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Europe 1800 - 1900

Course: Europe 1800 - 1900 > Unit 5

Lesson 4: Post-Impressionism

Cézanne, Still Life with Apples

Cézanne, Still Life with Apples, 1895-98 (MoMA). Speakers: Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.  Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(jazzy music) Male: We're on the fifth floor of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. We're looking at Paul Cezanne's Still Life with Apples from 1895-1898. Female: The three year span suggests that he worked on this repeatedly over the course of several years. Male: Except it's not finished! Female: No, not at all. In several areas, in fact, the canvas is quite bare, and the rest of it is quite sketchy. Male: It's really sketchy. And you're right, this tablecloth in the foreground is just, well it's not raw canvas, but it's sized canvas. The drapery on the upper left is the same. The pitcher on the right side, lots of the white canvas coming through. Even the areas which are painted seem as if it's only a preliminary first coat. I think that we could say that it was badly drawn. Female: Yes, absolutely. Male: The pitcher is tipping to the left, the ellipse that forms the edge of the bowl is completely sort of deformed, and the edge of the glass, we seem to look down at the glass even as we look across at it, much too much. Female: And the fruit on the table looks like it should fall off. There's no sense of gravity. Male: Cezanne could draw beautifully, and according to the traditions of the 19th century. So this is purposeful. It's this deliberate what? Female: It's a deliberate breaking open of the possibilities of what painting could be here at the close of the 19th century. I think an idea that the tradition of European painting, of it being a very mimetic, very real image that reflected what the artist saw, I think that that was obviously completely bankrupt by the late 1880s and 1890s. Male: That's so interesting because the still life itself, as a subject, is a, first of all lowly; it has not had any real significance since the 17th century, and he's resurrecting the still life as a form, but if you think about the still life, that was one of the attributes of the still life in the 17th century was a kind of really heightened naturalism. Female: That's true; how real everything could look. Male: If you look at the [unintelligible] of the Dutch tradition. Yet, Cezanners are going at this in a very different way. Female: Entirely different. Male: So linear perspective and those traditions of hyper-realism as they had been refined over the centuries into the 19th century was very much still dominant. Yet, Cezanne here is not finishing the canvas, is playing fast and loose with drawing, and is creating an environment that I think is very perplexing. It must have been extremely perpelexing for viewers in the 19th century, but even for us, creates a kind of tentativeness when we look at it, yeah? Female: I think he's finding his way. I think he knows that those traditions are bankrupt, and I think he's looking for another way to paint. Male: And another way to see. Female: And another way to see and another way to experience, that's true. Male: That's it, that's it. I think there's also an implicit invitation here, to move into this canvas visually, in a sense, the way he experiences these forms. In the 19th century, according to the traditions that had been in place for so long, the artist would stand in a particular point in space and make sure that everything was in accord with that perspectival point. Female: Right. Male: What Cesanne seems to be doing is to allow us to move through the canvas and to, in a sense, experience it as we might as our vision actually begins to meander. Is it possible here that Cezanne is actually giving us a series of pathways and alternatives and a more complex set of views? Female: I think it is. I think that the bigger question here is how that becomes important or why that becomes important at the dawn of the 20th century, at the end of the 19th century; that something about the experience of the individual, something about the subjectivity of the experience of space, of time, of seeing. I think that the weight of those things and the bankruptcy of that mimetic tradition, that copying of nature tradition, something about those issues becomes really critical at the end of the 19th century. Male: I think that that's exactly right. I think that subjectivity is critical to understanding Cezanne. At the same time, I think there's a series of sort of underlying, other sort of visual realities that have come into play in the modern world. Female: Photography. Male: Photography. The momentariness of the glimpse of the city, of the speed of transportation, and in a sense the making complex of vision. Female: Exactly, and Cezanne is taking that vision, that idea of the complexity of vision, and really working it and thinking it through, and eliminating the sort of spiritual stuff that Gauguin adds to it and the psychological material that van Gogh adds to it, and thinking about it in a very sort of rigorous way. Male: And of course this will have an enormous impact on the next century when Matisse and Picasso and others will look back to this work. It really is the foundation for cubism and for so much of the abstraction, and the formal, you're absolutely right, sort of the formal investigations of vision that go after. Female: Yup. (jazzy music)