“Genius,” said the artist Paul Cézanne, “is the ability to renew one’s emotions in daily experience.” A beautiful sentiment, especially when expressed by an artist like Cézanne, but how, practically speaking, does one begin to “renew one’s emotions in daily experience?” Is this merely an artist’s responsibility and need not apply to those of us who don’t consider ourselves creative?
I think the key is that Cézanne said “daily experience.”
Daily experience is whatever we are going through, wherever we are going through it. This can be the mundane and quotidian routines and chores that we do every day and think nothing of. It can take place in an office, a home, a school, or any number of places where we interact with others and live out our daily lives and schedules. But the “genius” Cézanne is referring to is not artistic genius, but the ability to notice, be aware and feel what it is to be there in that moment, not simply drifting through it with only one’s thoughts on what’s next or being somewhere else or doing something else. It is connecting with that activity, no matter how seemingly tedious or trivial.
Certainly one sees this emotional and artistic connection to the seemingly ordinary in Cézanne’s paintings. He is most famous for his paintings of the commonplace subject of fruit. During his forty years of painting, Cézanne painted over 900 oil paintings and 400 watercolours. Many of those were focused on still lifes, which was considered the lowliest genre for an artist to paint during his day. Yet Cézanne raised still lifes to a grand subject, using light and space to create an exploration of how people see and perceive things; even going so far as to play with perspective.
“I will astonish Paris with an apple,” he once said. And he did. And continues to do.
According to the Guggenheim Museum, “Cézanne set up his still lifes with great care. A testimony by an acquaintance describes his method of preparing a still life: “No sooner was the cloth draped on the table with innate taste than Cézanne set out the peaches in such a way as to make the complementary colors vibrate, grays next to reds, yellows to blues, leaning, tilting, balancing the fruit at the angles he wanted, sometimes pushing a one-sous or two-sous piece [French coins] under them. You could see from the care he took how much it delighted his eye.” But when he began to paint, the picture might change in unusual ways. Cézanne seems to be painting from several different positions at once. He believed that the beauty of the whole painting was more important than anything else—even more important than the correctness of the rendering.”
“Painting from nature is not copying the object, ” Cézanne believed, “it is realizing one’s sensations.” By choosing such everyday objects as fruit, he was exploring not only what was a worthy subject for an artist to paint but the very nature of seeing itself. This was more than mere imitation of life. As The Metropolitan Museum of Art has said of his work, Cézanne built “forms completely from color and creating scenes with distorted perspectival space. The objects in (his) paintings, such as fruit and a tablecloth, are rendered without use of light or shadow, but through extremely subtle gradations of color.” And that he “ignores the laws of classical perspective, allowing each object to be independent within the space of a picture while the relationship of one object to another takes precedence over traditional single-point perspective.”
By seeing and painting his subjects in the manner that Cézanne does, he forces the viewer to make those connections, to see the relationship between objects and to reconsider them, but to stop and see and reconsider our own relationships to the subjects before us. To spend time looking at a bowl of fruit that Cézanne has painted makes us stop and see a bowl of fruit that may be in our own homes that, because of its familiarity, is so easily and often overlooked by us daily.
Cézanne, like any great artist, causes us to see with new eyes those things which we stop seeing because “It’s just a bowl of fruit.” He causes us to observe and pay attention. His subjects are more than mere shapes or colors, more than simply a recreation of fruit, but an artist’s rendering of how he sees the world, what he views to be important because he understood that the subject he was painting, was being captured in time, and that such moments would never come again. His ultimate goal, as he has said, was to capture those emotions, those sensations of what it felt like to be in that moment in time.
His subjects became “reflective” of his humanity and his life. These works were a working through how he felt, how he saw, and all of that a moment encapsulates. As he said, “I make it an object, let it project itself and endure within my painting….I become the subjective consciousness of the landscape, and my painting becomes its objective consciousness.” Cézanne brought all that he had of himself to a painting, even if it’s a still-life of fruit.
How many of us bring so much of ourselves to the moment? To truly seeing and being aware of the sensations that can be found in a simple bowl of fruit. Do we stop and look, sniff the sweet fragrance of a rich, golden pear, or relish in the beauty of deep red cherries, or bite into the juicy flesh of a peach?
Cézanne believed that all things must be “freshly observed.”
Do we take the time to “freshly” observe anything? Do we stop and consider those objects that are all around us? Or do we simply take them for granted?
As my mother was dying of cancer, it was eye-opening to me, to see how her senses became heightened and she became aware of so much more around her: flowers, colors, scents, tastes, and the simple enjoyment of feeling a warm breeze against her skin. The act of dying, in many ways, caused her to live again, to not take anything, not even the simple process of breathing, for granted. This was not lost on me, not even twenty years after her death.
“Doubtless there are things in nature which have not yet been seen,” Cézanne once said, “If an artist discovers them, he opens the way for his successors.” Indeed, his work would go on to influence many of the great modern painters of the modern era. Both Matisse and Picasso have referred to Cézanne as “the father of us all.”
May we learn from this great artist to “renew our emotions in daily experiences” and not assume that we are guaranteed more than the moment we are in. May we see and feel and touch and love and be present to those around us and those things in our lives that we so easily forget (even a simple meal). May we draw from the well of goodness that can be found in the moment: a cup of coffee, the laugh of a child, the cool breeze off the ocean, the gliding movement of clouds overhead . . . May we all become geniuses of awareness, of being present to our moments.