Back on Solid Ground

It all boils down to reality doesn’t it?

Regular readers of this occasional blog (to whom I extend both my incredulity and gratitude), may recall that I have been grappling with Cezanne, or more specifically his ideas about Art.


Cezanne at his best – well for me at least – a French student of mine who grew up with the view says that it doesn’t look like that. He’d be pleased I suspect

Now I’m not an academic – I have no interest for instance in when he was born, worked, died, whom he married or any of that guff. Like any self respecting artist I simply wish to steal his best ideas.

Picasso would approve.

So what were Cezanne’s ideas?

Where to start… my favourite is the idea of temporality and mutability. So in essence Cezanne postulates that we simply don’t experience things in the way that a traditionally composed painting – or a photograph for that matter – suggests.  A stiff, fixed, perspectival view is all very well; but it’s hardly experiential.

We see and experience things temporally, and more than that we know more about a motif than we see when we look at it (I’m straying a little beyond Cezanne here).  Cezanne was non conventional in his use of perspective, because he knew that the ‘proper’ way of painting it made little sense if the point of painting, was to record how something looked to him.

So in comes a willingness, if not to abstract, then to create visual ambiguity. The aim? To make something look how it felt to see it, not how it was.  I like that, and it’s a keeper.


looking into Gordale, A natural cathedral or citadel of limestone.My attempt in the woods of Bacon – to ‘deepen the mystery’ Work in progress 48×60″

Take this to its logical conclusion – and Braque did – we get multiple simultaneous perspective. Take that on and it’s a short step to Abstraction (with an A, not an a). Cezanne didn’t take these steps because he never lost his wonder at the power of great, significant Art.

So what makes Art significant? My reading is that a work of Art has to have gravitas, visual power and for want of a better word ‘orchestration’.  A Poussin for instance oozes all of that. Cezanne’s works might be unconventional in his use of perspective but they reveal his respect for the Form.

His compositions and colours are  never glib, but sober, dignified, significant. Never stooping – as I have shamefully done – to zombie expressionism , he built his works so that each passage builds with and upon the next to become a greater whole.

It’s hard to grasp, and contradictory to his ideas of non fixed perspective (but then all great artists are contradictory). So by following the principle of orchestration we can reimagine a scene as having Macro and Micro passages;  colours for instance, but this might apply to value, temperature, opacity or any other range parameter we choose.

In simplistic colour terms a simple Cezannian (if I might coin that phrase) landscape might be divided into blue for the sky, and green for the ground – so two Macro areas. Within those we want lots of close interest, a symphony of blue green, blue, blue violet, (in various permutations of value, opacity or saturation), and then the same again for the greens.

Fill the Macro areas with those smaller marks and it becomes more visually interesting. Put the right small marks together in the right order and you have Micro colour planning  and that’s symphonic if you get it right. Cezanne did.

It’s not glibly sloshing paint about, it’s not regurgitating photographic detail, it’s looking at a very ordinary scene and elevating it by being selective, being rigorous and using aesthetic judgments, which when you come to think about it isn’t a bad definition of Art.

Another keeper. I was starting to like Cezanne.

Next a surprise. Cezanne was distinctly sniffy about Impressionism. Not that it wasn’t good or attractive  painting  – it could be both of those  – but for him Art (note the A) couldn’t be about something so ephemeral as a flash of light or a vagary of weather. By its very nature Impressionism was about visual effects not observed truths.


It’s an instance, but not Truth. Or so Cezanne would have me think. The peerless work of Monet.

A tough one for me , wedded as I am, to the ambiguous effects of wax and glaze. Could it be possible for me to view the Dales  as an opportunity for great Art rather than a theatre for transient light effects?

I’m struggling with that one, because I’ve never been stopped dead in my tracks by what Cezanne terms great Art. Poussin? It might be dignified, significant, cadenced and all that give me a ravishing Turner any day.

Now a confession. I stumbled across a show of Cezanne’s greatest works one day in London. I hadn’t expected to see them ( I was there for my hit of Turner and Rembrandt in those days), but I had the good sense to take the opportunity.  Well reader, I was underwhelmed.

To my untrained eye they looked a bit drab, a bit blocky a bit like poor Cubism. I certainly didn’t feel any urge to spend time with them.  I know. But – and this is important – I’ve never forgotten that I didn’t get it.

But, back to reality.  So we’re moving on from fixed perspective, the certainty of observation and all that implies. We’re also thinking about the work in terms of orchestration which demands we never loose sight of aesthetics and visual design.

So, progress, but not victory. I’ll leave you this time with some works in progress.  Here are the Dales, solid, structural, foursquare and honestly painted. It’s not great Art, but then it’s not a pastiche, a painted photo , a bit of zombie expressionism (see my previous blog  post), or another of my long running tributes to Turner. If nothing else my understanding of reality has shifted.

For the time being I offer you a few as yet untitled and unfinished works.


Spare and majestic but divided architecturally by dry stone walls and enclosures. Work in progress 48×60″

It’s been a good week.


4 thoughts on “Back on Solid Ground

  1. Hi Martin and greetings from Roger in Dorset. I have been following your Blog postings with great interest and wish you well with your new series of paintings and the personal challenge you have set yourself to express your own unique response to the Dales free of commercial influences. It never fails to amaze me the extent to which painting becomes a cerebral experience which can dominate waking moments with feelings of inadequacy and lack of self esteem. Total confidence in one’s art must be the consolation prize for those that are less competant but blisfully content to churn out the turkeys or paint kittens once a week for pleasure.I much admire your latest work shown in the Blog and the sensitive but visually exciting approach you have taken in this further progression towards artistic contentment and the solution to your sleepless nights. My very best wishes to you, Jane and the family.


  2. I love it Martin. It is different from your last work aso it should be as you are working through concepts and visions. Very exciting. I relish your posts you give me so much food for thought. I really miss your insights and clever thinking now the diploma course is over. Thank you for your posts.


  3. Really Martin, how can you say you are not an academic your analysis of Cezanne above is pure academia at its very best. Dates and marriage etc are Biography. You have taken a painters work and from your own perspective analysed it in an enthralling way. Thank you, you are the best kind of Academic, stimulating and original.


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