The Masterpiece

Zola, by Manet

Cézanne self-portrait, about the time he riffled through "L'Oeuvre"

Cézanne self-portrait, about the time he riffled through “L’Oeuvre”

(by Émile Zola)*

Zola wanted to say something about the art world and the seismic shift on western art wrought by impressionism, and he thought he’d plumb the lives and minds of his artistic friends in order to enrich the tragedy of the story.  Where that got a bit willing was the central character of Claude Lantier, in Zola’s phrase “a sublime dreamer paralyzed by an inborn flaw”, clearly based in some ways on the author’s lifelong friend, Paul Cézanne.

It’s typical Zola, good and fast, lots of machismo, a sweet love story (Claude and Christine), many tortured artistes and arrivistes declaiming in romantic, Gallic style the kinds of things they’ll do someday, and a sad kicker (literally) of an ending.  Along the way, Zola has good, bad and ugly things to say about impressionism, Paris as centre of art, the “slump in saints and angels”, the salon system and the École des Beaux-Arts, art patronage, the mad sacrifices artistic creation entails, the burden of longing and the fleeting terrors of success, e.g.:

On every side the walls were covered with a mixture of the excellent and the execrable, in every possible style; last-ditchers of the “historical” school cheek by jowl with youthful fanatics of Realism, colourless mediocrity with blatant originality…” [In other words, portrait of any seaside, open air, exhibition, sans the words “the excellent and”].

…she ventured to criticise him for painting in a blue poplar, he showed her on the spot the delicate blue cast of the leaves, and she had to agree with him that the tree really did look blue.  In her heart of hearts, however, she refused to accept the fact. She was convinced that, in nature, there was no such thing as a blue tree.

They hurried ahead, ran almost, to escape from this place where bitumen still reigned supreme, condemning everything wholesale with the injustice of all good partisans and swearing there was nothing worth while in the place.

The nerves go to pieces, general neurosis sets in, and art begins to totter, faced with a free-for-all, with anarchy to follow, and personality fighting tooth and nail for self-assertion….I’ve never seen so much squabbling or heard so much nebulous talk as I have since people claimed to know everything. [vide Hardy, ‘God’s Funeral’, Yeats, ‘The Second Coming’, G. K. Chesterton et al.]

A man has to eat (apparently) but the artist’s struggle to forge anew, to escape the strictures of schools, to overcome self-doubt and popular taste, to make a living, is a timeless one, and Zola’s tale makes for a very superior potboiler. (He’s a good thing or two to say about Wagner, too.)  After Zola sent Cézanne a copy of the novel (“L’Oeuvre“), the painter sent back a polite and formal thank-you note.  The two never communicated again.  As Zola, from instinct or prescience, commented in his book, In the consequent misunderstanding their old friendship seemed to have died.


Courbet’s ‘L’Atelier’

[*Thomas Walton translation]


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