Back in early December I mentioned that I'd got my hands on a book about Cézanne (in a post entitled 'The Sublime', 02/12/18). Well now I've read the book. It's Pavel Machotka's 'Cézanne: Landscape into Art'. In it Machotka places examples of Cézanne's landscapes alongside photographs of the sites that he depicted.
To feel the full force of Machotka's insights you'd need to know more than I do about others' interpretations of Cézanne's paintings, in particular ideas about the dominance of the formal qualities of his work with a consequent down-playing of the importance of the motif that inspired it. Without that preconception some of Machotka's ostensibly re-balancing arguments seem unsurprising. Having naively supposed that Cézanne was depicting real scenes more or less faithfully it can hardly come as a surprise to me to learn that he really was depicting real scenes more or less faithfully. To which fact, Machotka contends, the photos unequivocally attest. To put it bluntly, never having supposed that Cézanne was making stuff up I don't feel shocked to be told that he wasn't. That notwithstanding, it's a tension between 'vision' and 'invention' that lies at the heart of much that's discussed by Machotka, with his principal argument being that Cézanne managed masterfully to balance the two and not, as some have supposed, to lean heavily on invention.
The opening short chapters of the book discuss this and other 'prior concerns'. These chapters are, for me, the best parts because they're the most general and most generative of ideas that might be transferred elsewhere. The 'prior concerns' include:
The link between motif and painting: close or distant? Of landscape paintings that are only tenuously linked to their source Machotka says 'the canvas and the photograph [of the view] are too distant - perhaps just close enough for us to recognise the site - and we then fail to see how the one depended on the other. The site looks only as a pretext for painting, not as an invitation or an incitement. The painting continues to exist as an independent thing, not as the fruit of close observation and analytical thought' (p.9). I'd say by way of a couple of examples that this is true of almost all the works of Ilse D'Hollander and some of Ivon Hitchens. The observation suggests a continuum of images, ordered by the strength of the link between view and painting, from close to distant. Currently, I probably sit uncomfortably near the prosaic opposite, where 'canvas and... photograph appear only as alternative visual records... (where there is) little evidence of the painting as a process of selection, of emphasis, of incorporation into the painter's way of seeing' (p.9). To avoid which I'm tempted, for good or ill, to try to edge towards greater abstraction, albeit emphatically not at the expense of letting go of what's really there. This last is not a criticism Machotka levels at Cézanne: 'Although his treatment of a motif is always more interesting - integrated, whole, passionate - than the motif itself, it is a reconstruction based on attentive analysis' (p.30).