“First the Giants, then the pygmies.” Elie Faure
I could have begun with a painting by Rubens, one of Cézanne‘s favourite painters, his Susannah and the Elders in Munich, or the Three Graces in the Prado, but that would have set us off on the wrong foot by confirming Cézanne‘s own estimate of himself – “how feeble I am in life “, said in relation to Manet’s “bold impasto”. However, when the National Gallery placed Cézanne‘s Grand Bathers beside Titian’s Diana and Actaeon and Rubens’ Judgement of Paris, he did not look feeble, and it was the Rubens that fell away first. What the confrontation confirmed was that it is not the succulent rendering of flesh, the atmospheric rendering of spatial illusion, nor the sumptuous handling of fabrics and the texture of appearances that counts, but the architectural strengths of the composition, the disposition of the major masses and the demands of their accommodation to the entire presented image, and the shape of the canvas , and that this can be created with a new economy of means, new and old, and an especial emphasis on “form”, form over the sensuous, form over everything. Cézanne goes on to build a monument to his feebleness.
And here is a contradiction, for how can it be that someone who said this of himself could prove to be the most powerful temperament in a century of powerful temperaments?
Emile Zola, a vocal champion of the movement in French painting he designated as “naturalism”, coined the expression — “nature seen through a temperament”. No one had a temperament more powerful and idiosyncratic than Paul Cézanne, of an intensity bordering the pathological, in his adolescent ferment, at least. (Perhaps it was just adolescent rebelliousness.) And he did not quite shed the phantasising of erotic torment that assailed him in youth, fuelled by his readings in classical literature, common to every well-educated schoolboy in France in the 19th century.
Underneath and parallel to the discipline instilled into him during his apprenticeship with Pissarro, there remained an erotic imaginative life which found expression in the many Bathers paintings, La Lutte D’Amour, a baroque turbulence in marked contrast to the strictness of his study after nature.
We are not all gifted with as strong a temperament, not all blessed with “equal temperament”. Some of us are in C major, some of us in B flat minor. Some are predominantly extravert sensation types, others are introverted feeling. Find out who you are. Be who you are, and not who you wish you were.