Sunday, August 26, 2012

Stalking Cézanne

Most artists I truly appreciate are those I’ve studied either formally or casually, in college or on my own, and such was the case with Paul Cézanne. I’d always found his paintings of Provençal landscapes with their ochre tones and depictions of Mont Sainte Victoire pleasing. But now that I feel I’ve forged a close personal connection with him (after all, we lived in his town and over the course of a month visited all the seminal spots of his life), he’s emerged as one of my favorites.

Cézanne was Provençal through and through and above all he was a son of Aix. He was passionately attached to his hometown, particularly the perpetual play of its vivid light on the countryside that so influenced his life’s work. As I’ve now come to learn, Cézanne’s art progressed and transformed over the years until it settled on the precipice of cubism and abstraction leading many to deem him the father of modern painting.

Our quest for the true Cézanne began at the Jas de Bouffan, his family’s home just west of town. It suddenly and surprisingly materializes along a rather dreary stretch of road populated with car washes, chain hotels and mini-marts. The verdant property with its straight sycamore-lined approach is secreted behind high stone walls and an equally high iron gate entry, all of which sat alone on the route into town when Cézanne lived there with his parents in the late 1800s. The rectangular manor house is where he completed his first paintings in the high-ceilinged dining room turned artist’s studio and he used its walls as large experimental canvases. We took a look at at the residence’s gardens, backyard chestnut trees, statues, pond and potting shed and were able to identify them all in the artist’s many tableaux.

Next up on our journey in the footsteps of Cézanne were the Bibémus quarries on a rocky plateau to the east of Aix where he spent a lot of time as a teen. It was while walking there under plentiful pines with his boyhood friend, Emile Zola (yes indeed, that Zola) that he discovered the painter inside him. The sandstone quarries were worked until the mid-19th century but when Cézanne and his chum came upon them, they were abandoned and overgrown. The mustard- and molasses-colored rock retained the angular, geometric shapes cut by hand by the quarry laborers in sharp contrast to the surrounding, more gentle, green and brown lines of nature. Cézanne was drawn to the distinction and the urge to depict it on canvas consumed him.

We followed the artist’s route on the fragrant pine needle-cushioned forest paths through the quarries to the stone hut with the red wooden door where he safeguarded his artwork and slept. In the valley far below were rows of green vineyards and golden fields of wheat in juxtaposition to the red and orange clay of the plateau. It was from a vantage point near his cabin that Cézanne viewed and painted, almost obsessively, the dramatic, 3,300-foot Mont Saint Victoire against the deep blue sky of Provence. The famous Provençal mountain dominates the artist’s work and nearly 100 of his paintings feature the rugged, gray stone peak.

We had hoped to make the demanding trek to the top of Mont Sainte Victoire after our visit to Bibémus, but since the summer Mistral can fan a flame from a spark or cigarette butt carelessly tossed on the scorched terrain, the mountain park is closed in July and August. We settled for the brief but beautiful hour-long hike down the ridge from the plateau to the small, shaded town of Le Tholonet, one of Cézanne's favorite retreats. The village has two nice restaurants, a large pit for playing pétanque, lots of trees and a lovely chateau painted by Cézanne. We chose Le RelaisCézanne for lunch and wiled away some of the hot afternoon on its cool terrace.

The artist’s studio halfway up the Lauves Hill north of Aix, which he customized for the practice of his art and to which he walked every morning of the final four years of his life, is infused with Cézanne’s presence. The high-ceilinged room with its huge picture window that allows the room to be bathed in natural light has been left just as it was by the artist. His furniture, still life objects, painting chemises, palettes, brushes, tools, overcoat, hat and cane are as they were when he died in 1906. On the crest of the hill up the road from the studio, the city of Aix created what they call the Terraindes Peintres (Painters’ Park). The circular, terraced garden on the ridge from which Cézanne often painted, faces Mont Saint Victoire on the eastern horizon and presents lacquered reproductions of several paintings of his most beloved subject.

The Granet Museum was right around the corner from our apartment in the Quartier Mazarin. Cézanne studied drawing there in his early years when the building housed an art school. This gem of a gallery is considered one the finest in France and owns nine of Cézanne’s paintings as well as a set of his watercolors. Also on display were a collection of works by Corot, de Staël, Picasso, Pollock, Rubens, Rembrandt and Van Gogh. Who knew such a little town like Aix would house such masterpieces of the art world?

I ended my pilgrimage in the Saint-Pierre cemetery on a scenic hill at the edge of town: the artist’s unassuming final resting place. Cézanne was born in Aix, he died in Aix and has long been the town’s most famous native son. My wanderings among the places most important to him and what they taught me about his art left me with a much better understanding of the man and an appreciation of the work that drove him. In the end, I felt like I knew him personally, if only just a bit. It must have helped that during my brief time in his fair city, I was an ardent Aixois, just like him.

Pictures of our adventures:

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