Cézanne and Innovation in Art

The topic of this blog post is creativity and innovation in art. As Schumpeter taught us, Innovation is creative destruction, where entrepreneurs combine existing elements in new ways. Today we will apply the analysis model of this paradigm to the field of art.

Paul Cézanne

Paul CezanneToday in 1839 was the birthdate of one of the great French painters, Paul Cézanne, and as I have long planned to write a post about innovation in art, I found it appropriate to do so today. After all, it is winter and cold rain outside. What can be better then, than to focus one hour on writing about a warm and more inward looking perspective and connecting some new dots.

In a way  I feel I have a special relationship with Cézanne and his art. When I moved to the south of France in June 1997, I stayed at Hotel Cézanne in Cannes for the first month, while I was looking for a more permanent place to live. My work at the time was hectic and quite stressful so I took refuge during late evenings that summer by reading about art and relaxed by learning about a completely different topic than my day job.

Hotel Cézanne is a small but very charming place, just above the Voi Rapide that cuts the seaside area of the town from the main urban area. Around the hotel is a small garden with art and fountains. Recently the hotel has been re-launched as a spa, but I have not been there for 15 years so I do not know much about how the ambiance is today. Yet the name and the rooms decorated in the pastel colors of Provence remains.

Cezanne vaseI got interested in Cézanne as I stayed at the hotel and already in the summer 1997 I went to visit the museum in Aix-en-Provence where Paul Cézanne´s studio has been preserved. More than a museum, the workshop is truly steeped in memory and marked with Cézanne’s stamp. As it has been untouched, it allows the visitor to discover articles and objects familiar to the painter.

Paul Cézanne and his art

Cézanne’s repetitive brushstrokes are clearly recognizable. He used layers of color and small brushstrokes that build up to form complex fields of fuzzy, un-sharp yet instantly recognizable images, where color is often over-emphasized. The paintings convey Cézanne’s intense psychological vision of his subject motives. His still-life´s are warm and inviting, his human subjects dressed in warm clothes to protect them against the cold mistral wind.

Paul Cézanne belonged to a group of painters who we refer to as the post-expressionists, whose work laid the foundations to the transition from the 19th-century concept of true-to-motive artistic endeavor to a new and radically different world of art in the 20th century. Many art historians agree that Cézanne built the bridge between late 19th-century Impressionism and the early 20th century’s new line of artistic enquiry, Cubism, which would be championed by Matisse and Picasso.

Of course Cézanne and his contemporary painters did not think of themselves as post-expressionists. They influenced each other and were influenced by the trends and fashions of the then current times. It is only with historical perspective that we can  “bundle” artists into trends and schools.

The Concept of Art

Giorgio Vasari self portraitDuring the Renaissance, the word Art emerged as a term encompassing Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture. The first definition was made by the Italian Giorgio Vasari in the 16th century. Vasari was an Italian painter, writer, historian, and architect, who is famous today for his biographies of Renaissance artists. The series of biographies he wrote, called Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects are considered the ideological foundation of art-historical writing.

There was a very well made television series on BBC in 2008 about the life of Vasari, which might still be available. The television series inspired me to visit the places where Vasari lived and for people with an interest in art, I highly recommend such a journey.

Subsequently, including Painting, Sculpture and Architecture in the concept of Art was expanded to include also Music and Poetry, which became known in the 18th century as the ‘Fine Arts’. These five Arts have formed a core from which have been generally excluded the ‘decorative arts’ and ‘crafts’, such as as pottery, weaving, metalworking, and furniture making, all of which have utility as an end.

Innovation collageSome of the most respected artists in history were innovators. By developing new techniques and new styles, they were able to enhance art by making expression easier, clearer, and more recognizable. They improved the way art was created, and made lasting names for themselves.

However to understand what is innovation in art, we first need to clarify the concept of art. What do we mean by it?

Art has not always been what we think it is today. An object regarded as art today may not have been perceived as such when it was first made, nor was the person who made it necessarily regarded as an artist.

Many of the objects we see in museum or galleries or in prominent placement in homes and identify as art today were made in times and places when people had no concept of "art" as we understand the term. Such items include Greek painted pottery, portrait paintings, collection cabinets, medieval manuscript illuminations, and so on. These objects may have been appreciated in various ways and often admired, but not as "art" in the current sense.

What is ArtOne of the prominent thinkers of modern times, Leo Tolstoy, wrote a book in 1897 that he called “What is Art?”. In the book he argues that art must create a specific emotional link between artist and audience, one that "affects" the viewer. Thus, real art requires the capacity to unite people via communication.

This aesthetic conception led Leo Tolstoy to widen the criteria of what exactly a work of art is. He believed that the concept of art embraces any human activity in which one creator, by means of external signs, transmits previously experienced feelings.

Tolstoy offers an example of this: a boy that has experienced fear after an encounter with a wolf later relates that experience, infecting the hearers and compelling them to feel the same fear that he had experienced. According to Tolstoy that is a perfect example of a work of art. As communication, this is good art, because it is clear, it is sincere, and it is singularly focused on one emotion.

Innovation in Art

In art and in hindsight, it is often quite obvious who are the great innovators. The good historical artists are either innovators or consolidators (traditionalists) by style, temperament and inclination. As Cézanne innovated art and pointed towards cubism with his colors and brushstrokes, so did Rembrandt innovate in his subtle use of light and shadows and Miró in painting what remains after all visible objects are removed.

Leonardo - Vetruvian ManThe archetype of the innovator, in art and everything else, is Leonardo da Vinci. He produced few major works, partly because he was too busy inventing and exploring almost every other area of human endeavor, but also because once he had created a new work of art he would lose interest, allowing others like Raphael to do the work of consolidation.

Raphael was not a traditionalist, continuing in the late medieval style as did many of his contemporaries, but he was a consolidator, working through the implications of Leonardo’s inventions and taking it to its apex.

Another pair of historical painters who I like are the English artists John Constable and William Turner. Emerging from the same naturalistic tradition, they become polar opposites in their approach. Constable is clearly a traditionalist by temperament, comfortably within the landscape tradition which emerged in 17th century Holland.

Turner - The Fighting TéméraireFrom the point of view of art history, Turner is much more forward-looking, anticipating abstract expressionism in the freedom of his color and handling of his brush. He is one of my favorite artists and in a staircase in my home I have a framed poster of his “The Fighting Temeraire”, which I bought at National Gallery in London in 1988.

The painting depicts one of the last second-rate ships of the line which played a distinguished role in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, the 98-gun ship HMS Temeraire. The painting depicts a sad moments in the ships life, as it is being towed towards its final berth in Rotherhithe south east London in 1838 to be broken up for scrap. The poster I have is losing its colors but I always look at it fondly as I walk down the stairs.

To me Turners painting is a near-perfect example of disruptive innovation. Both by itself and in its motive. The beautiful old sailing ship was deadly and powerful at Trafalgar, but it is from a past age. The towing steam-powered vessel, albeit ugly and smoking, is its replacement, infinitely more powerful and pointing ahead to the ultimate fighting ships, the Dreadnoughts and Battleships of the early 20th century.

Umberto Boccioni futurist sculptureOne thing that strikes me about the last 100 years of painting is the increasing divergence in art between the traditional and the innovative. Through technological leaps and ever increasing speed of communication of information, the world is changing at an incredibly increasing pace.

One of the choices that artists face is between expressing the change and newness in their work, and alternately searching for what is familiar and stable.

The human race is adapting radically to its new physical and intellectual environment, but we also have an ever increasing longing for the way things were. Quite often nowadays good innovation in art is looking back to our origins and using the classical form of expression to show something new, as in Umberto Boccioni´s futuristic sculpture. which can be found at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and in the Peggy Guggenheim gallery in Venice. 

Design and other creations falsely labeled as Art

The most definitive way to destroy a concept is to expand it to mean everything. Over the last century, art has been the victim of such a practice. The new belief is that anything intended to be "art" is art. The attempt to use the term ‘art’ to describe and enhance the image or value of any new design is really a mal-practice to steal the value of true art.

Mona LisaMany new artists do not produce anything of value, but they call it art hoping that people will accept it as such. Most often, they fail in communicating the feeling that is the sign of true art, because their creation is not conceived, created and communicated with inherent feelings.

Since real art is important to people, the new "artists" hope to trick people into giving their own garbage the same respect. They try to steal the respect for art by confusing their own work with it. Sadly, in my mind, this has the long term effect of destroying public respect for fine art.

Art is not everything, or anything an "artist" says is "art". Art has an objective meaning, and an fulfills an objective need for people. The meaning has been obfuscated by those trying to cash in on the honor and value that goes with art. By ignoring the objective meaning of art, people lose the ability to fulfill an important part of their life. The destruction of art as a concept impairs one’s life.

12-million-sharkMany new "artists" of recent decades have been unable to distinguish themselves through talent, since they lack it. Instead, they attempt to gain respect through “innovation”. By being the first "artist" to try something, they gained fame in a false comparison to the historical artists. By claiming to be pushing "art" to a new and bolder future, they pretend to bring progress.

One quite funny book on this topic is “The $12 Million Stuffed Shark”, which is about why a smart New York investment banker paid $12 million for the decaying, stuffed carcass of a shark, embalmed in formaldehyde, and other similar stories.

Nowadays everyone tries to be the newest innovator. The standard of good in art changed from an objective fulfillment needs, to whatever was new and different. Naturally, the more disgusting and vile ideas became the latest innovation. Making paintings out of animals feces is another example where “artists” pushed the levels of decency to find something truly twisted in the hopes of being the first to try such an innovation.

Today, so-called good "art" is that which is the most innovative. The innovation necessarily take "art" further and further from its original purpose, since real art is the least "innovative". The new "artists" will continue to pursue the most bizarre lines of creation in order to distinguish themselves. Since art fulfills a need of man, people are left without knowledge of it, and must pay accordingly. Novelty rejects true innovation in favor of obvious but superficial changes calculated to get attention.

True innovation in Art

Rembrandt self portrait as an old manTrue innovation in art is not only making something new and different but making something better. True innovation is thoroughly absorbed into the object and cannot be considered apart from the elements of the object. It touches upon us emotionally, builds our sense of character and betters our meme, our species common soul, bridging generations and builds beyond the individuals selfish purpose of survival and replication.

As I posted this blog, my colleague Anders Fogelström wrote to remind me about the television series Civilisation, commissioned by David Attenborough and created by Kenneth Clarke. It was made forty years ago, but for any person interested in innovation in art, watching it is a must. There are restored copies available on DVD.

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