In the late 1870’s Paul Gauguin made direct contact with Paul Cézanne, possibly through the intercession of Pissarro, who seems to have had his fingers on the pulse of a number of important painters of the time. And though Gauguin, unlike Pissarro, maintained no intimate communication, his devotion to Cézanne’s work remained immense throughout his life. The respect was not reciprocated; yet, prior to their meeting, Gauguin had purchased five or six Cézannes for his own collection, much-prized works that were eventually sold off to pay for his debts in the 1880’s, when his bourgeois career collapsed; despite which, Gauguin recognised the importance and significance of these works. The angled knife on the table-top (Chardin?) was a spatial invention used by many artists to extend the flattened forefront space of the still-life’s subtle outward-ness towards the viewer.
This particular Cézanne painting, “Still Life with Apples in a Compote”, was Gauguin’s most valued, and was kept the longest, being a canvas that did much to sustain his own vision of what advanced painting might be, or indeed, might become. This was the Cézanne that stayed in Gaugin’s meagre Paris studio until at least 1893, an important painting for Gauguin to own. My theory is that it remains important in the ongoing development of abstract painting, and how we now might take it further than its early stages as begun by Kandinsky in 1910, or Malevich in 1915. The key to this is wholeness – making everything in the painting work together from edge to edge.
When Cézanne became aware of his own significance upon the work of the younger artist, he accused Gauguin of stealing “my little sensation”. Of course he had – Gauguin understood the significance of Cézanne’s contribution to how painting might develop and the consequences of understanding its abstract-ness, as opposed to its figuration. That’s not to say that both artists are not engaged in figuration – they are, but less so than many of their contemporaries; and they both retain much of their engagement with the reconstruction of a complex pictorialism. This we can see happening in what is clearly the vibrant and whole structure of “Still Life with Apples in a Compote”; and very different from “abstraction” as it later developed in the American Abstract Expressionists, and many more. This all may be seen as a downgrade to the ambitions for painting grasped early on by Cézanne and Pissarro. This particular still-life, and others by Cézanne which preceded it in the 1870’s, are amongst the greatest achievements of painting from this decade in France – or indeed from anywhere else – or any other era, come to that.
[Worth noting here my opposite opinion to Sam Cornish on Frank Bowling’s exhibition at Tate Britain: “…fundamental to the work from the “Map Paintings” onwards is the visual drift found within the paintings of Helen Frankenthaler or Jules Olitski, that represented a loosening of the all-over energy of Jackson Pollock.” The “drift” of the work by Frankenthaler and Olitski, two of Abstract Expressionism’s most dubious and indulgent painters, are seen to develop in Bowling in clear detriment to the “all-over energy” of Pollock; or, for that matter, the best of Krasner – see her show at the Barbican.]
There are a number of French artists who make decisive moves, prior to 1870, towards revolutionising how figurative painting is taken beyond the normal inclusions of perspectival landscape art. It goes much further than illustration. Courbet might be seen as one of the more original and experimental of painters who developed complex visual structures, perhaps with influence by, though going beyond, the landscapes of the Barbizon school of the earlier eighteen-hundreds. I have suggested previously that Courbet’s “After Dinner at Ornans” has significance to the way Cézanne’s paintings from around 1860 were structured. As Richard Ward proposed on a previous Abcrit, speaking of this very Courbet: “I can’t see any dissonances… This painting seems to have an entirely coherent spatiality involving the figures, the table and the room”. I think this is largely true, and makes much of its achievement feel abstract, though not necessarily lacking tension. It may imply the opposite, and this might apply to many of the Cézannes of this period, both before and up to and including “Still Life with Apples in a Compote”.
It’s easy to forget; we are possibly over-familiar with this period of work and its ambitions. It remains unhelpful to think of these works as outdated or academic for reasons simply of their figuration or their subject; and easy to forget because of our familiarity with simple conceptions of painting in general. It’s easy to ignore, prior to the full-on inundation of abstraction, its interactions in abstract-ness. The works of Cézanne and Pissarro in the 1870s became in their own right full and coherent visual articulations of the surface of painting, gathered into varied pictorial “wholenesses”, and reconciling the three-dimensionality of figuration with the crude flatness of two-dimensions that developed later. This reconciliation was an achievement directly connected to the ongoing development of Impressionism. It becomes, and remains, a challenge to later artists of all disciplines after the 1870s.
As abstraction in painting developed, the orientation of the spatial structures of figurative painting became organised within a more upright and simplistic spatiality – a strong but limiting frontality – like in Lanyon’s reproduction of landscape from an aerial perspective; not so much about looking down upon a subject as turning the whole landscape space upwards and outwards, achieving frontal flatness. This was both a new discovery and a repetition (or rediscovery) of work by Renaissance artists such as Tintoretto. It has good and bad consequences, but the point is that in some of the very best figurative painting, from as far back as the Renaissance, the content of the work activates the whole, edge to edge, and does not simply focus upon the objects in or on a foreground, surrounded by background.
Some abstract artists have already achieved this in the past, like Pollock and Krasner in the 1950s. Their all-over paintings were consciously worked to make the dynamic structures of the paint fully active all across the surface, either up to – or beyond – the edges of the canvas. Covering the whole picture, however, can be repetitious, and is not the same as making the whole thing fully expressive in a way that extends to the maximum the diversity of the content. In “Still Life with Apples in a Compote” everything is different, and yet everything works perfectly together. Bonnard can occasionally do it too!
The question is how to get even further, combining inventive movement and variety, right across all aspects of what works visually. Can abstract painting be completely free of any kind of figuration? Must it be, to progress?
Here are good examples of where some abstract painting is currently at, by some of the most interesting painters and collagists around at the moment. They make for strong comparisons with Krasner’s brilliant “Shattered Light”, currently on show at the Barbican.
And how does this all compare with Cézanne? Or the past?