Cézanne’s Antinomies

It is an iron, all-controlling but not omnipotent will that forces them to work together. This voluntarism in method and synthesis is the more marked in that it foregoes any animistic interpretation of objects, any anthropomorphic rendition of nature, any identification of spirit with nature, any form of monism. The artist’s will must intervene because there is an antinomy between the subject’s aspiration to exercise all his faculties and the world of things which had become fragmentary and specialized in Cézanne’s period — the antinomy between a mind that resists its historically determined self-alienation and a world of objects which has already become alienated. One effect of this antinomy in Cézanne’s work is that his northern French landscapes rarely attain the profundity and plenitude of his southern French landscapes. And yet, throughout his life, the artist sought to compare and to encompass the different features of landscapes north and south of the Loire. The narrow world of objects forced Cézanne to choose between two possible attitudes: either to content himself with a single spiritual faculty or to fuse all his capacities together in an undifferentiated unity, a kind of lyrical pantheism. But neither sober single-mindedness nor indulgence in fancy was compatibly with Cézanne’s temperament, which drove him to differentiation and analysis as a preliminary to synthesis. This led to a profound conflict between subject and object, with the result that, on the objective side, the link between permanent process and momentary phenomenon was too direct to make it possible to arrest the transitory and give it determinate form, while on the subjective side, emotion, sensuality, and reason operated in closest interrelation without arriving at dialectical interplay. At this point the will intervened to bring about by force what could not take place freely, and thus found itself checked in its striving for perfect expression. The will cannot abolish the isolation of the individual from society, or of the soil of Provence from the cosmos, nor can it realize the surface qualities of things. For this reason, ideality and reality are kept in extreme tension: the ideality of the conception does not completely permeate the concrete things and vanish, although they are radically reconstructed in their essential features, as though Cézanne were at once geologists, architect, biologist, etc. Nor, conversely, is the generality of things incorporated without loss in the specific content of the conception. (33)

Max Raphael | The Demands of Art


Art, Space, and Freedom

We thus have, between the planes, a contrast between inward and outward movement, a contrast mediated by the articulated middle plane, which balances it out. Although they are differentiated, the planes so strongly press one on the other that the total effect of a single surface is preserved. This is why we have used the term “planes” rather than “foreground, middle ground, and background.” The latter terms convey measurable distances, to be traversed by the eye separately and successively; they are not simultaneous in terms of either space or of time. But the planes exist simultaneously: in so far as the eye can be said to move from one to the other it does so in a stepwise motion, up and down. In this way motion through a dimension is transformed into a tension within that dimension, and this tension is not between successive stages but rather between simultaneously existing points in space.

This is possible because Cézanne recognized only two independent dimensions — the horizontal and the vertical; depth is developed not along an axis of its own but vertically, by means of plastic equivalents. But for this very reason depth becomes the primal, all-determining dimension, and the two others, for all their linear and axial independence, merely serve as resistances to movement in depth. This is a consequence of the nature of filled space. Because such a space consists of substantial-corporeal points, the system of dimensional co-ordinates loses its a priori character and the dimensions can be developed only to the extent permitted by the substantial and resisting nature of the points of space. The fact that the basic dimension of depth is precisely the one that does not manifest itself independently will seem paradoxical only to those who measure the magnitude of freedom by the absence of resistance it encounters, i.e., those who in the last analysis interpret freedom negatively as the arbitrary choice within the full range of possibilities rather than as a positive force that asserts itself against specific resistances and gives necessary form to specific realities. (24-25)

Max Raphael, on Cézanne’s Mont Sainte-VictoireThe Demands of Art

Cézanne the Peasant

Cézanne’s palette was that of a peasant, but of a peasant who was at odds with the world. In his day the earth had yielded its primacy as a means of production to the machine. The fruits of production were no longer goods (i.e. substances) but commodities (i.e. factors of exchange). The typically peasant ideology of transcendence had become socially obsolete. In short, Cezanne the peasant lived under industrial capitalism, but at a time when agriculture was not yet industrialized. In consequence, the act of painting, to the very extent that it was instinctively and unconsciously pursued, inevitably transformed — even against the artist’s will and to his own surprise — an intended harmony into a disharmony, whose own inner contradictions, at least in their artistic quality, would have destroyed one another had Cézanne not deliberately staved off destruction by creating transitions and connections through analyzing nature and integrating the results of his analysis into a compositional whole. (16-17)

Max Raphael | The Demands of Art