Cezanne and Provence: The Painter in His Culture.

Author:Herbert, James D.
Position:The Joy of Life: The Idyllic in French Art, circa 1900 - Book Review


Cezanne and Provence: The Painter in His Culture

Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003. 338 pp.; 120 color ills., 102 b/w. $65.00


The Joy of Life: The Idyllic in French Art, circa 1900

Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. 352 pp.; 14 color ills., 108 b/w. $60.00

The title of Nina Maria Athanassoglou-Kallmyer's book, Cezanne and Provence: The Painter in His Culture, lays out a basic relation between artist and region that serves as the driving force throughout the text. The preposition of inclusion in the subtitle better represents the argument than does the conjunction in the main clause. Athanassoglou-Kallmyer's primary task is not to explore an interchange between Cezanne and the area around Aix, his native town, to which he returned from Paris in 1886 and where he remained until his death in 1906. Rather, she strives to situate the painter within the place. What conclusions might we reach, Athanassoglou-Kallmyer asks, when we assume that Provence (the site of the production of Cezanne's paintings) rather than Paris (the city of their consumption) determined the framework within which the works acquired their meaning? In only one regard does the title mislead (although only slightly, for the trope is common): the real subject is the pictures, with the artist serving as principal conduit through which the rooted qualities of Provence were absorbed before reappearing in the paintings that nomadically have spread across the globe. Therefore: "The Painting in Its Culture," which is how that culture (with some help from Athanassoglou-Kallmyer's explications) is passed on to us.

In order to present to the reader an insightful investigation of the connections between painting and place, an author needs a thorough and nuanced grasp of the location involved. Athanassoglou-Kallmyer succeeds marvelously at conveying the multifaceted character of Provence at the time Cezanne was painting in the south. Over and again, the text demonstrates the fruitful harvest of what appears to have been many long hours spent stirring the dust in regional archives, squinting at microfilms of forgotten regional journals, poking around museums of obscure folklore societies, and combing through the storerooms of provincial art museums. Athanassoglou-Kallmyer pens a convincing account of the region, writing as if with the intuitive understanding of a native such as Cezanne. She describes transformations in the actual physical landscape. We are given full explanations of such cultural manifestations as pottery, regional dress, and vernacular architecture (the names of which--mas, bastide, cabanon--we might recognize from the titles of Cezanne's paintings without having any idea what the terms actually mean). Athanassoglou-Kallmyer's skills as an expositor are literary as well as antiquarian: she provides subtle readings of texts that emerged from the Felibrige group (an association of poets formed to preserve Provencal customs and language) and explores the political and social forces driving the movement. On several occasions, she draws us into the debates of local intellectual circles, breaking against the easy scholarly stereotype that rigorous French thought could only have taken place along the banks of the Seine.

A great strength of Athanassoglou-Kallmyer's account of Provence lies in the fact that she does not engage in the spurious task of stripping away distorting incursions of modern life into the region for the purpose of revealing the unchanging essence of the place. The author recognizes that modernization was as much a part of provincial life at the turn of the twentieth century as it was a metropolitan development. If Athanassoglou-Kallmyer engages in any stripping away, it is to remove the patina of nostalgic longing for a simpler past (for which the interwar films of Marcel Pagnol, in my mind, stand as an archetypical example) that would deny the significant transformations of Provence and its people during the years Cezanne was working there. The area around Aix, Athanassoglou-Kallmyer argues, can be understood only as an admixture--at times, an uncomfortable one--of both elements.

Far from "authentic" or "pure," therefore, the late-nineteenth- century Provencal milieu can be seen as a cultural hybrid of residual (or "revived") folkloric traditions vying with a continuous influx of Paris-bred modern elements, resulting in what anthropologist James Clifford has described as an ambivalent process of ethnological cohabitations and what historian Ted Margadant has called "a paradox of modernity within tradition." (p. 11) Athanassoglou-Kallmyer's typical analytic gambit is to discover some aspect of Provence in Cezanne's paintings (the range of aspects is wide, as will become evident in a moment), embark on an extended digression into the fine details of the relevant facet of regional...

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