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Course: Europe 1800 - 1900 > Unit 5

Lesson 4: Post-Impressionism

Cézanne, Bathers

Paul Cézanne, Bathers (Les Grandes Baigneuses), c. 1894-1905, oil on canvas, 127.2 x 196.1 cm (The National Gallery, London). Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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  • leaf blue style avatar for user NightDragon
    Where is the eleventh figure that is mentioned? Is it the small figure on the extreme right? I only really see ten main figures in this painting.
    (3 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Gul Ozturk
    At - , the scholars are talking about the "awkward" depiction of the supposed "sky" and "clouds" which look to me rather as the water surface and rocks. Recalling that the painting is called Bathers, and noticing the horizontal line at the top of the painting that more likely indicates the opposite shore of the lake or sea, I cannot agree with what scholars claimed here.
    (2 votes)
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    • marcimus pink style avatar for user YP
      Agreed with your observation. I watch the next video and the color he used is similar for the water in both pictures, not as light as what he used for the sky. So, this could be a different perspective of the water surface.
      (2 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Tanuj Raut
    At approx the speakers mention how so much of the 20th century was about the denial of space that allowed a sense of reality. Has cinema in any way attempted to inherit this subversion of Classical paintings and 'depth' in the image?
    (2 votes)
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Video transcript

(lighthearted music) Voiceover: So much 19th century French painting is about the locations of modern life, but there's another strain, there are artists who are looking to express the modern in a different way. In Cezanne's case, that's happening in a more formal way. Voiceover: We're in the National Gallery in London looking at Cezanne's Large Bathers, that was painted over a long period of time from 1894 though 1905, just a year before his death. I think you're absolutely right. I think the modernity here has to do with how this painting is constructed, rather than it's subject matter, which is actually very traditional. Voiceover: When art historians say, "The formal part of a painting," that's what they mean: how the painting is constructed, how the paint is laid down, the choice of colors, the way the artist composed the painting. Voiceover: Let's walk briefly through the subject matter. This is a subject that goes back to the Renaissance. I'm thinking about some of the great Venetian painters, Bellini or Titian, who created these luxurious parties in the landscape, full of a physical depiction of the human body in nature; and that's clearly something that is important to Cezanne. Voiceover: That's right, it's an important tradition, the painting of the figure in the landscape, the idea of the pastoral, but in the work of the Venetians, that's often expressed through mythological subject matter; so, that's Cezanne's inheritance. Voiceover: He is making some significant changes. He's stripped away the mythology. He's taken away the men, and he's left us with this relatively abstract rendering of the female nude in the landscape. Voiceover: Let's talk about what we mean by abstract and those formal values, and how they're modern here. We know that so much of 20th century painting is about a flattening of the picture surface, about denying that illusion of space, that illusion of reality, that was so important to the history of painting since the Renaissance. I think that's one of the main things that Cezanne is thinking about here. Voiceover: Cezanne is being incredibly brave; he is really venturing into a place that painting had never been before, and that is taking the human body, the thing that we've revered most, and being willing to make that subservient to the overall picture, rather than vice versa. Voiceover: Before, we would have a sense of figures existing in space, and there we would be a difference between the mass of the figures, the solidity of the figures, and the space around them; but, Cezanne is really constructing a unification between the landscape and the figures, kitting everything tightly together. Voiceover: Let's take a look at that specifically, and see if we can actually see how Cezanne is achieving this. We have 11 figures that seem to be bounded in this landscape, they're in the foreground, we have really no middle ground, we have trees on either side, and then we see some trees in the distance, clouds beyond that, the sky beyond that; but, something funny happens here, which is although we know the sky must be the deepest part of the painting, our eye doesn't quite go back into deep space. That sky actually seems to come forward, the clouds seem to come forward, and they seem to hover in some funny way almost directly over the women. Voiceover: Instead of atmospheric perspective where the blues would get paler as they moved into the distance in a traditional landscape painting. Here the blue that we're seeing in the sky is actually very deep blue, and its area above the clouds is even darker. Voiceover: Cezanne is using color to, in a sense, unmake the traditional perspective of the Renaissance. We see that also in the very renderings of the bodies of the women. Cezanne renders the entire painting, and this is a very much characteristic of his style in the later part of his career, with these short strokes. Look at the figure on the extreme left, and note that big, blue brush stroke right in her thigh. Now, we might expect to see blues in human flesh, we see that in Rubens quite often. Voiceover: Blue is often used by artists to indicate areas of shadow. Voiceover: But here, that's the blue of the cloth below her, of the clouds beyond her, even of the sky. Voiceover: She becomes brush strokes that are not dissimilar in color and shape from the brush strokes that are elsewhere in the painting. Voiceover: Look how her posture is aligned with the tree right behind her, so that she is linked to that landscape. There really is a visual confusion. Voiceover: Right, we can't read that distance at all, which would be very readable in a traditional painting; in fact, it seems like the most heavily worked areas of this painting, in terms of the layers of paint and the attention that Cezanne has paid to it are in the negative spaces between the figures, that sometimes seem to come forward in front of the figures themselves. Voiceover: So many of these figures seem to draw our attention towards the center, towards deep space; and yet, when we expect to be able to enter into a deep space, we hit a kind of wall and are pressed back into the foreground. Voiceover: So much of what we see here is taken from the tradition that we were taking about, of Titian, of Bellini. When an artist composes figures in a landscape, the artist is thinking about the relationship between the trees and the landscape and the figures. It's just that Cezanne has thought about those relationships in a really new way. It's almost as though his formal relationships have become the subject of the painting itself. Voiceover: This is really interesting conflict in this painting. All of the paint feels dense and heavy and solid forms are locked together, but there's an interesting way also that this painting is completely about opening up any single, individual form. Look at the blue outlines that really define the human figures, they are not single hard lines, but a series of soft lines. Voiceover: I don't think Cezzane is literally representing movement, but thinking about all of these issues, figures in a landscape, figures in a landscape who are moving, a landscape, which is itself, shifting, perhaps in the wind and the breeze, and the light and the atmosphere; and yet, wanting to create something, at the same time, very unified, very static, very formal, very classical. Voiceover: It is a fascinating solution. (lighthearted music)