Looking at Art

Bathers But Not Beauties

Cézanne’s nude figures in a landscape are meant to disturb rather than delight us

Cézanne’s The Large Bathers, 1906, devoid of slick finish and slick emotion, is rife with contradictions.


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 grandeur of Cézanne’s achievement and the tensions that underlay it are superbly exemplified in The Large Bathers, from 1906, which will be a key work in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s forthcoming exhibition “Gauguin, Cézanne, Matisse: Visions of Arcadia,” on view from June 20 through September 3.

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 underbrush.)

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 Center, CUNY.

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