When Cézanne was here, there were no doubt 19th-century locals also picnicking nearby. But the artist willfully left out the quotidian, the bustling harbor, instead shaping the landscape to his own imaginative needs. “I have a lot of good points of view, but that doesn’t exactly add up to a theme,” Cézanne wrote of L’Estaque to his friend Émile Zola in a letter. It was Cézanne’s mother who had first taken a house in L’Estaque in the summer of 1864, when the painter was 25. Later, in 1870, he hid out here to avoid army conscription, and also to hide the existence of his partner, Marie-Hortense Fiquet, from his father, who disapproved. One wonders how the course of art history might have turned out had Cézanne’s mother chosen a house in a different town.
For artists who found their way here, the village was a place of refuge, but also a place of nostalgia. In 1877, Zola spent time here, escaping the polemics directed against his novel about a working-class alcoholic. “The country is superb,” he wrote in a letter that year. “You might find it arid and desolate, but I was brought up on these exposed rocks and these bare moors, so I am moved to tears when I see them again. The smell of the pines alone brings back my youth.” While there, Zola wrote a short story, “Naïs Micoulin,” about a who works in a local factory, which Marcel Pagnol adapted into his 1945 film, “Naïs.”
In 1882, came to visit Cézanne, and the two painted together. Renoir’s “Rocky Crags at L’Estaque” of that year shows the hillside and vegetation in his characteristically fuzzy style. Cézanne always stayed more angular, more intense. He painted like a man working out a mathematical problem. Each brush stroke, each painting, reveals how he reached his conclusions. Every painter had a different perspective. In 1908, Raoul Dufy arrived to paint with his friend Braque, after seeing Braque’s L’Estaque works displayed in Paris. The Fauvist André Derain painted colorful, happy harbor scenes that make Cézanne’s look melancholy in comparison.
The best way to visit L’Estaque is as an afternoon or twilight jaunt, by boat, from Marseille, that great Mediterranean port city — meets — famous for its blinding light, its bouillabaisse, its couscous, its close ties to the Maghreb, and, alas, its often violent organized crime. Ferries to L’Estaque leave every hour from Marseille’s Old Port, a deep harbor that has been in continuous use since the days of the ancient Greeks. The boat pulls out of the harbor and rounds the bend by the MuCEM — the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations — a spectacular new space designed by Rudy Ricciotti, an architect based in nearby Bandol.
Today, some of the best views of L’Estaque are from the roof of the MuCEM. With its dark cement latticework facade meant to evoke a casbah, the MuCEM is also a study in positive and negative space. (Mr. Ricciotti has said that in Marseille, the light is one of the strongest architectural elements.) From the top of an adjacent fortress, the MuCEM’s roof stretches just below the line where the ocean meets the shore. In the foreground, a sparkling new tower by the architect swoops up into the air, reflecting the light and straddling the highway running west toward L’Estaque. Along that road, a billboard for Panzani Zakia halal lasagna fills the entire side of a tall building. Huge ferries bound for and sit in the harbor.
L’Estaque is only a 10-minute drive from downtown Marseille, and a half-hour trip by ferryboat, part of the city’s transportation system. I did both, and I much preferred the boat. As it slowly neared the shore, I felt as if I were on the verge of entering a painting. One day, it was cloudy, and the dark sky against the pale rocky hills really did evoke a landscape by Cézanne. The viaduct painted by Braque stood out against the hillside. On the boat, I sat by a handful of local teenage girls with dark eyeliner, short skirts, fluorescent T-shirts and sneakers. They chatted more in Arabic than French and played with their cellphone ring tones. They were looking after a mischievous young boy with a balloon, which he popped gleefully as we reached the dock, startling me.
My friend and I went to see the viaduct. Its tall arches were instantly recognizable from Braque’s Cubist paintings. Someone had spray-painted the word or storm, in white bubble letters with black trim. There were rusted cars in the hills underneath it. The boxy houses now have satellite dishes on their roofs. One afternoon, we sat in a cafe in the harbor, where the sounds of bad Europop drifted over the water. Eventually, the waiter remembered us and brought cold drinks. Nearby, someone had spray-painted “Ne nous cultivez plus, on s’en charge,” or “Don’t educate us anymore, we’ll take care of it,” on a cement quai, where a yacht named for the writer André Malraux was docked. Mothers with headscarves watched their children frolic in the waterfront park.
Kiosks on L’Estaque’s main street sell local specialties: chichi frégi, fried dough with a hint of crushed black pepper inside and coated in coarse sugar, and panisses, chickpea flour fritters. We bought a snack and a cold bottle of La Cagole, a Marseille beer, and strolled up the quiet back streets. They were empty of people, except for a few other tourists hoping to walk in the footsteps of the great artists, and looking a bit disappointed. There were posters for the coming European parliamentary elections, for the Greens and the right-wing National Front, which would later triumph. We sat in the square by the church, by Cézanne’s house, now marked by a small, unassuming plaque, and watched the sun set, turning the mountains behind Marseille a reddish pink. Some new buildings blocked the view of the harbor. Cranes rose high in the industrial port and the hulks of vast cruise ships lingered in the blue waters.
For years, Cézanne had ignored the parts of L’Estaque that he didn’t want to paint. By 1885, he stopped coming. The landscape was changing too much for his taste, becoming too industrialized, with factories and chimneys cropping up along the shore. Economic development and artistic development subtly intertwined. Braque saw the factories, with their smokestacks spewing sodium and sulfuric acid, as source of inspiration. In 1910, he painted “ Factories at L’Estaque,” a Cubist study in grays and browns that is now in the collection of the Pompidou Center.
Cézanne moved elsewhere, to find new vistas. I remember that one spring, in my early 20s, I took the TGV from to Nice. Out the window, fields of lavender blurred by. And then, in the distance, there it was: Mont Ste.-Victoire. I already knew it by heart, the mountain Cézanne had painted so many times — a study in form, an exercise of style, a realm of the imagination. Not just a mountain, but the idea of a mountain. It was even more familiar out the windows of the fast train, the perspective ever changing. “Magnificent in the distance, meaningless closer up, mountains are but a surface standing on end,” Joseph Brodsky wrote in “An Admonition,” one of my favorite poems. Like Petrarch in the 14th century, who opened the door to the Renaissance and to new ways of thinking when he climbed Mont Ventoux simply to take in the view, Cézanne, by power of his vision, also changed forever the way we think and see.
At a monumental retrospective of paintings by Georges Braque at the Grand Palais in Paris that I saw last year, I found myself unexpectedly moved by some of the artist’s late paintings, tiny landscapes from the mid-1950s, when he was in his 70s. His career had traced almost every new development in art for half a century, and then, nearing the end of his life, he returned to the beginning, to landscapes with rough brush strokes, more like van Gogh than . They seemed not just landscapes, but memories of landscapes.
In the end, the L’Estaque of the artists may outshine the L’Estaque of life. But the place still lingers in my mind. I revisit the paintings in the museums. I think back to the weekend — to the sun, to the crusted sugar on the fried dough, to the ferries headed for the Maghreb, to the rocky coastline. The boat glides across the harbor toward the village. Marseille is at our back, the limestone hills approaching in the distance. There is a cool breeze. The ocean opens up before us. It is filled with possibility — and with the memory of possibility.
Correction: August 10, 2014
The cover story on July 27 about L’Estaque in the South of France, which inspired Cézanne, Braque and other artists, misidentified the type of elections that the author saw featured on posters on the back streets of the town. They were for the coming European Parliamentary elections, not for the French national elections.
The Turning Road, L’Estaque is a prominent landscape painted by a French artist, Andre Derain in 1906. The painting was created in the early 20th century when many artists followed the avant-garde art movement called Fauvism. In fact, this style of painting was developed in France by Andre Derain and Henri Matisse. They and their followers sought for means that would help them to express their personal feeling and emotions and to move away from traditional painting techniques. The feeling they expressed were a reflection of how they imagined the life and the world around them. The world depicted on the canvases of Fauvists existed inside the paining independently from the outside reality. Andre Derain believed that color, lines, and space should replace the simple description of the objects. Fauvist paintings are characterized by simplified drawing, distinct lines, and exaggerated colors. The Turning Road, L’Estaque embodies all the major traits of Fauvism, including such elements and principles as line, light and color, shape and space, emphasis, proportion, movement, and content.
The landscape represents the French village of L’Estaque and a road that it situated there. The road curves through the scene from the low right corner and turns around a park with a stream under the bridge. In the foreground and in the middle ground there are people who are going somewhere; some are hurrying to the stream to take water, while others are resting near the stream.
Lines were of major importance for Andre Derain as well as for Fauvists in general. In The Turning Road, L’Estaque lines are two-dimensional and distinct. Although they are mostly vertical, they are not straight. They define objects – trees, people, road and others – giving them their form and shape. The lines that outline the objects are thin black, grey, and brown. They help a viewer to define what is depicted and to focus attention on some details. Besides, there are some invisible lines. For instance, a woman points at something in front of her and this makes the viewer draw an imagery line to the place she points at. Another prominent line of the painting is the road. The lines in The Turning Road are expressive, as the author uses them not to imitate real lines but to focus attention on shapes and to contribute to the general atmosphere of the painting.
Andre Derain paid much attention to light, but he created it not in traditional way. Light and shadows were created by means of color. This tradition the Fauve artists borrowed from the painters of Impressionism. In The Turning Road, L’Estaque the marker of shadow and darkness is a more intense color. Such colored shadows eliminate the division of tones and hues. Besides, the intensification of color for depicting light is closely connected to the emotions of a painter. Although the light seems to be natural, it is created by non-traditional elements, namely color and contrast.
In this way, color is the most essential element of art used in The Turning Road, L’Estaque. It influences the depth of the image and the shadows of objects. For instance, blue tones on the red trees are the shadows from the overhead objects. The effects of colors that Derain uses in this landscape, namely blue, red, yellow, green, orange, and grey, are changed in the result of their interaction. Despite the fact that the colors are mainly complementary and not compatible, the contrasted areas create a unique landscape full of life and its own problems. Local color is rejected is favor of arbitrary ones. Thus, trees are red or purple, sky is green and yellow, the shadows of people are green. Andre Derain uses bright colors not in a way he sees it in reality in order to show his emotions and mood and use color as the most persuasive element of art.
Speaking about the form and shape, in The Turning Road, L’Estaque we see simplified forms of the people and objects, what makes the viewer look at the picture for some time to understand what is depicted. The heads are faceless, the trees are plain, and the lines are not distinct and two-dimensional. The painting lack details while all the objects and people are simplified and distorted. The striking difference between the form in reality and in the picture is emphasized by the use of intense color as well.
Another element of art that should be mentioned is space. Lack of natural shadows and bold strokes weaken the perception of depth. Again, depth is portrayed with the help of dark color. But nevertheless, Fauvists considered perspective as very important element and depicted depth in objects and landscapes. A similar artistic device is foreshortening, the visual effect when an object appears shorter or smaller than in reality. This device is very important as it helps to give a three-dimensional volume to the picture, though Fauvists disregard three-dimensionality created by other means. In The Turning Road, L’Estaque one can see that objects and people that are on the foreground are larger while those on the background are smaller.
The principles of design that are meaningful regarding this landscape are emphasis, proportion and movement. Usually, the emphasis of the artwork refers to a focal point in the image, the place viewer’s eye is drawn to. The Turning Road, L’Estaque may be considered afocal because it is difficult for the viewer to find a particular place to rest an eye. Instead, there is a psychological focus that is created through color and line and which express authors emotions and general mood.
Speaking about the proportion and scale, all the objects seem to relate proportionally to one another. The painter uses scale to create depth, depicting deeper object in more intensive color. In the foreground, we can see people near the stream and those who are going to it, on the middle ground, there are trees and the turning road, and finally on the colorful background viewers see some mountains or woods.
One more principle of design used by Andre Derain is the principle of movement that makes a viewer feel the action and guides his eye through a work of art. In the painting under analysis everything is in motion. For example, the irregular forms of trees hint that there is wind, the people are also moving towards the stream, in the middle ground there is a horseman returning home, and finally the stream is also likely to flow and fall into the river somewhere.
Summing up, The Turning Road, L’Estaque by Andre Derain is an embodiment of all the major traits of the avant-garde art movement of Fauvism. The artist expresses his own emotions and feelings through such formal elements and principles of design as color, line, light, shape, proportion, movement, and others. As many other artworks created during this period, this landscape is significant due to the simplified drawing, distinct lines and exaggerated colors. Despite the fact that Fauvism existed not for a long time, Andre Derain and his followers made a great contribution to the development of Western art by demonstrating expressiveness, color’s structure, and crucial aesthetic qualities.
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