Bathers But Not Beauties
By Jack Flam
Cézanne’s paintings of bathers have influenced the representation of the nude more than any other works since the High Renaissance, when Titian and Giorgione set the standard for how figures should be rendered in a landscape. The new paradigm that Cézanne created has lasted over a century, affecting not only the depiction of the human figure but also a number of very different styles, including Fauvism and Cubism, geometric and organic abstraction.The richness of Cézanne’s legacy derives from the complexity of his technique, which combines linear and planar elements with passages of solid modeling and allows the white ground of the canvas to interrupt what is represented on it. This creates a picture space full of shifts and ellipses, especially noticeable in depictions of the human figure, where even small alterations in the shapes and sizes of body parts or facial features are conspicuous.
Cézanne’s manner of building his forms with accumulations of small, planar strokes was as much a way of not fully defining objects as it was of depicting them. What results is a tension between the painted surface and what is represented on it. Consequently, Mondrian could write that Cézanne showed how beauty was created not by the objects he represented “but by the relationships
of form and color,” while Kandinsky emphasized the content of Cézanne’s paintings, his “gift of seeing the inner life in everything.”
The Large Bathers sums up Cézanne’s explorations during the last two decades of his life. It is arguably the greatest of his “Bathers” paintings—not only in terms of size, but also inventiveness, force, and majesty. Cézanne obviously had grand ambitions for it. Its size relates it to the grand
depictions of historical and religious subjects then constituting the most important category in academic salons. In subject Cézanne’s large work reaffirmed the tradition of pastoral painting, but in style it deconstructed the worn-out conventions of that tradition.
No slick finish, no slick emotion. And in contrast to the harmony that had characterized most earlier paintings of bathers, Cézanne’s The Large Bathers is rife with contradictions. The most obvious is the contrast between the sensuality of the nominal subject and the austerity in the way the
figures are treated in the landscape. The groups of nudes reinforce the upward thrust of the trees, which rise in a majestic triangle that clearly resembles the pointed arch of a Gothic cathedral. In this way, the compositional structure of the picture is based on an opposition between the sacred and the profane, which is reinforced by the distant church steeple and the spire-like trees on
the far shore of the river.
There are also tensions and ambiguities among the figures. At the time he painted this picture, Cézanne had an aversion to working directly from a nude model—so many of the figures in the picture are based on drawings from his student days or on studies he had made in the Louvre. The striding figure initiating the upward thrust of the trees on the left is based on an 18th-century sculpture of the goddess Diana, while the woman on the right who seems to personify the inner energy of the large tree alludes to the Venus de Milo. These are the two tallest figures, and the architecture of the picture is firmly anchored in them: Diana, goddess of chastity; and Venus, goddess of love. Such a contrast between figures placed at opposite sides of the arcing foliage is especially pertinent in a painting that sets a group of pagan goddesses against a cathedral of trees.
Since the Renaissance, nudes in a landscape had usually been depicted in an overtly sensual, erotic way. But in The Large Bathers, the women, who assume the poses of sensual nudes, are distinctly de-eroticized. Their faces are masklike, or blank, and their bodies forbiddingly angular and disjointed. They
disturb rather than delight us. There are also unsettling passages in which the figures are subject to an Ovidian kind of metamorphosis. The shoulders and arms of the seated figure on the far right, for example, are thrust forward in a dislocated way—a passage made even more radical by the way her shoulders and arms are coterminous with the buttocks and legs of the woman behind her, so that
the two are inextricably conflated. The foreground figure is seated and focusing her attention on the others, the one behind her is turned away, about to dissolve into the surrounding foliage. (She, in turn, is echoed by a crouching figure at the far left, who appears to be mysteriously emerging from the
Of the 14 nudes in the foreground, six are turned away from us. This heightens our feeling of alienation and also enhances the picture’s mystery by directing our attention to the indistinct figures regarding us from the far shore, and to the nearly imperceptible swimmer in the middle of the river. A
number of incongruous incidents and people are contained in this fluctuating universe, united primarily by the energy emanating from the canvas’s white ground, which infuses the whole with a vitality that transcends its subject.
The lack of finish in Cézanne’s paintings troubled his contemporaries, even his admirers. The progressive critic Charles Morice noted in a 1907 essay a “necessary distinction between Cézanne’s works and the tendencies that Cézanne stands for,” even invoking the anti-modernist writer Camille Mauclair’s judgment that “Cézanne never was able to create what can be called a picture.”
Because of their disrupted surfaces and expressive distortions, Cézanne’s paintings were considered extremely ugly, at a time when the idea of ugliness was becoming a central issue in the discussion of progressive painting. Mauclair even wrote an essay called “The Crisis of Ugliness in Painting.” Cézanne’s painting was so strongly associated with ugliness that, in 1895, when Ambroise
Vollard placed a small “Bathers” painting in his gallery window, a number of people were horrified by it. A full decade later, Morice dryly noted that “Cézanne’s pictures alarm the public and delight artists; all of the public, but not all of the artists.” This attitude persisted for many years; in 1937, a
scandal erupted when the Philadelphia Museum paid $110,000 for The Large Bathers.
Today we understand how Cézanne’s lack of finish created an extraordinarily suggestive spatial openness, one that redefined the esthetics and structure of painting, as well as what was permissible in the representation of the human figure. We can also perceive the discontinuities in Cézanne’s paintings as being important factors in their spiritual implications. If the solid forms in his paintings seem to be on the verge of dissolution and the empty spaces on the verge of becoming solidified, they reflect Cézanne’s intuitive understanding of the interchangeability of matter and energy and his intense awareness of the metaphysical void that underlies what we can know of the natural world.
Cézanne’s late painting practice was grounded in his awareness that neither the natural world nor our perception of it is stable, making impossible the description of nature in a fixed way. A painting like The Large Bathers contains an astonishingly complex amalgam of subjective and classically objective responses to its subject—all of which are subsumed by a pervasive sense of metaphysical doubt.
Cézanne was not only a pioneer in the representation of metaphysical doubt, but also an early and noteworthy exemplar of a particular kind of “negative capability” in painting, whereby acceptance of uncertainty and contradiction becomes central to seeking truth. His apparent irresoluteness and oddly graceful clumsiness, for which he was so severely criticized in his own lifetime, have become hallmarks of modern art. Following Cézanne, artists have sought to free themselves from the constraints of habit, polished finish, and good taste, and have aspired to a more primitive and essential notion of authenticity. Sometimes this has been done by resorting to practices meant to disenable facility, such
as drawing with the weak hand; or, as in the case of Willem de Kooning, by working with both eyes closed. These are variants on what Samuel Beckett called “the need to be ill equipped.”
Nowhere is Cézanne’s radical originality more apparent than in The Large Bathers, where he not only redefined the depiction of the nude but also challenged the nature of painting itself, and the ways in which it was judged. In doing so, he also recast the modern pastoral, making it into something less
arcadian, and charged with darker emotions. Paintings such as Matisse’s great but profoundly disconcerting Bathers by a River—a distinctly de-eroticized and anti-arcadian pastoral—grew directly from the Cézanne “Bathers” that he so loved and admired.
In fact, without the precedent of Cézanne’s “Bathers,” many works by Matisse, Picasso, de Kooning, and even Lucian Freud, among others, would have been quite simply inconceivable.
Jack Flam is president of the Dedalus Foundation and Distinguished
Professor Emeritus of Art and Art History at Brooklyn College and the Graduate
Gauguin’s Nevermore was offered to Swiss Collector
The Courtauld’s star Tahitian painting nearly left the UK in 1929
By Martin Bailey
Nevermore, the star of the Courtauld Gallery’s Gauguin show that opened on 20 June, nearly left Britain in 1929. A Berlin dealer, who believed that Samuel Courtauld was willing to sell the Tahitian scene, offered it to Switzerland’s leading collector, Oskar Reinhart.
The Art Newspaper found the offer recorded in Reinhart’s archive in Winterthur. The Berlin-based Alfred Gold wrote to Reinhart, saying he was about to visit London and could “now purchase several
important pictures [from Courtauld]… among which is the famous Nevermore”. Gold asked if Reinhart would like to buy it.
Nevermore was painted in Tahiti in 1897. Immediately afterwards, Gauguin had written to his Parisian friend Daniel de Monfreid, explaining that he had “wished to suggest by means of a simple nude a certain long-lost barbaric luxury”. The picture comprised a mix of Western and Polynesian motifs, partly inspired by Manet’s scandalous Olympia, 1863 (Gauguin had a reproduction of Olympia in his Tahitian hut). The artist added that Nevermore is “badly painted (I’m so nervous and can only work
in bouts), but no matter, I think it’s a good canvas”. Gauguin rolled up Nevermore and entrusted it to a French naval officer who was returning to Paris.
A year later, it was bought for £20 by the composer Frederick Delius, making it the first work by Gauguin acquired by an English collector. Delius had financial problems after the First World War and unsuccessfully tried to sell Nevermore in Norway. The picture was also offered to the National
Gallery Millbank (later renamed the Tate) for £1,800. Its trustees turned it down, suggesting that “more important examples of Gauguin’s work” should be sought. In 1922, Delius sold Nevermore to the Manchester ship merchant Herbert Coleman. Courtauld purchased the picture from him in
Two years later, Nevermore was offered to Reinhart. Courtauld wanted to buy Cézanne’s Card
Players, 1892-95, from Gold, and suggested some sort of trade with the dealer. On 17 March 1929, Gold wrote to Courtauld responding to “your idea of an exchange of the Card Players with some of your Cézannes or a Tahiti-Gauguin”. Gold explained that an exchange would be difficult and Courtauld then sent a telegram offering cash for the Card Players, which was accepted.
At the same time, Courtauld wanted to buy Gauguin’s The Dream (Te Rerioa) from the Parisian dealer Paul Rosenberg. Roger Fry, the curator of the 1910 Post-Impressionist exhibition, was Courtauld’s occasional advisor. On 22 March, Fry wrote to Courtauld, suggesting that he might sell Nevermore in order to finance the purchase of The Dream.
Meanwhile, since Courtauld had originally suggested the idea of an exchange, Gold realised that he might be amenable to a sale. On 23 March, Gold wrote again, asking for “the honour of entrusting me with the sale of one or two” unspecified Cézannes or Gauguins.
Gold undoubtedly wanted to sell Nevermore to Reinhart, which would have earned him a good commission, although Courtauld does not appear to have made a firm offer to sell it. However, Gold would have been unwise to offer the picture to an important client unless he felt there was a good chance of extracting it from Courtauld. There is no further correspondence in the Reinhart archive (at his Winterthur home, Am Römerholz), which suggests that the Swiss collector decided against pursuing Nevermore.
A few months later, Courtauld sold Bathers at Tahiti, 1897, to Gold. Sometime afterwards he sold another work by Gauguin, Martinique Landscape, 1887. Both pictures, now in Birmingham’s Barber
Institute and Edinburgh’s National Gallery of Scotland respectively, have been lent for the Courtauld Gallery’s current display.
The Courtauld Gallery curator, Karen Serres, remains sceptical that Gold would have convinced
Courtauld to agree to sell Nevermore: “It was already a famous masterpiece. Courtauld did not need the money and he had originally purchased the picture at a discount on the understanding that he would eventually donate it to a public institution. Gold was therefore being overly optimistic.”
Nevermore remained in London, and passed to the Courtauld Gallery in 1932. It is appropriate that it has always belonged to British owners, since it is the only picture titled by the artist in English (the inscription is in the upper left). Gauguin’s inspiration was Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”. The
poem had been recited at Gauguin’s farewell banquet in Paris, just before he set sail for Tahiti.
"Collecting Gauguin: Samuel Courtauld in the '20s", Courtauld Gallery, London, until 8 September
June 21st, 2013
New Light Fixture for a Famous Rotunda
James Turrell Plays With Color at the Guggenheim
By Roberta Smith
James Turrell’s exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum will probably be the bliss-out environmental art hit of the summer. This is primarily because of the ravishing “Aten Reign,” an immense, elliptical, nearly hallucinatory play of light and color that makes brilliant use of the museum’s famed rotunda and ocular skylight. The latest site-specific effort from Mr. Turrell, “Aten Reign” is close to oxymoronic: a meditative spectacle.
The Guggenheim exhibition is one of three now celebrating the art of Mr.
Turrell, 70, a leading member of the groundbreaking Light and Space generation of artists that emerged in Los Angeles in the late 1960s. The most comprehensive is at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, while the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston is showing seven works from its collection. The Guggenheim’s effort, which has been organized by Carmen Giménez, the museum’s formidable curator of 20th-century art, and Nat Trotman, associate curator, is in some ways singularly ambitious, simply because “Aten Reign” is the largest temporary installation Mr. Turrell or the museum has ever undertaken. Impeccably installed, the exhibition contains, in addition to “Aten Reign,” four earlier installation pieces that are just enough to summarize Mr. Turrell’s single-minded trajectory. This artist often says that light and space are his materials. The curators have taken him at his word, editing out his more gimmicky efforts, emptying out the museum and turning it into a spare, unhurried tour of his art. The only other exhibition at the Guggenheim at the moment is "New Harmony: Abstarction Between the Wars, 1919 - 1939," a display of often unfamiliar works from the collection that dovetails beautifully with the purity of Mr. Turrell’s art at its best.
“Aten Reign” can make you feel a bit like Richard Dreyfuss on the verge of vindication in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”: it sometimes suggests the underside of a giant spaceship setting down. Its concentric ellipses of glowing color emanate from an elaborate five-tier structure of white fabric scrims and computerized lights inserted into the rotunda’s cylindrical space by way of considerable engineering expertise and, I assume, a good-size budget. In a short video, available on a new Guggenheim App, one of its designers describes it as a stack of five lampshades seen from the
During a cycle lasting about 60 minutes, “Aten Reign” moves seamlessly and seductively across the color spectrum in slightly saccharin, related shades: mini-spectrums of violet, orange, red, blue, green
and a bit too much pink. As it progresses, you may be stunned by the ever-shifting variety of these colors. You may also be reminded of the infinitesimal chromatic gradations on a ring of paint-sample cards. The work’s best moments are actually those with the least color, when the lights are
primarily white or when they are shut off altogether. Illuminated only by daylight from the rotunda’s skylight, the piece becomes a symphony of grays.
I like Mr. Turrell’s work well enough. Some of it is breathtakingly beautiful and definitely gives you the heightened sensory experience of seeing yourself see — as is often said both of his efforts and
those of other Light and Space artists like Robert Irwin and Ron Cooper. I especially like Mr. Turrell’s skyscapes, small spaces with large, open-to-the-sky apertures and walls lined with tilted benches (which the Guggenheim also has). Aided by artificial lighting, they encourage contemplation of the changing subtleties of sky and light and, if you will, their spiritual implications. One of Mr. Turrell’s best skyscapes is the 1986 "Meeting,"which is constructed into a room on the top floor of MoMA PS 1 in Long Island City. It has the added advantage of avoiding the often free-standing, portentous, tomblike structures that house these pieces.
Although it uses natural light, “Aten Reign” is a more thoroughly artificial skyscape. Spend time watching its fluctuations and you may or may not see God, but you will probably come away with both an enhanced sense of your visual powers and also a new humbleness concerning the world’s visual
complexities. As the colors shift, spread and drain, as the tiers seem (but only seem) to alternate between concave and convex or change in width and depth, as you struggle to catch every nuance, you realize how much more there is to perceive than you normally do.
With his Old Testament white beard and Conservative Quaker background, Mr. Turrell sometimes seems a bit too much like a mystical seer. A penchant for oracular statements is evident in the ostentatious catalog to the Los Angeles exhibition, which contains too many floridly colored photographs for an artist who says that photographs can’t do his work justice. On one wall of the Guggenheim he intones that in his work, light “is not the bearer of revelation — it is the
But the visionary persona is mainly a result of Mr. Turrell’s still unfinished magnum opus, the Roden Crater, an extinct volcano in Arizona that he started working on in 1979. He has devoted decades and untold sums of money to outfitting its distinctive topography with tunnels, rooms and skyscapes, reshaping it into an earthwork-cum-naked-eye-observatory that has pharaonic overtones. (As does the title “Aten Reign,” which evokes an Egyptian sun god.)
Photographs of the crater in the catalog to the Los Angeles show suggest that it may be overdone, seeming more temple than observatory in some chambers. It is generally a strange culmination for an
artist whose roots lie in the 1960s-early ’70s dematerialization of the art object.
Mr. Turrell was born in Los Angeles in 1943 and came of age at a time when the physical art object was often being jettisoned by artists in favor of language, performance, video or working in the open landscape. His own anti-object tendencies seem to have come into focus so early that there is
almost no phase of early paintings or sculptures like those that many members of his generation abandoned as they moved toward more radical art-making.
At Pomona College, he studied perceptual psychology and mathematics. By his early 20s, he was experimenting with natural and artificial light pieces in a former hotel in Santa Monica that he rented for eight years. The works for which he first became known were light projections of sharply
defined geometric shapes in darkened spaces, which sometimes read as three-dimensional volumes, and sometimes as flat. Either way they were complete illusions.
At the Guggenheim two projection pieces, “Afrum I (White)” and “Prado (White),” both from 1967, demonstrate the simple beginnings of Mr. Turrell’s art. “Ronin,” from the next year, is an early instance of altered architecture: in one corner of the museum’s High Gallery, a narrow slice of wall has been removed from ceiling to floor, and the exposed cavity has been rounded and lighted; it forms a shaft of astoundingly mysterious white light that seems alternately solid or infinite.
“Iltar,” from 1976, makes a great leap toward “Aten Reign.” It is among the first of what Mr. Turrell calls his “space division constructions”: paintinglike rectilinear cuts in walls that are lighted from
without and sometimes within. Here the excision is flanked by just two pairs of 25-watt light bulbs. As your eyes adjust to the darkness, the rectangle first suggests a chalk-smeared blackboard, then gently roiled white mist and, up close, a snow bank in twilight. The walls near the lights acquire granular
textures that almost start to teem.
These visual reveries give the Guggenheim exhibition a surprise ending. As your eyes become alive to both the work’s mysteries and its self-evident simplicity, it is possible to sense a quiet renunciation of “Aten Reign,” with its gorgeous effects and hidden mechanisms. You may not care, but it is there.
“James Turrell” continues through Sept. 25 at the Guggenheim Museum,
1071 Fifth Avenue, at 89th Street; (212) 423-3500,