“. . . a fantastically multidimensional Cezanne. . . . reads much like . . . one of Paul Cezanne’s paintings.”
“I am not writing histories,” Greek historian Plutarch remarks in Parallel Lives. “I am writing lives.”
The life of French impressionist painter Paul Cezanne is a story that seems to stand outside traditional established arches of narrative biography and indeed moves beyond a strictly chronological historical sequence of his life’s events.
The type of biography one could expect to read is simply a chronology of major life events, what we might colloquially call a “chronological history” of paintings of consequence, their enduring legacies, and significance within the art worlds
But good biography–well-constructed and compelling biography–does more than simply order life events highlighted by snippets and anecdotes. It writes history as the lives of its participants.
In Cezanne: A Life, Alex Danchev pulls together a fantastically multidimensional Cezanne. Consequently, his biography reads much like one might experience or view one of Paul Cezanne’s paintings.
Indeed, Mr. Danchev’s portrait of Cezanne’s life is heavy, thick with deceptively simple detail, and unendingly rich in offering context and detail for the reader to make sense of what contexts surrounded Cezanne, how Cezanne understood himself, and how the surrounding artistic milieu and climate informed Cezanne’s paintings.
But what of the biography itself? What of Cezanne: A Life? Let us back up a moment, however, an interesting parallel in artistic craft between Paul Cezanne and his biographer, Mr. Danchev.
We see the incredible care that Cezanne took in selecting the paints, or tools, for his work and his emphasis on the methodology of painting. We read of the “blues” and the nature of the blues and specifies between different blues–Naples, cobalt, etc.
We read of Cezanne’s liberal application of paint and the thickness and cracking that his style produced. We see Cezanne’s commitment to the making of the paint—understanding the surrounding geology and environment enough to Cezanne would then leave the paintings out in the open environment to “become” part of the landscape. His commitment to his specific and unique methodology in painting introduced a literal depth in perception to the audience.
In Cezanne: A Life, we are introduced to an equally novel and interesting methodology for writing biography. Rather than drawing strictly and narrowly from correspondence and letters as sources, Mr. Danchev brilliantly expands his biographic sources to include art history–over one hundred year of interpreting Cezanne and the different perspectives that bring.
He includes geological and environmental information and the significance of that environmental data for Cezanne as a painter. He examines Cezanne’s sociocultural environment through a treatment of the Dreyfus Affair—giving the reader the environment that Cezanne lived in and how he responded to that.
In short, by expanding the palette of biographical sources, Mr. Danchev provides a landscape of Cezanne’s life that is thick with detail, tempered by time, yet enigmatic and curious.
Like one of his paintings set out to weather the environment, Cezanne as artist, theme, and experience has worked his way into the landscape of a broadly experienced culture.
According to poet Allen Ginsberg, “I could image someone . . . passing in front of a Cezanne canvas, distracted and without noticing it, his eye traveling into, to, and through the canvas into the space and suddenly stopping with his hair standing on end, dead in his tracks seeing a whole universe.”
Contemporary painter Robert Bresson contended, in 1996, that, “Painting is over . . . after Cezanne. He went to the brink of what could not be done.”
For an artist whose submissions were so often rejected in Paris there is a certain element of immortality and creative permanence associated with what it is to “make sense of Cezanne.” As Mr. Danchev points out, “Countless people have had a Cezanne epiphany.”
In Cezanne: A Life, the reader sees Cezanne’s life as an artiste through his paintings, his relationships (particularly with Emile Zola), and his broader socio-intellectual context.
Yet Mr. Danchev paints this narrative without falling into tired tropes of biography—he has Cezanne and Cezanne’s legacy construct the biography through Cezanne’s paintings.
Cezanne, A Life is a compelling and well-written biography of an enduring, enigmatic and complex figure in the changing world of turn-of-the-20th-century modernist art.