01 October 2021

Cézanne meets Mondrian meets Rothko

This morning I was looking at a catalogue for an old Cézanne watercolour show and I was reminded of something I have often felt when looking back on my early years in Aix. 

It was difficult for me as a young painter when just starting out to spend so much time trying to learn from the late work of Cézanne, his watercolours in particular. They are unfinished and abbreviated, and trying to understand them might be like a young student of Mathematics stumbling upon a set of cryptic notes from Einstein at Princeton. 

I have seen this difficulty with many other painters as well. I saw that it is a perilous path to jumpstart an influence solely pushed by the later stages of a painter's work (evolution). 

Of course every artist is different but I definitely wouldn't say this about Vincent Van Gogh's work. He is an exception, and exceptional. One could learn from any chapter of his life's oeuvre. The early work revealed his scrabble to grapple with how to draw, then to discover the surface of a picture plane. His later work is so full of harmonious colour that one could learn everything from just looking at him alone. But he is very unusual, (remarkable) both as artist and teacher. Of course, there are no real answers to any of this because it's my own observation, regarding my own path. 

The problem is that in this case with Cézanne, he had already painted most of his whole life before arriving at these watercolours. And possibly, it may have been his austere drawings done throughout his working life that actually prefigured the spare watercolours later on. There just isn't enough information in these late things to glean, and forge a pathway forward for a young painter. By copying these things, work would just resemble 'late Cézanne' and wouldn't contribute to the student's originality.

I can see the beauty in this abbreviated watercolour (above) but I cannot see that it can help me by studying it. I suspect also that many of these 'unfinished' drawings and watercolours were simply just left for a reason only known to Cezanne. He certainly could have gone further but he stopped, why? Only he knows, but maybe he has cited reasons for it somewhere in his letters. Yet it may be that he just stopped because he liked what he had achieved, and he didn't want to ruin something which he might want to remember later on. Who knows? I am not scholar but a student of Cézanne.

The same goes for Mondrian, whose work at the end of his life is barely recognisable compared with his earlier things done as a young painter. Trying to learn something from his work at the end of his life would be extremely difficult and a trying experience. Maybe not impossible, but Olympian in any case. Why bother? 

I think (in my own case regarding Cézanne) it's because as a student painter, it was like I was trying to read the last chapters of a book without first knowing what came beforehand. So as a result, I was merely copying a style, (for lack of a better description), and I was bypassing the messiness (and failure) of all the work that everyone needs to slog through  in order to discover their own originality. Like anything, it's a lot of pure labour.

Fortunately, I was never too crazy about Cézanne's watercolours so I didn't spend too much time with them. They did not appeal to my messy and aesthetic nature. 

Regarding the picture below, I would ask; how could a painter learn from this Mondrian? It's not rhetorical, it's a serious question. What could I take from this late work of Mondrian? And what I could make out of it, and into something of my very own? Maybe something, but I fear I would be like a marathon runner who jumped into the race at the 20 mile mark.

I actually do really appreciate this particular Mondrian though it wasn't always the case. I don't understand it, but its power and emotion appeal to me for many of the same reasons I love Russian Revolutionary Art. The emotional impact here seems to deliver like squeezing water from stone.

I don't have answers to this but of course I like to throw out ideas. It seems to me that that Painting had come to the end of the road by early part of the 20th century. Painters, as they still were in those days (unlike today, where whole different means have opened up to express an idea, or a feeling) were desperate to create something wholly new. Many of them went into the realm of pure feeling, while others locked into the way of design and science, even. 

And below, a painting by Mondrian done around the time of his transition into his late work (like above). It certainly possesses a Cubist sensibility, but it's still mystery how one could learn from this work.

More to be revealed.


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