2006 marks the centennial of the death of Paul Cezanne, and it also marks the year that I finally got a long-coveted documentary about the man and his work, “Three Colors Cezanne.”
This is a wonderful film, in equal parts survey of his work, discussion of particulars of some of his major canvases, and a biographical sketch. It’s only a sketch because, as the many artists and historians point out, not much is known about Cezanne beyond a few dates and some supposition. An intensely private man, he found the company of other people very uncomfortable and preferred to work in solitude.
There’s some Freudian speculation about his fear of women informing some of his early work, which is robust, dark and dramatic and frequently deals with colossal nudes and violent acts. He returned to some of these themes late in life, in fact using some of the sketches he had made of the Old Masters when he was a young man visiting the Louvre. Freudian speculation I can take; it’s one of those things you can listen to and either ignore or believe, but it rarely affects the perception of the work in question.
And the works in question are masterpieces of landscape and still-life. The various experts do a very good job of illuminating the themes and methods underlying these works, which amazingly does not diminish their power; instead, where I once saw vague hints of future art schools in his work, now they’re right there in the open, as obvious as the nose on, uh, my face. His still-life images always seemed to me like they were being upended on me as I looked at them, and it’s pointed out how he used different perspectives—the raison d’etre of cubism—within the same canvas. This film showed me things I had not seen before. What more can one ask of any movie?
Image and sound are excellent throughout, and there are lots of his canvases on display, as well as photographs and other archival material. One trick that was employed only a few times was the presentation of a landscape, with Cezanne’s canvas suddenly superimposed on it. I’d have liked to see more of that, but that’s a very minor quibble.
Cezanne can probably be safely considered the first “modern” artist, by which I mean the artist who wanted to put his own thoughts and feelings and impressions on the canvas, and chose paint to make his point without first developing the painterly skills of the Old Masters he admired. Saying, I think for the first time, the heck with making things people might like. This is what I want on this canvas. Because his ideas and vision outweighed his artistic “shortcomings” (which are debatable if they exist at all), his art transcends narcissism. Pity the same can’t be said about those who followed in his footsteps, who saw the “self expression” part as the most important aspect of being an artist, but that’s a rant for another time.
This past July while in New York, I visited the Museum of Modern Art, and saw a dual exhibition of Cezanne and his friend and contemporary, Camille Pissarro. These were canvases that the two did while traveling together. This film brings the memories of those works back vividly. Highly recommended.
This review brought to you in part by F.R. Angel, to whom it is dedicated.