Allen Ginsberg coined a phrase to describe the experience of looking at a painting by Paul Cézanne (1839-1906): ‘eyeball kicks’. What the beat poet was referring to was the visionary spasm created by looking from one complementary colour to another.
It happens most notably in the artist’s still lifes, where greens and reds pulsate with a rhythmic force. The effect is deliberate — Cézanne spent hours selecting and arranging fruit. ‘He brought to this task the greatest care and many precautions,’ observed the artist Louis Le Bail. ‘One guessed that it was a feast for the eye to him.’
Nature morte de pêches et poires is one of many still lifes that Cézanne produced over his career. His desire was to create paintings that were active and full of life, rather than inert and passive. To this end he would use coins to wedge the fruit in place, so that they tipped forward. As the poet W.S. Di Piero explains, ‘The objects are not in repose; they press themselves forward, ingenuously disposed, at once defiant and inviting.’
Offered in the Hidden Treasures sale on 27 February at Christie’s London, Nature morte de pêches et poires marks a critical moment in the artist’s career. It was painted between 1885 and 1887, when he was living in self-imposed exile in Aix.
‘I fully approve of your idea of coming to work in Paris and then withdrawing to Provence,’ wrote his closest friend, the novelist Emile Zola (1840-1902). ‘I think that’s one way of escaping the influence of the schools and of developing some originality if one has it.’
The Provençal town — the artist’s birthplace — liberated Cézanne from the critical gaze of the Paris establishment that mocked him as a ‘barbarian’. Here he was free to pursue a new style, one that engaged with the world through geometry. Wrestling with tones, colours and shapes, Cézanne’s critical and inquiring eye sought to bring a new objectivity to painting through a series of landscapes and still lifes.
‘When you see a Cézanne, it’s like seeing the moon — there’s only one moon, there’s only one Cézanne’ — Max Weber
But this ascetic life was not without its sacrifices. He was lonely — having abandoned his mistress (later wife) and son in Paris — and poor. He exhibited little and sold very few paintings, and this Spartan existence continued until an astute young dealer came calling.
Ambroise Vollard (1866-1939) recognised in Cézanne a misunderstood genius. Buying up much of the artist’s work, including Nature morte de pêches et poires, he staged a large solo show in 1895 in which he presented the artist as a paradox — unknown but infamous in artistic circles, the ‘painter’s painter’.
Many, including the eminent critic Gustave Geffroy (1855-1926), agreed, describing the artist as a ‘truth seeker’ who was ‘haunted by the demon of art’. At the age of 56, Cézanne was heralded as a master, inspiring a younger generation of radical artists who anointed him the founding father of modern art.
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As the American painter Max Weber (1881-1961) once said, ‘When you see a Cézanne, it’s like seeing the moon — there’s only one moon, there’s only one Cézanne.’