Cézanne and his many iterations of genius
I recently came across an old report card from my art teacher at the school I was at when I was 14. He referred to me as the "Miss Cézanne of the art department" which recognised my enthusiasm for copying his works more than anything else. Cézanne has been a hero of mine ever since I first studied his art and has been a huge influence on my ways of working and habits.
Interestingly, I didn't identify with him personally at all. I mean, he is described as the father of modern art, a bearded french man and often reclusive. Nor is his creative process similar to my own. He repeats, agonises, perfects and revisits and he is a genius. I recently listened to a brilliant podcast by Malcolm Gladwell and, quite suddenly, the penny dropped and I understood why I had been so obsessed with his paintings for so many years.
--> find it here: http://revisionisthistory.com/episodes/07-hallelujah <--
When I say obsessed, I really was. I would spend hours leafing through heavy art books on either Cézanne or the impressionists, staring at the images of the paintings until I could close my eyes and picture the detail. When I visited museums and galleries I would automatically make a beeline for Cézanne and sit in front of them feeling like I had come home. He inspired me to paint better and I made numerous copies of his work and then started painting my own still-life's and landscapes in his style. Having studied him so much I knew the process he went through and would copy it until it felt like my own. First I sketched the subject a few times, then I drew out the main shapes in black paint, creating thick outlines. Then I would put some lemon yellow paint in the background of most of the shapes, especially the still-life fruits. This created a background light that shone through the less finished bits. Finally, I would spend hours, days, weeks sometimes, layering on strokes of paint to create something that looked a bit like his. The still-life's play with the viewers perspective and present a generous view that shows us what's inside the fruit bowl or jug as well as what it looks like from side on. He wanted to capture the truth of perception by rendering slightly different, yet simultaneous visual perceptions of the same thing to provide the viewer with a new aesthetic experience. His portraits made me feel like I knew the subjects at the same time as being totally intrigued to know more. He made curiosity blossom.
I could go on, but he wasn't the only inspiring hero that prevailed throughout my childhood and accompanied me into adulthood. Leonard Cohen captivated me with his poems, melodies and gravelly voice. I would remove the sleeve from the CD case and read the lyrics again and again. I listened to him describe love and betrayal before I felt it myself. I wrote little poems about or to lovers that helped me articulate my feelings. His song "Democracy" prompted me to look up the meaning of this unknown (to me) word and find a quote by Winston Churchill that went "Democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time". That random chain of events may very well have led me to study Politics at University.
Cézanne and Cohen are both geniuses of their time; but what do they have in common? Malcolm Gladwell describes them both as being examples of a creative process that laboured over pieces of work. It took them both a long time to finish anything, if they ever did. Cézanne sometimes asked his subjects to sit for him over 100 times and Cohen spent five years writing the song "Hallelujah". This is in contrast with artists who were able to produce works of equal genius quickly and easily such as Picasso and Simon & Garfunkel.
Going back to why I was so enthralled with Cézanne and Cohen, I think it was because I wasn't like them. My natural style is much quicker, efficient and less detail orientated in a "bish bash bosh" sort of way. This made school and Uni easy for me because I could produce a 3000 word essay of reasonable standard within a few hours and I never missed a deadline. That is my natural state of operating. The penny dropped because I believe the reason I was obsessed with these very different artists who laboured over perfection is because they challenged me so profoundly. I'll expand on this a little. By copying them, I was pushed to the limits of my capabilities and natural faculties. They unlocked potential and imprinted themselves on a part of me that would otherwise have remained dormant and lazy. Their many iterations of genius showed me the steps they took in order to produce something perfect and beautiful. I was inspired to persevere, re-visit, reflect and never give up - all faculties I use regularly in my adult life. By copying their habits, my will bent in a new direction and my own habits improved. I painted the image above when I was 17, just for fun. It took weeks and I would re-visit it in the middle of revising for AS-level exams as a way of re-setting my mind and finding the inspiration to battle through.