Paul Cézanne passed away in October 1906. In his Aix-en-Provence workshop, he left his final interpretation of ‘les baigneuses’ (the bathers). From 1874 until his death, Cézanne worked repeatedly on his ‘bathers’ series, a long and often secretive enterprise that produced a set of paintings so consequential that artists such as Picasso have had periods of their work cited as ‘Cezannian’. In many ways, Cézanne’s 1905 interpretation of the bathers marks the dramatic shift in early 20th century art. This is Les Grandes Baigneuses and with its creation came the beginnings of abstraction.
The scene presented by Cézanne seems a rather banal one – a simple countryside scene with the addition of a large group of women bathing. However, we can immediately see a divergence from contemporary artistic thought when we compare it to Renoir or Courbet’s Baigneuses. The texture of Cézanne’s brushwork and his colour palette were truly revolutionary for the time. Notice how the short, unblended brush strokes used to paint the nude bodies of the bathers mirrors the brushwork in the scene surrounding them. Similarly, from the bluish-green undertones of their skin to the ocre-brown of their hair, the figures visually blend into the natural world through Cézanne’s strict use of colour. Cézanne perceived colour as “the place where the brain and the universe meet.” With this novel vision, Cézanne powerfully transcended the search for light on a canvas championed by his Impressionist contemporaries, focusing instead on a unification of colour and form. For Cézanne, it is now a case of sensations aroused by colour, and geometry.
This incredible juxtaposition of bodies and landscape is only heightened once we pay closer attention to the composition. Notice that the piece is split into three triangles. One triangle is formed by the trees and outline of the bodies, and two by the grouping of women. This magnificent rupture from the classicist method gives us the illusion that the bodies are integral to the scenery.
In Les Grandes Baigneuses therefore, the relationship between man and nature was no longer one of separation, but of union. Indeed, Cézanne goes so far as to paint the figures at both the extreme left and right of the painting as literally dissolving into the trees. Not only this, but all the figures are painted in a rather brutal, primal way, utterly void of the usual sensuality given to the female form. In fact, the palest patches of their skin is canvas, which Cézanne left unpainted and raw. The figures are also faceless, their individual identities obscured and unimportant, just as they are in the natural world. Unlike his forefathers, Cézanne does not pollute his piece with any sort of mythology. In this way, the integration of man in nature by presenting the former in his most simple form; naked, relaxed, and entirely unattached to time.
This painting changed the artistic world. Modelling classicist forms to fill space through the use of colour, and placing cerebral and intellectual pursuit before the visual and sensual influenced some of the greatest art movements the world has ever seen. In 1907, a huge retrospective was organised in Paris where the painting was seen by the public for the first time, and its impact was immediate. Later that same year, Picasso would go on to create Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, the first cubist painting. Picasso saw Cézanne as “the father of us all”, Matisse viewed him more as “a sort of benevolent God of painting.” Whichever description one chooses to adopt, Paul Cézanne can truly be seen as the genesis of 20th century painting, influencing all who came after him.