrutiny that is usually heaped upon great works of art like Cezanne’s, so I have nothing to complain about. I just feel sad about this aspect of the human condition: the need to tear down or diminish anything that rises to a higher plain – that elevates us. I think this is what Cezanne meant.

What are your thoughts?


Casey Klahn said...

This reminds me of a thing Andrew Wyeth said. When an observer provides you with a negative comment about your art, that's bad. And, when an observer provides you with a positive comment, that is also bad.

He was disinclined to ever let visitors into his studio.

Cezanne is far enough back in time - over a century - that I find the language a little difficult to get. You have to try to get behind some of it, and I realize we have the translation, too. For instance, I think when he says "scruples before ideas," he means "in the presence of" or "in front of." but not as a priority. The next line seems to make that sense.

The whole operation of listening to Cezanne separate painting from other activities, such as writing, is illuminating.

Anonymous said...

Cezanne's still life paintings inspired me to study still life arrangements. I always liked the arrangements with the skulls, though I'm not a particularly morbid person.

I like having a personal, private relationship with a painting first. It's like having my own dialog with the artist.

Cezanne had something that endures, so I figure he got it right and the critics missed something. His words portray such an intensity of feeling!

Congrats on being Scuttlebutt Artist for December...I'll have to logon!

Anonymous said...

Hi Kathy, Me I recall, Cezanne was publicly criticized and ridiculed a couple of times, wasn't he? Perhaps that explains a little of the intensity I feel in reading his thoughts.

Celeste Bergin said...

A vast criticism.
I do as you do when looking at art--I love to let it speak for itself first, without reading anything and then I do read something and it changes my perception. Sometimes what I have read wows me and enhances my opinion, sometimes I wish I hadn't read it, etc. It is so interesting that a few words can create a huge shift.
(A zillion years ago when I saw my first music video it saddened me, because I knew the song, liked it, and had my own "story" to go with it, but after seeing the strong visual imagery combined with the song it changed the song completely for me in an instant! Visual Imagery is so powerful. When the viewer is "allowed" to make up their own version of what they are seeing or hearing it is the most pure experience and a "collaboration".

Anonymous said...

Developing a positive self esteem and defining your art for yourself seems to me, the answer. There will always be critics, but if you believe in your art, others will too- even if the critics don't.
We live in a far different time than Cezanne. I would imagine criticism in his time cut far deeper than it might today.

Mark Sheeky said...

Hi Kathy, sorry I've been away for a few days, in space actually (sort of)!

I look at other artst's art and form opinions on the good and bad bits, so am I a critic? Not if I keep the opinions to myself maybe.

I'm rather suspicious of critics who ARE artists. They've got lots of hidden motives, envies and incentives. A professional non-artist critic should be less involved and more objective.

Of course though I don't know any. To be ignored can be worse than getting a bad review. The key is to trust yourself and not others, anyway. Good artists are their own critic.

Unknown said...

Hi Casey - Wyeth's comment is a good one - it's too easy to take the comments and opinions of others too seriously (that is, seriously enough to alter your course) and that's not a good thing. Your observation about putting Cezanne's words back into the context is so true. Thanks for the clarification!

Hi Peggy - I had a feeling that Cezanne was one of your influences. You have a wonderful way of altering planes, just as he did. I agree with you ... the critics missed the boat!

Hi Celeste - well put!! For me, it's like reading a great book that is later made into a movie. Sometimes I wish I hadn't seen the movie version because it ruined the characters/scenes that I had imagined.

Hi Pam - Amen!

Hi Mark - you make a good argument for the problem with critics who ARE artists. I hadn't thought about it that way. I agree that being ignored is worse than a bad review, and that we must trust ourselves enough to be our own critics. That's the only way to be truly authentic. Thanks!

-Don said...

I'm so late coming to this conversation that I feel I should just say great job everybody. There are some great thoughts here which I will be contemplating as I create.