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Hillside in Provence 1886-1890 by Paul Cezanne

Updated: May 4, 2022

The temple bell stops – but the sound keeps coming out of the flowers. Basho (1644-94) (translated by Robert Bly)


Hillside in Provence, 1886-1890 Paul Cezanne National Gallery, London

Paul Cezanne,French Oil Painter, known as the Father of Modern Art, breaking with fleeting images of impressionism and the idyllic features of classical organization of space making way for a new and adventurous future in the way we think about painting and art in general.

In his landscape painting Hillside in Provence, Cezanne makes a definitive statement of his intention to break with classicism and the relative ease of impressionism.  Here, in the foreground  he makes a clear and brutal cut across the canvas, rendering it bare and uninviting, immediately slowing the viewer down with a jolt. 

This first message we receive is also the driving motivation for Paul Cezanne’s lifelong search for an art that is  isolated and detached  from  our subjective view of nature.  Cezanne wants us to explore nature as a great expanse of feeling by making something solid, stable and enduring for the heart and mind to explore in longevity. 

Paul Cezanne’s landscape Hillside in Provence, immediately tells us there are barriers to negotiate with the horizontal cut across the bare foreground of the canvas, separating us from moving easily up the rock face, telling us we must break barriers, traverse the emotions of a rocky cliff, confronting our fears to face obstacles and to push on for the reward of entering a new understanding of nature and ourselves, beyond natures often harsh reality to offering us a mirror and a new vision.

With each carefully considered mark, Cezanne, shows his own determination to negotiate all manner of emotional landscapes, and he takes us with him, traveling up and across steep and rocky outcrops with lovingly executed subtle tonal variants of geometric shapes, some balanced and some unbalanced in both cool and warm earthy reds, purples and greys. Our eye and heart are forced to slow down on the climb, to see all the tiny crevices, the intricate life amid boulders large and small.

As our eye scrambles over the uneven varying warm and cool, large and small rocks and boulders of the triangular rock face we reach the soft verdant foliage of the trees and shrubs growing on its edge, beaconing us onward, giving us encouragement of something softer and more forgiving. The gentle free flowing brush strokes go this way and that, caressing and rocking us, like a cooling breeze on a hot summer’s day.

We are rewarded for our effort embracing nature’s healing power rather than its sometimes harsh face.

Refreshed, we continue up the hill where we are abruptly confronted and confused with the sight of civilization and the farmhouse buildings with their red triangular, stable structures. This abrupt jolt from being in the trees and natures cool accepting arms, breaks our trance.

However, this feeling is short lived and momentary as we pass into the familiar, now set out before us, on the hill beyond, in gentle patches of fertile paddocks and crops. We feel comfortable because we know we need nature to feed us and nurture us.

We also know the climb and obstacles allowed us to stop and absorb what Cezanne is saying about the force of nature through his juxtaposition of composition, brushstroke and colour.

Finally, we grasp the true feeling Cezanne wants us to take from the statement he makes.  It is a fusion of nature and the self.  It is a steady ordeal, search and meditation to grow as an artist, examining how marks on a canvas can reflect something more than the naked eye can see at first glance. He expresses this new substantial contemplation of relationships using sensitive connections, contacts, breaks and opposing forces to stop any romantic ornamentation, fleeting whim or formulaic certainly, in order that we learn something of our own struggle up the mountain, as humans, negotiating the landscape of our lives and our continuing relations with wild nature.  

And at the end, when  we reach the top of mountain our minds clear and we receive the gift Cezanne’s  marks  give us, a glimpse into the radial new century of an art which is not fleeing like impressionism but solid and durable, one that abstracts the essence, forcing us to draw from it more than the obvious. 

Cezanne as a searching artist breaks new ground in art for the 20th century, teaching us by saying less he says more because it forces the imagination.

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