A few years ago, during a visit to Cézanne’s studio in Aix-en-Provence, I experienced a flash of insight about the artist that I saw as intrinsic to his becoming the father of modern painting. Once having seen it, it inspired me to move in a new direction in my own work.
Cézanne painted his studio walls a dark gray with a hint of green. Every object in the studio, illuminated by a vast north window, seemed to be absorbed into the gray of this background. There were no telltale reflections around the edges of the objects to separate them from the background itself, as there would have been had the wall been painted white. Therefore, I could see how Cézanne, making his small, patch-like brush marks, might have moved his gaze from object to background, and back again to the objects, without the familiar intervention of the illusion of space. Cézanne’s was the first voice of “flatness,” the first statement of the modern idea that a painting was simply paint on a flat canvas, nothing more, and the environment he made served this idea. The play of light on this particular tone of gray was a precisely keyed background hum that allowed a new exchange between, say, the red of an apple and the equal value of the gray background. It was a proposal of tonal nearness that welcomed the idea of flatness.
The study of gray is not something we often think about in the works of most modern artists. Perhaps the pointillists were the last to study the ways in which color aggregated to form grays in the shadows beneath tables, under sun bonnets, in the dappled light of trellises or on city pavements. As I walked around Cézanne’s studio, I noticed that light bouncing up from the warm wooden flooring tinted the gray nearest it with rose and that under the shelves the light caromed back and forth between wall and shelf, carrying the subtle tones of whatever was nearby. These extremely delicate gradations were everywhere visible to me in the overall grayness and made me realize that we too often simply accept a generalized idea about the colors in our visual surround.The studio beckoned me to a dark southern corner where Cézanne’s coat, smock and hat, hung on the hooks where they were placed more than a hundred years ago. While standing there I got my first glimpse of the extraordinary dimensions of what we nominally call gray. The wall to my right, perpendicular to the window, with the light sliding along it’s face, would easily seem to be neutral gray by any measure, while the other wall, with light falling more directly from the large window, was tinted a light sage-green gray, no doubt due to its filtered passage through the foliage of the trees beyond the window. This was delicate almost to the point of not being noticed. However, my life has been spent in looking at such subtle hues and shadings of colored light and I often make my photographs from just such small observations and inspiration. I was sure that this gray light box of his must have become an important and sustaining element in his overall work.
Later that spring I traveled to Italy, where I would spend the next four months, and it was there that I found myself newly interested in making still lives, something I had never done seriously in my fifty years of making photographs. These still lives found their best expression in a darkened space, although they had nothing to do with the conventions of still lives that I had seen before, and certainly were not Cézanne-like at all. Perhaps the most important thing I took away from that afternoon in his studio was the sense that close-toned objects and background were interesting ideas to consider.
A year later, I revisited Cézanne’s atelier and had the urge to take each of his objects in hand and look at them against the gray wall. The director of the atelier kindly allowed me to do this. My impulse was to place each one in the exact same spot on his marble topped table and just make a simple record of it. I wanted to see for myself how a photograph would treat these objects and their relationship to the wall, while the changing variations of afternoon light played across the gray background, offering a meditation on the dimensions of perception.
Joel Meyerowitz is a photographer best known for his large-format color work. He began his career as a street photographer and is the coauthor of Bystander: A History of Street Photography. His photographs have been shown worldwide, including in exhibitions at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Art Institute of Chicago.
Excerpted from Cézanne’s Objects by Joel Meyerowitz. Copyright © 2017. Reprinted with the permission of Damiani. All rights reserved.