Unreal Nature

October 31, 2011

Compelling Reason

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:35 am

… The modern artist often demonstrates his craft by successfully disguising it, so that his created representation, a magnificent fiction, appears independent of the technique that made it.

… to glorify the degree of surprise and unconsciousness within an act of signification, at the expense of the element of control and deliberation, seems somewhat perverse. Is there any compelling reason why the artist who finds more than he can make (an innovator in spite of himself) should be greater than some rival who can make exactly what others would wish to find?

This is from Cézanne and the End of Impressionism: A Study of the Theory, Technique, and Critical Evaluation of Modern Art by Richard Shiff (1984):

… Must the artist find his originality blindly, unconsciously, or can he succeed in seeking after it, come to possess it and to manipulate it as one of a number of “techniques”? Given Cézanne’s statements and those of the critics and historians who wrote so enthusiastically about him, it would seem that the modernist artist should follow his own “creative vision” rather than direct it. Yet, as I have maintained, Cézanne’s technique (as well as that of so many of his contemporaries) developed in accord with specific intentions, indeed, as a response to “statements” made by the techniques of other painters.

… It can be assumed that the “independent” Cézanne — just as his contemporary, the “academic” Henri Regnaultdeclared conventional chiaroscuro unacceptable for two reasons: first, because it seemed unlike the coloristic effects actually observed in nature; and second, because it was recognized as an academic artifice, a product of doctrine rather than personal experience. The first reason, the appeal to direct observation, is (as I have already implied) suspect in the extreme, for it can always be argued that a painter “sees” in nature only what his acquired technical practice allows him to imagine as a picture. If, instead of chiaroscuro, Cézanne “saw” a pattern of juxtaposed brilliant colors in nature, he possessed a theory to guide this “naïve” vision, a theory of the impression, the visual effect proper to an “innocent,” unindoctrinated eye. Thus, one could argue that the colors of the painter’s “naïve” vision had their origin in an acquired theoretical discourse. The “field” of vision from which colors might be selected was determined neither by an external nature nor by an internal temperament.

… The painter’s impression is (conceived as) immediate and found. His impressionist aim inhibits his observing an object as a differentiated part of a whole “sensation” of nature since this would be to study it and make it into a compositional element. Cézanne did not make compositions in the usual sense. He preferred to let his technique of making perform a finding — the impression becomes the end of his art, not merely the beginning.

Shiff offers a number of specific examples in support of his arguments. Here is one of them:

… Examples of typical structural correspondences that Cézanne created in his Still Life include: (1) the linear accents of the right vertical edge of the drawer in the table echo the rendering of the right side of the pitcher and also the directional strokes in the lower left part of the dish; (2) the central part of the background corresponds coloristically to the foreground table plane; (3) the pattern of brushstrokes in the pitcher corresponds to that in the adjacent part of the background (to the right of the pitcher), and patches of ochre, the dominant color of the adjacent background, are added to the pitcher; (4) the brushstrokes that define the wineglass extend beyond the representational limits of the object and correspond to the strokes of the adjacent background; (4) the background drapery at the top right seems arranged to form diagonal folds defining an angle reciprocally related to that of the receding right edge of the foreground table; (6) horizontal “shadows” next to the oranges and the lemon at left echo the edges of the table and drawer. Such analogies reinforce the sense of an articulated but repetitious variation in the entire surface that is given also by the artist’s insistent use of contrasts of warm and cool colors: the dish is a pattern of blue, pink, and green; the red, orange, yellow, and green fruit are edged by linear strokes of blue and red-violet; the linear edges of the table consist of segments of blue, red-violet, green, and reddish-brown with the strokes of brilliant cool blue often flanked by contrasting warm orange-browns; the plane of the table ranges from various warm and cool browns to pale red-violets, violets, blues, and greens.


Still Life, ca. 1900

Cézanne’s Still Life must be judged an “impression” because its parts, although varied and unified, fail to form a hierarchical composition; this effect is the product of both the use of a type of color that supersedes a more conventional chiaroscuro, and the use of an arrangement of contrasting shapes, colors, and lines designed not to appear in strict rank or sequence, but rather as forming a set of equivalent spontaneous “sensations.”

… the question of the fabricated and the natural must remain open for any modernist who regards originality as the greatest achievement; for if Cézanne possessed the originality inherent in the discovery or experience of nature and self, this modernist end would not be seen as a mere product of the manipulation of technical means. The modernist critic or art historian is inclined to discount the artifice of impressionist originality and to judge Cézanne — who seemed to have introduced a new kind of structure into painting — as Roger Fry judged him: he may not have known what he was doing; his originality ran ahead of his technique.

It is something of a cliché to say that “few if any artists are entirely conscious of their enterprise, and therefore of the manner in which the changing directions in their art may transcend the frames of reference imposed by their moment in time.” Like all clichés, this one has repeatedly been put to productive use: it has allowed the art  historian to attribute a complex level of system and signification to a given work and to explain it in a sophisticated fashion, while viewing its creator as a relatively naïve finder, someone unaware of his own accomplishments. Not only does the art historian thereby establish his own professional territory of “original” interpretation, he also maintains the modern myth of an originality that must be found and never made. This dichotomy of the found and the made is unnecessary because both the art historian’s interpretation and the artist’s creation are made things. The fact that they may differ does not imply that interpretation must supersede creation as a conscious act following unconscious or passive discovery.

The interpretive act manipulates a raw material of art, but so does art itself; both have technique (much, if not all of it, inherited) and both require skill in expression. The modern artist often demonstrates his craft by successfully disguising it, so that his created representation, a magnificent fiction, appears independent of the technique that made it. With a complementary agility, the historian or critic unveils the relationship between the artist and his inherited artistic tradition; yet in the next breath, he denies that the artistic product is constituted of that past — he values the “modernist” work to the extent that it breaks with the past and originates in a living present. But just at this point in the critical discourse comes a recognition: the “living present” must include those classics who never die; Cézanne’s modernism can be at one and the same moment a classicism — and this without sacrificing modernism’s claim to vital, (re)generative originality.

… If modernist artists reevaluate the past, they must make progress — or do they find it? Surely artists cannot predict the full form that their works will take any more than competent speakers can control all the implications and meanings of their words; any process of representation will hold surprises. But to glorify the degree of surprise and unconsciousness within an act of signification, at the expense of the element of control and deliberation, seems somewhat perverse. Is there any compelling reason why the artist who finds more than he can make (an innovator in spite of himself) should be greater than some rival who can make exactly what others would wish to find? Perhaps so: the finder creates new desires; the maker seems (merely?) to satisfy old ones. Yet I find it salutary to recognize the strong possibility that Cézanne discovered nothing beyond impressionism but instead used impressionist technique to represent the “original” vision impressionism had been designed to find. That is surely mastery. Cézanne was remarkably successful despite his doubts and his inability, or lack of concern, to control the course of his own interpretive fortune. He received postimpressionist credit that he neither needed nor desired. He was wealthy enough in his impressionist sensation.

My most recent previous post from Shiff’s excellent book is here.

-Julie

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