Seeking Cézanne in Aix

When I was in Aix, I thought I would be better off elsewhere. Now that I’m here, I miss Aix… When you’re born there, that’s it, nothing else appeals.
Paul Cézanne in letter to Phillippe Solari

Everyone loves Aix-en-Provence! It has been called ‘the city of a thousand fountains’ and we saw a few, but not a thousand. Founded by the Romans at the beginning of the 2nd century, like Arles it also endured various invasions, but prospered in spite of all this. It was the capital of Provence for a time, and known as a centre of art and learning. As university town today it carries on that tradition with various museums and galleries of art and archaeology. The stone of the buildings seems more golden than other places, and with lots of young people – students from all over the place – it has a fresh glow about it even within the narrow streets and historic buildings.

But my special interest in Aix was to seek out Cézanne and Mt Victoire, which he painted such a lot, particularly later in life.

We drove down to Aix, the first stop being the Cézanne’s studio. I’d tried to look at it on Google’s satellite map, then at street level, but whenever I zoomed in I would get black. When we got there we realised this was because I had zoomed into the high stone wall and tall dark cypresses along the street!

Early on he studied and sketched paintings by the masters in the Louvre, but gave this up, choosing to paint from nature directly in either watercolour or oils. He said ‘all pictures painted inside, in the studio, will never be as good as those done outside.’ He had a great love and dependence on being in nature, and the way he captures mass and solidity I’m sure was influenced by living with this mountain. He would look at something for a long time before he began painting quite rapidly, using small brush storkes in the different shades of colour to create the forms. He didn’t see a difference between drawing and colour, saying ‘Drawing and colour are by no means two different things. As you paint, you draw…When colour is at its richest, form is at its fullest.’

None of his famous works are there (nor are his non-famous works!) He was very secretive about his work during his life and didn’t like exhibiting. Fortunately for him, his father being a successful banker meant he didn’t need to sell paintings, so he really did paint for himself. But in addition to this, the city fathers thought him a pretty hopeless painter. They certainly wouldn’t waste money on art that was so laughable, and in fact at one stage Cezanne received messages on his doorstep (cowards) for several days asking him to leave the town he was dishonouring! So there are none of Paul Cézanne’s paintings in Aix!

In fact if it weren’t for some Americans stepping in and raising the money to buy and preserve his studio as he had left it, to save it from developers in 1952, it wouldn’t be there either. They then gifted it back to the city in 1969 where it is a major tourist attraction today.

But the studio and the grounds did have hints of the man and the artist. There was his beret… His outdoor easels, paintboxes, umbrellas and even outdoor seats were there. They look fairly heavy! He painted outside every day so he must have been quite strong to carry all that stuff around the hillsides. And familiar objects like jugs, plates, fabric, skulls and the cherub I recognised from his still lifes lay about the studio. Perhaps chipped or broken like the cherub and some of his small sculptures, very different in size to how they appear in his paintings. There were pictures and photos and some text he’d stuck on the wall that he thought enough of to have nearby. He also had this huge easel to hold big works like The Bathers and a big ladder to climb up (scary thought) to paint. The large back windows to the studio provide great light to work in. He bought the property because he really liked this location and bush, and had this atelier especially built. He was very happy with the end result and loved the space, spending the later part of most days there, particularly towards the end of his life. The gardens around the house are really just local bushland, which he loved.

We weren’t allowed to photograph anything unfortunately… (though photographed a poster in town and resurrected it in Photoshop to share with you!)

We walked down the hill and followed him around the town a bit – seeing where he went to uni, to church, where the family lived and so on.

Afterwards we found Mt Victoire – its white mass in the distance at first, then it grew in size and starkness as we neared it. The unstable limestone won’t allow for vegetation of any great size to grow up the cliffs, yet it still remains this permanent, magnificent form.

So I did find Paul Cézanne there – something of the man and the artist. The man who, in spite of his contradicitons and quirkiness – even prickliness – both Matisse and Picasso referred to as ‘the father of us all’ as an artist.

And, in the ironic way history has of standing things on their heads, a la Marceló’s fabulous elephant, Paul Cezanne is now Aix’s most famous son!


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