Cézanne on the Highway

In his essay, “The Decay of Lying,” Oscar Wilde asserted, “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.”

He believed artists taught people to find beauty in life and nature through their creations rather than the other way around. One example he sites is the fog in London. Though it had been there for centuries, people only noticed its beauty because “poets and painters have taught the loveliness of such effects.” Hence, “They did not exist till art had invented them.”

Until recently, I would have taken issue with this. In my mind, nature is beautiful for its own sake. After all, it’s created by a God who delights in lovely things. And even if we never truly “saw” and understood it, that beauty would continue to exist in the world because He wishes it to.

That being said, I have always believed art can help us appreciate the excellence of the natural world in new ways or to a greater degree than we did previously. For instance, take the watercolor by Cézanne below. It is currently on display at the High Museum as part of a collection called Cézanne and the Modern, which will be in Atlanta until January 11, 2015.

L.1988.62.45
Paul Cézanne (French, 1839–1906) Trees Forming an Arch, ca. 1900 – possibly later Watercolor an graphite on buff wove paper 60.2 x 45.8 cm. (23 11/16 x 18 1/16 in.)

I highly recommend getting the High’s audio tour. There are typically two tracks–one for adults and another for children–and I often listen to both as they contain different information. For only $6, you get a lot of extra information about the artists as well as a few lessons on art history.

Matthew Simms, Professor of Art History at California State University, Long Beach, contributed much to this audio tour. Regarding this piece, he said:

“Drawing offers tonal information. It tells you what areas are dark, where forms begin and where the end. Color gives chromatic information. What is the local color of something? Is there a shadow? Is it in light? Is something greenish or more yellow? Cézanne uses his two tools—the pencil and the paintbrush—to contribute different kinds of information. The end result is a watercolor in which drawing and color combine to create a vibrant sensation of a view into a forest.”

I can appreciate the loveliness of a forest path dappled with light. I’ve walked many of them and experienced the peace and tranquility they have to offer. I’ve noticed the quiet interplay between light and shadow, heat and cold. But I’d never noticed the different colors light can create in such a space.

A few days after learning this information, I took a walk around Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park and noticed that the light that passed through green leaves took on an entirely appearance than it did when it passed through yellow and orange leaves. Both were beautiful but in different ways, and Cézanne (and Simms) showed me how to appreciate the contrast.

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Paul Cézanne (1839–1906) Still Life with Carafe, Bottle, and Fruit, 1906 Watercolour and soft graphite on pale buff wove paper 48 x 62.5 cm
I also learned Cézanne loved to emphasize something called the “kinship of forms” or “forms that rhyme with one another” in his work. For example, notice the apples, grapes, and carafe in this piece.  They all share a harmonious roundness. Their shapes “rhyme” with one another, which is an interesting word choice that I quite like. The apples and grapes aren’t as perfectly spherical as the belly of the carafe, but there’s an undeniable “sameness” to them. Like the words “place” and “grace,” these shapes rhyme. They look as similar to my eye as the words sound to my ear.

Learning this didn’t just help me see the world around me in a new or better way. It changed how I understood the things I perceived. It made me think Wilde might have been on the right track.

Last weekend, it was blustery here in Georgia. It was the kind of wind that gave the cold air a set of teeth and helped it bite through denim and fleece. I was loathe to go out in it, but I’m glad I ended up braving the elements. While I was sitting in traffic, I noticed a jumble of leaves–orange, red, yellow, and brown–swirling on the street. The wind whipped them into graceful swoops and spirals of color. The sight was lovely to be sure, but nothing I hadn’t noticed before.

But the same wind was also buoying the birds in the sky. Like the leaves hovering inches from the ground, the small birds were all angles, and they danced around one another in an intricate pasodoble of tail feather and wing. For a few seconds, flora and fauna moved with an inexplicable synchronicity. They “rhymed” with one another.

Alone, each one would have been lovely and ripe with meaning. But together, they revealed the harmony of earth and sky and became something altogether different. I’m not sure if life was imitating art or the other way around, but for the briefest of moments, I was presented with something sublime.

*****
What about you? Have you ever had your perception altered by something artistic? Do you think music has the same kind of power as visual arts? What about dance? I’d love to hear how the two work together to shape your viewpoint.
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6 thoughts on “Cézanne on the Highway

  1. I agree with Oscar. I think pop culture is proof that “life imitates art.” It creeps into the very essence of our language. However, I also agree with you. Beauty is there, whether we see it or not, because God created it. But I don’t know if I ever noticed a beautiful sunrise/sunset before I started appreciating good photography.

    On the other hand . . . what else is art imitating if it is not life?? 😀

  2. Jamie, yes and yes! I’ve been reading a book called ‘God in the Yard’ by LL Barkat. She advocates taking the time to really see and listen to the world around us….it has changed the way I look at most everything. I notice colors more, shapes, lines, all kinds of things–standing at recess at school, walking across a parking lot or looking out the window at church.
    An artist next door once told me, “Art is just a way of seeing, Jody.” I’m beginning to believe that.
    This was a beautiful post, Jamie.

    1. I might have to check that book out, Jody. Sounds interesting!

      And yes, we can actually forget “how” to see when we stop doing so actively. But thankfully, God never stops giving us wonderful things to practice on.

  3. I’d like to take in this exhibit when I visit my daughter in Norcross between Christmas and New Year’s. Thanks for dropping by site to say hello yesterday. I take it you live in the Atlanta area. Are you originally from Arkansas?

    1. Yes ma’am. Born in Jonesboro and called Paragould home for the first decade of my life.

      Do check out the High. Such a lovely facility…and there are some great places to eat nearby. Check out Cafe Intermezzo!

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