In these later years Cezanne did not cease to study and worry, to see what he still might so. He was solitary and difficult and devoted to his art as a mystic might be to salvation. ‘I think the best thing to do is to work hard,’ he wrote. He was involved in the most exacting process which had nothing to do with either representation or with impression. Two years before he died he wrote to a young painter Emile Bernard: ‘Treat nature by means of the cylinder, the sphere, the cone, everything brought into proper perspective so that each side of an object or a plane is directed towards a central point. Lines parallel to the horizon give breadth…Lines perpendicular to this horizon give depth. But nature for us men is more depth than surface, whence the need to introduce into our light vibrations, represented by the reds and yellows, a sufficient amount of blueness to give the feel of air.’
Every day, as he worked in the studio or went out into the landscape, he attempted to create a pictorial surface rather than recreate nature, but this did not, oddly enough, involve a repudiation of nature but a reverence for its intricate systems. And a reverence also for what the eye could register in all its complexity, how mass and density and depth and tone enter the spirit or the nervous system via the process of seeing.
Because Cezanne’s abiding interest in the arrangements and patterns of the visual world was as a physicist’s might be in the structure of atoms and particles, he knew that no painting he made could achieve its aim. His materials were inexact, each brushstroke by its very nature, no matter how defined or varied or filled with glistening tone, could only achieve an ambiguous effect. He saw the world in terms of subtle tonalities, everything contained its own shadow. ‘Shadow,’ he said, ‘is a colour like light..light and shadow are nothing more than a rapport between two tones’. Everything was a version of itself in tones which were almost hidden from the eye. He believed that ‘the artist materializes and individualizes’. This meant that he saw paint in all its raw and subtle possibilities before he saw the scene in front of him. The material world for him began with paint; paint was the material world rather than the result of it. Thus making a painting was the most strenuous exercise in capturing tone, in offering nuance and shape to tone. There was no such thing as an overall composition to be planned or sketched or prepared; such work should go into each individual stroke.
It was often better then to leave sections of the canvas undernourished or even blank; the eye would fill them in, but, even if it did not, there was nothing more he could do. ‘Sometimes,’ D.H. Lawrence said in 1929, ‘Cezanne builds up a landscape out of omissions.’ In ‘La Route tournante’, for example, from 1904 or 1905, the omissions are deeply suggestive; they allow the brushwork to breathe, to fill out towards a more complete effect, a more complex meaning. He is not sketching, but in terms which Beckett later set, he was learning to fail better. Omission did not bring him towards a new simplicity – he had no interest in simplicity – but towards a richer and more exact complexity.
He moved forward very slowly, he wrote, ‘for nature reveals herself to me in very complex ways; and the progress needed is endless. One must look at the model and feel very exactly.’ He remained, he wrote, ‘in the grip of sense-perceptions and, in spite of my age, riveted to painting.’