Cézanne And The Power Of Solitude
Fenton Johnson’s book, At The Centre Of All Beauty, explores the intersection of solitude, art, and creativity. The chapter on Paul Cézanne particularly stands out.
Spending time alone is often portrayed as sad, weird, or worse. Fenton Johnson’s book, At The Centre of All Beauty: Solitude And The Creative Life, is a powerful counter-argument to this idea, and a joyful meditation on the creative power of solitude.
Each chapter of the book explores solitude by reflecting on someone for whom the art of being alone was central to their work. Johnson goes beyond the usual candidates – people like Henry David Thoreau – by including Eudora Welty, Ravindranath Tagore, Nina Simone, and Bill Cunningham.
Since I’ve been thinking recently about the power of character traits, the chapter on Paul Cézanne stood out.
Cézanne And Solitude
Paul Cézanne was one of the most important painters working at the end of the 19th century. His bold, inventive style pushed past the impressionism that was popular at the time, and paved the way for later modernist painters such as Matisse and Picasso.
He was deeply influenced by the arrival of Japanese art in Europe, following the opening of Japan during the Meji period. Johnson points out that the power of Cezanne’s work comes from the intersection of his European and Catholic roots with “…the precise, cool contemplation espoused by the Buddhist, Asian ideal of communion with nature.”
The way in which Cézanne worked had a monastic quality to it, in both the amount of time he spent alone and how much he reflected on nature as both a thing to paint and a thing to contemplate.
Solitude In Conversation
Cézanne’s life was also marked by powerful friendships. Before he became a painter he was a poet and translator. This scholarly, reflective tendency influenced his career. Throughout his life Cézanne wrote about his own artistic practice and corresponded regularly with friends.
This regularly counterbalanced the deep solitude in which he worked.
Later in life Cézanne spent most of his week alone in his studio, working. His interaction with the world was limited to being picked on by local boys who would throw stones at the strange old man, and on Sundays he would walk to town, “…to attend mass and dine with his wife and son…”
Johnson sums up the importance of relationships for solitary souls like Cézanne by suggesting “…the presence of friendship as the foundation for their creativity.”
Cézanne And Artistic Temperament
Early in his life Cézanne thought of himself as short-tempered – the classic passionate artist. Later in life he saw himself as more introspective and melancholic. This manifested itself in his search for solitude, spending his days working alone, and the way he experienced spirituality through solitary moments in nature.
“Immersed in our society’s fear and demonisation of loneliness, the contemporary melancholic may spend years figuring it out that she or he is temperamentally inclined to prefer living alone over the hypocrisies and accomodations and polite twaddle of society.”
A contemporary of Cézanne, Jean Renoir, gave a striking depiction of Cézanne at work: “an unforgettable sight… he was truly alone in the world, ardent, focused, alert, respectful, sometimes coming away disappointed, returning without his canvas, which he’d leave on a rock, or on the grass, at the mercy of the wind or the rain or the environment.”
Johnson points out how those qualities (alert, ardent, focused, respectful) are the “virtues of solitude.” They may manifest themselves in the presence of others, but they can only really be honed and developed in solitude.
The fiery intensity seems never to have left Cézanne or his work. The word “ardent”, which we often replace these days with “passion”, comes from the Latin for “burning”. Although we often talk about the importance of passion we don’t always talk about how it grows from solitude. But if the fire burns, then it burns when we’re alone.
The other traits, of alertness, focus, and respect, we talk about even less these days, at least when it comes to art and creativity. If anything, respect as a concept is out of favour.
Which is odd, because alertness, focus, and respect were for so long integral to the process of learning creative crafts, from art to music to woodworking. They are the three strands of the rope we use firstly to haul our minds away from apathy, fear, and distraction, and then to pay sufficient attention to do the work.
Creative Stamina Flows From Solitude
Another way to think of alertness and focus is as aspects of stamina. Not just the stamina required to keep doing creative work, but also the stamina required to keep working on the discrete skills necessary for our mastery of any kind of work. Even in team sports, athletes must work on their skills (or recover from injury) alone. Same with music; the band or orchestra rehearses together, but the musicians have to learn their instrument and practise their skills in solitude.
“The painter’s task – the writer’s task – the composer’s task – the gardener’s task – the cook’s task – the teacher’s task – the meditator’s task – the solitary’s task is to get out of the way, to dissolve and efface the self into the work at hand so as to permit its subject’s essence to shine forth.”