December 11, 2011

Art I Hate and Why: Paul Cézanne's "Bathers"

Nationality: French
Born-Died: 1839-1906

Media: Oils on canvas

Amidst all the discussion in the arts industry about how great these paintings are, no one ever seems to express the opinion that Cézanne's “Bather” paintings are incredibly bad—so that is what I am doing here.  They are very bad.  Their color is terrible, the brushwork is sloppy at best—it’s very often pointlessly brushy--and in many cases the figures are as awkwardly rendered as the drawings of a high school student (independent of attempts at perceptual effects--see below.)
Most of the praise I have heard for these paintings revolves around their compositions, but I have never thought that the compositions of these works were anything special.  I have seen far better in my time.  If you are interested in seeing examples of great composition, see works by Tiepolo, Bacon, Rembrandt, Sheeler, Rubens, Klimt, Schiele and Sargent.  Even go look at my work if you want to see better compositions.
I suspect that the real appeal of these paintings actually rests on the fact that they are a Modernist’s approach to multi-figure nudes (or semi-nudes.)  Most people enjoy nudes and especially multi-figure nudes for psychological reasons and a great many people also pretend to enjoy Modernist works for psychological reasons.* Every day the desire to be seen as an enlightened art appreciator blinds people to what they are actually looking at.
Another bit of praise I have heard in regards to these paintings is the following: their brushwork, design, value-pattern, color and/or shapes elicit a subtle perceptual effect of vibration or movement.  I grant that it is possible to experience an “optical effect” from a painting--perceptual effects can be experienced from any visual data if the conditions are right.  However, it’s not as if such an effect is even remotely powerful in these paintings, even to the most sensitive viewer.  Other painters who have employed perceptual effects with much more success include Rubens, Van Eyck, Monet, Velazquez, Sargent, Van Gogh, Freud, Ingres…the list is quite enormous.**
Whatever theory of perception these paintings were designed around, something obviously went horribly wrong.

*Although I hold that the philosophical ideas behind Modernism are flawed, I grant that some people (very few indeed) enjoy Modernist works for philosophical reasons as well as psychological.  This isn’t to say that I think all Modernist works are necessarily bad, only that the philosophy that they stem from is incorrect.  Like a modernist painter or sculptor, a voodoo healer might similarly stumble across real medicine while maintaining a flawed understanding of nature and the body.
** I imagine many people would enjoy a further elaboration on this point, but I don’t have time right now.

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