Famously termed as the father of Modernist Art, Cezanne through his seminal work named Large Bathers, captured the historical shift of aesthetics in European art. A painting that took seven years to complete and was in process of being completed till Cezanne’s death, has become a celebratory piece that represents the genesis of modernism and the revival of impressionism in European aesthetics.
1. Art Appreciation
The painting has been made by keeping the geometrical construction in mind which was quite prevalent in the perspective art of renaissance; especially the use of triangles. We can see the division of painting into three triangles. The first two triangles show the groupings of six women on each side of the painting and the third triangle is the larger figure that contains both these triangles as well as the background of the painting and meets at the point where the two trees meet in the sky. Such geometrical construction is used to create balance in the artwork.
We can see the reflection of Classicism here which is very similar to the famous work named Diana and Actaeon by the late renaissance Venetian artist Titian. In both these works there has been attempt to visualise human nudity in public space by making human body a primary language of expression (a heavy characteristic of the entire Classical Art). Even if we focus on the two standing women in the picture, the one in the left (woman striding from the tree) looks similar to the 18th century sculpture of goddess Diana and the one in the right, with the positioning of her knees, shows uncanny resemblance to the ancient sculpture of Venus de Milo.
However, this is also a major shift from Classicism for its lack of detailing in the depiction of human body. Now this is where this painting becomes fascinating.
Diana and Actaeon by Titian (1556-1559)
Inspired by the Impressionist school of art that focuses on elements of art such as light and colours rather than objects, Cezanne here brings back our focus on the fact that it is the element and not the object that is the subject matter of this painting. One can say that this is the purest form of commentary on Classicism where the Classical fascination and technique is used to make something which is a complete deviation from the Classical school. This is evident from the bodies of the women in the painting. Instead of showing sensuality, there is heavy abstraction. So much so that the white marks on the bodies are nothing but the display of the canvas itself for the painter did not choose to paint these spaces. By doing so, he takes out attention from the beauty of a woman’s body to the shapes and forms that represent it (elements of art).
Cezanne’s focus on abstraction is evident from the figures on the two extreme ends of the painting where these figures are not even completed and are represented in a sketched form. Also, two figures in the background, a man and a horse, are also represented in the most abstract form possible, thereby restricting our appreciation to the elements such as colours (beautiful shades of blue and orange) and shapes. The use of flat strokes to depict the sky and the leaves, also weighs towards impressionism and abstraction.
2. Art Philosophy and History
The most striking theory of this painting is its heavy commentary on movement. The mixture of Classical subject matter and Impressionist technique shows the historical shift in the European art practice of the period – which is a shift from perspective realism of renaissance to the abstraction and use of elements of art. If we look into the painting, we can see that it is divided into three parts:
First part is the representation of Classical art by the depiction of nude women bathing in public.
Second part is the river that separates the the first part and the background.
Third part is the background where we see a man moving away from the painting to another direction.
It is said in one of the interpretations that the man in the background is Cezanne himself and his movement depicts an act of moving away from the traditions of Classical art to a practice that is more elemental in nature. Another example of movement, is the swimmer, who also being distanced from the first part, is shown in moving abstraction.
The other theory that is vocal in this painting is that of alienation. At least six women in the painting are looking away from the audience; and the ones that are staring within the space of painting, have blurred faces. In addition to this we can see spaces in the figures which are left white and shows the bare canvass, which to much of conspiracy theories, can be associated with an external force interrupting the artwork or the purest expression of nudity – which is, no colour at all! Well, all this representation of alienation is there because Cezanne was heavily influenced by the Impressionists. However, it also creates an element of chaos and spontaneity in the painting. Something which takes me to this idea of Dissolving and Becoming.
The burring figures in the painting as well as the use of flat strokes give this impression that either the scene is captured during its dissolution or during its becoming. This Dissolving-Becoming dichotomy is synonymous with the process through which we perceive reality. The velocity in which the mind captures the everyday display of reality and processes it is so fast and chaotic that we lose out on understanding or knowing that exact moment when perception takes place. That exact moment when external signals are processed into knowledge. And this is precisely what can be read in the disturbances of this painting. If we refer to my previous piece on Alan de Button’s Art as Therapy, we can bring his idea of the role of art in creating emotional equilibrium to this painting. Cezanne’s construction of chaos makes the viewer use to neurological process of perception to understand the process of perception itself – which is an affair so fast that it reduces the reality to indiscernible representations. It is this understanding of the role of art that not only designated Cezanne as a father of modernism but also made his works an inspiration for future schools such as cubism.