In his final years, Paul Cézanne worked from a quiet studio in Aix-en-Provence, having returned to live in his hometown as his health waned. He had long been nomadic, traveling between Paris and the south of France, and this studio of his own design was packed with objects from his life. Pitchers, glass bottles, and ceramic containers lined an overhead shelf, presided over by a crucifix (a sign of his return to Catholicism); outside was a view to Mont Sainte-Victoire, which he painted numerous times. The studio even had a specially-designed portal so Cézanne could move big canvases like his “Les Grandes Baigneuses” to the garden, to paint in the natural light.
The studio is preserved as Cézanne left it when he died of pneumonia in 1906. When photographer Joel Meyerowitz visited the space, he was struck by its lighting and the studio walls, which were painted in a dark grey color Cézanne mixed himself. When an object was viewed in front of this wall, illuminated by a large north-facing window, it seemed to lose its depth, a quality that reminded Meyerowitz of the flatness in Cézanne’s paintings. With permission from the director of the atelier, Meyerowitz methodically photographed the objects in Cézanne’s studio against this wall. The series of 65 photographs is published in Cézanne’s Objects, out now from Damiani.
“The play of light on this particular tone of grey was a precisely keyed background hum that allowed a new exchange between, say, the red of an apple and the equal value of the grey background,” Meyerowitz writes in a book essay. “It was a proposal of tonal nearness that welcomed the idea of flatness.” He adds, “I wanted to see for myself how a photograph would treat these objects and their relationship to the wall, while the changing variations of afternoon light played across the grey background, offering a meditation on the dimensions of perception.”
Meyerowitz has previously published a series on the studio objects of painter Giorgio Morandi. Like Cézanne, the Italian painter celebrated the subtleties of everyday things, whether closely observing a ceramic vase or gathering of bottles. Meyerowitz is probably best known for his street photography, particularly his 1960s color shots of New York City’s endless chaos and juxtapositions of people. Although these artist studio series have an intense stillness, they continue his explorations into ways of examining color and form through the camera.
Whether Cézanne’s own hat, or a well-used metal coffee maker, each object is positioned on the same marble tabletop. A viewer could play a game in trying to connect an object to Cézanne’s oeuvre, perhaps matching the three bony crania to those that appear piled in the 1901 “Pyramid of Skulls,” or identifying the cherubic sculpture as the one that dances over a table of apples in a 1895 still life. Yet Meyerowitz’s photographs are more about considering how Cézanne used this studio and its light as an essential part of his artistic method.
“Even though Cézanne’s studio was built only four years before the time of his death, the feeling one has when in it, is that he had inhabited it for a lifetime, ” writes author Maggie Barrett, Meyerowitz’s longtime collaborator, in a book essay. “The objects, furniture, easel, even his coats and hats hanging on the wall, all have a quality of both the mundane and the sacred. All of his thoughts, ideas, visions, and objects, chosen and collected over a lifetime, were brought by him to this place.”