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Video transcript

so much 19th century French painting is about the locations of modern life but there's another strain there are artists who are looking to express the modern in a different way and in Suzanne's case that's happening in a more formal way we're in the National Gallery in London looking at Susan's large bathers that was painted over a long period of time from 1894 through 1905 just a year before his death I think you're absolutely right I think the modernity here has to do with how this painting is constructed rather than its subject matter which is actually very traditional when art historians say the formal part of a painting that's what they mean how the painting is constructed how the paint is laid down the choice of colors the way the artist composed the painting let's walk briefly through the subject matter this is a subject that goes back to the Renaissance I'm thinking about some of the great Venetian painters Bellini or Titian who created these luxurious parties in the landscape full of a physical depiction of the human body in nature and that's clearly something that's still important to stays on that's right it's an important tradition the painting of the figure in the landscape the idea of the pastoral but in the work of the Venetians that's often expressed through mythological subject matter so that seasons inheritance but he is making some significant changes he stripped away the mythology he's taken away the men and he's left us with this relatively abstract rendering of the female nude in the landscape so let's talk about what we mean by abstract and those formal values and how they're modern here we know that so much of 20th century painting is about a flattening of the picture surface about denying that illusion of space that illusion of reality that was so important to the history of painting since the Renaissance and I think that's one of the main things that Cezanne is thinking about here Cezanne as being incredibly the brave he is really venturing into a place that painting had never been before and that is taking the human body the thing that we've revered most and being willing to make that subservient to the overall picture rather than vice-versa so before we would have a sense of figures existing in space and there would be a difference between the mass of the figures the solidity of the figures and the space around them but Cezanne is really constructing a unification between the landscape and the figures of knitting everything tightly together let's take a look at that specifically and see if we can actually see houses on is achieving this we have eleven figures that seem to be bounded in this landscape there in the foreground we have really no middle ground we have trees on either side then we see some trees in the distance clouds beyond that the sky beyond that but something funny happens here which is that although we know the sky must be the deepest part of the painting our eye doesn't quite go back into deep space that sky actually seems to come forward the clouds seem to come forward and they seem to hover in some funny way almost directly over the women so instead of atmospheric perspective where the Blues would get paler as they moved into the distance in a traditional landscape painting here the blue that we're seeing in the sky is actually very deep blue and it's area above the clouds is even darker so Cezanne is using color to in a sense unmake the traditional perspective of the Renaissance we see that also in the very renderings of the bodies of the women the Cezanne renders the entire painting and this is a very much characteristic of his style in the later part of his career with these short strokes look at the figure on the extreme left and note that big blue brushstroke right in her thigh now we might expect to see blues in the human flesh we see that in Rubens quite often who is often used by artists to indicate areas of shadow but here that's the lieu of the cloth below of the clouds beyond her even of the sky she becomes brushstrokes that are not dissimilar in color and shape from the brushstrokes that are elsewhere in the painting look how her posture is aligned with the tree right behind her so that she is linked to that landscape there really is a visual confusion right we can't read that distance at all which would be very readable in a traditional painting in fact it seems like the most heavily worked areas of this painting in terms of the layers of paint and the attention that Cezanne has paid to it are in the negative spaces between the figures that sometimes seem to come forward in front of the figures themselves so many of these figures seem to draw our attention towards the center towards deep space and yet when we expect to be able to enter into a deep space we hit a kind of wall and are pressed back into the foreground so so much of what we see here is taken from the tradition that we were talking about a petition of aleni when an artist composes figures in a landscape the artist is thinking about the relationship between the trees and the landscape and the figures it's just that Cezanne has thought about those relationships in a really new way it's almost as though those formal relationships have become the subject of the painting itself this is really interesting conflict in this painting all of the pain feels dense and heavy and solid forms are locked together but there's an interesting way also that this painting is completing it about opening up any single individual form look at the blue outlines that really define the human figures they are not single hard lines but a series of soft lines I don't think Suzanne is literally representing movement but thinking about all of these issues figures in the landscape figures in a landscape who are moving a landscape which is itself shifting perhaps in the wind and the breeze and the light and the atmosphere and yet wanting to create something at the same time very unified very static very formal very classical it is a fascinating solution