A Compendium of Auto-Iconoclasm (Cézanne edition)


A video of a disastrous art critique circulated on social media a while ago. (You can watch it here: strong language alert!)

student destroys work

The footage culminates in the student destroying her painting. To be more precise, she stamps on the canvas, strikes it against the wall and the floor, and then attempts to rip it in half; failing at this, she finally throws the battered work on the ground, curses the class, and exits. Art students must sometimes feel like doing this during their critiques: few take it that crucial step further.

My mind has returned to this footage recently, while I’ve been rereading the early literature about Paul Cézanne. Cézanne’s first biographers—Bernard, Vollard, and Gasquet—loved a good anecdote and Cézanne provided them with plenty. Their many accounts of the artist destroying (or neglecting) his own works became a crucial part of his legend.

Reading them, one wonders what was lost and how many works Cézanne destroyed. Could an artist who worked so slowly—another important element of this legend—really have destroyed so many works while still leaving behind some 950 oil paintings, not to mention the water-colours and drawings? There’s presumably an element of exaggeration, as well as truth, to these accounts. Ambroise Vollard, for example, clearly understood their appeal and grasped that his role as Cézanne’s dealer added some piquancy and humour. When we read them, it’s as though we can hear Vollard’s thoughts: there he goes again, losing me money!

I thought I’d excerpt these stories and share them here. Read together, the repetition and variety in the accounts becomes evident. As with our art student, Cézanne can be angry, spontaneous, and inventive in his destructive acts. He finds expedient ways to make a point or vent his frustration. But when he does away with selections of his old work, he is perhaps being more reflective and editorial—exercising his right to cull the works that don’t accord with his own sense of his oeuvre.

Cezanne, Self-portrait with palette, c.1885-7

Cezanne, Self-portrait with palette, c.1885-7

The strongly social (or anti-social) dimension to these accounts is as apparent with Cézanne as it is with the art student. Many of them have their origins in portrait sessions, where attacking the canvas would be tantamount to assaulting, if not the sitter exactly, then certainly the sitter’s investment of time and energy. Other stories are connected to Cézanne’s rejection at the Salon, to his legendary isolation, to his paranoia, and to his supposed humility. They contribute to the hagiography of Saint Paul.

Art history has long been concerned with the theory and history of iconoclasm, but my hunch is that acts of auto-iconoclasm have been less thoroughly explored, and persist mainly as artist anecdotes. So I’d be curious to hear from the readers of this blog in the comments section. Do you know of similar stories about other artists, or can you point me to critical explorations of this phenomenon?

Excerpts from Cezanne’s biographers

Without further ado, here’s my compendium. Since they are thematically related, I’ve also included  stories about Cézanne’s passive destruction of objects (his neglect and abandonment of objects); a story about the artist mistreating somebody else’s creation; and one featuring another Paul Cézanne: the artist’s son. Oh, and the section headings pay tribute to Richard Serra’s Verb List.

i. To want to destroy.

Bernard in Conversations with Cézanne, p.69:

This painting [The Portrait of Achille Emperaire] was sent to the Salon, probably after the war, and refused, as was the Reclining Nude. I discovered it under a pile of mediocre paintings at Julien Tanguy’s who told me the story. He must have hidden from Cézanne who wanted to destroy it.

Stock, Caricature of Cezanne, with the Portrait of Achille Emperaire and the Reclining Nude (salon submissions for 1870)

Stock, Caricature of Cezanne, with the Portrait of Achille Emperaire and the Reclining Nude (salon submissions for 1870)

ii. To not collect

Gasquet, p.89:

His large Femme couchée had been rejected by the Salon, as usual. But he persisted. Each year he sent a picture; each year it was thrown out. He didn’t even bother to collect his pictures. He felt persecuted.

iii. To tear up

Gasquet, p.78:

“This will be my picture,” he would say occasionally, “the one I shall leave behind… But the centre? I can’t find the centre… Tell me, what shall I group it all around? Ah, Poussin’s arabesque! He knew all about that. In the London Bacchanal, in the Louvre Flora, where does the line of the figures and the landscape begin, where does it finish… It’s all one. There is no center. Personally, I would like something like a hole, a ray of light, an invisible sun to keep an eye on my figures, to bathe them, caress them, intensify them… in the middle.”

And he would tear up a sketch.

iv. To work, to tear into small pieces

Gasquet, p.91:

One evening he handed me a sheet of drawing paper covered with a network of curves, squares, geometric figures curiously interwoven; at the bottom he had underlined this phrase in his large handwriting: “Use up your youth in the arms of the Muse… Her love is consolation for everything else.” Higher up, he had written “SIGNORELLI” in capital letters, and in small letters “Rubens.” One of the squares was lightly tinted with blue watercolour. He handed me the sheet.

“It’s from Gautier… Work, one must work,” he said.

He turned his back on me abruptly, muttering: “Art consoles one for living.” And snatching the paper back, he tore it into small pieces and said not another word to me until I left.

v. To grab, to kick, to throw, to stamp

Gasquet, p.120:

[W]e found him stamping his foot on a rock with his fists clenched, looking with tear-filled eyes at his torn canvas, blown away by a gust of wind. And as we ran to retrieve it from the bushes in the quarry he cried out, “Leave it, leave it… I was nearly there this time. I had it, I had it… But it’s not meant to happen. No. No… Leave it.”

The wonderful landscape in which the Sainte-Victoire shone out above valleys touched with blue, fresh, tender and radiant, was stuck in a thicket where the wind had driven it. Battered, scratched, it was bleeding like a human being. We saw the brown surface of the canvas, ripped by the squall, the red marble quarries, the pines, the jewel-like mountain, the intense sky… Confronted by the subject itself, it was a masterpiece that equaled nature. Cézanne his eyes popping out of his head, watched with us. A great anger, a madness—we couldn’t make out what—came over him. He walked over to the picture, grabbed it, tore at it, threw it on the rocks, kicked holes in it with his boots, stamped on it. Then abruptly he subsided and shook his fists at us as if we were responsible: “Off with you! Out of my sight!…” And hidden among the pines we heard him crying like a child for more than an hour.

Cezanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire seen from Bibemus, c.1897

Cezanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire seen from Bibemus, c.1897

vi. To be discouraged, to abandon

Jourdain, in Conversations with Cézanne, p.83

He confessed to us that he had driven to the same motif at least a hundred times with a load of materials and a canvas which, after becoming discouraged, he had abandoned under a tree.

vii. To rip to pieces, to destroy

Vollard, p. 23:

Zola even posed for a portrait; but it did not “go” well at all, and the young painter, already quick to be discouraged, lost no time in destroying the canvas.

“I’ve ripped it to pieces; your portrait, you know. I tried to work on it this morning, but it went from bad to worse, so I destroyed it….”

viii. To reduce to shreds

Vollard, p.86:

I heard… a resounding oath, and turning around, I saw Cézanne wild-eyed, his palette-knife raised over my portrait. I was petrified with fear for what might happen; at last, after moments which seemed like hours, Cézanne turned his fury against another canvas, which was instantly reduced to shreds. The reason for his wrath, it seems, was this: in a corner of the studio opposite to where I was posing, there had always been an old faded carpet. On that particular day, unfortunately, the maid had taken it away with the laudable intention of beating it. Cézanne explained that it was intolerable not to have that carpet in its accustomed place; it would be impossible for him to continue my portrait; he would never touch a brush again as long as lived.

Cezanne, Portrait of Ambroise Vollard, 1899

Cezanne, Portrait of Ambroise Vollard, 1899

ix. To slash up

Vollard, p.88:

One day when someone had disturbed him at his work, and he had slashed up one of his pictures, he said to me, “Excuse me, Monsieur Vollard, but when I am studying, I must have absolute quiet.”

x. To cut, to repair

Alfred Hauge, letter to Thorvald Erichsen, August 26, 1899:

He has painted a portrait of me, it was excellent. One day in madness, he suddenly cut it to pieces with a knife in anger. His son had it repaired in Paris, and will give it to me without his knowledge.

Cezanne, Portrait of Alfred Hauge, 1899

Cezanne, Portrait of Alfred Hauge, 1899


xi. To pitch into the fire, to fling into the fireplace

Vollard, p.105:

“You can’t ask a man [i.e. Zola] to talk sensibly about the art of painting, if he simply doesn’t know anything about it. But by God!”—and here Cézanne began to tap on the table like a deaf man—“how can he dare to say that a painter is done for because he has painted one bad picture? When a picture isn’t realized, you pitch it in the fire and start another one!”

As he talked, Cézanne paced up and down the studio like a caged animal. Suddenly seizing a portrait of himself he tried to tear it to pieces; but his palette knife had been mislaid, and his hands were trembling violently. So he rolled the canvas up, broke it across his knee, and flung it in the fireplace.

xii. To break

Bernard, in Conversations with Cézanne, p. 56:

On the mantel was the beginning of a bust in red clay meant to represent Cézanne. “Solari did that, a poor devil of a sculptor and a lifelong friend. I always told him he really screwed up by going to his Ecole des Beaux-Arts. He begged me to let him do the bust. I told him, ‘You know that I can’t stand to pose. If you want, you can come to the room on the first floor; I work upstairs. When you see me, you can observe, then do your work.’ He ended up losing interest in this piece of garbage; it’s depressing.’ Then he took the little bust out into the garden. There, kicking it into large paving stone, he cried, “It’s stupid after all!” And he broke it. After leaving his foot, the unfinished likeness rolled on the pebbles, under the olive trees, and there it stayed, disintegrating under the sun, all the rest of the time I was in Aix.

Solari, Bust of Cezanne

Solari, Bust of Cezanne

xiii. To burn

Gasquet, pp.72-4:

In the attic at the Jas de Bouffan I have seen a canvas full of holes, slashed with a knife, grimy with dust, which had landed up there somehow or other and which was burnt, it seems, along with thirty others, even in Cézanne’s lifetime without his deigning to bother with them…. “Just the thing for Mirbeau—eh?” said Cézanne, who caught me deep in thought before this scene, and with a kick he sent it rolling to the back of the loft.

xiv. To pierce

Vollard, pp.62-3:

The first thing that struck me as I set foot in the studio was a huge picture of a peasant pierced full of holes with a palette knife. Cézanne used to fly into a passion for the most absurd reasons—sometimes for no reason at all—and was wont to vent his anger upon his canvases. One time, for instance, thinking his son looked a little jaded, he immediately imagined that he boy had “slept out,” woe to the canvas which happened to be nearest at hand!

xv. To poke holes, to open up

Vollard p. 63:

I may add that the world has young Paul to blame for the destruction of more than one Cézanne. As a child he used to poke holes in his father’s canvases to the great delight of the fond parent. “Look, my son has opened up the windows and the chimneys!” he would say. “He knows it’s a house, the little rascal!”

xvi. To tear up, to burn, to scrape down, to scratch out

Gasquet, p.122:

Knowing that people were beginning to make money out of all his works, including unconsidered scraps which he despised particularly, he began now to tear up or burn his unfinished studies, he scraped them down or scratched them out with his palette knife. He had less and less faith in his genius. This kind of success, which he found unenviable, these speculative operations buzzing around his work, upset him.

“They’re up to some trick… some dirty trick,” he said.

xvii. To fling into the fire

Vollard p.77:

I can never forgive myself for having insisted on Cézanne’s putting some of his own work on the walls of his studio. He pinned up about ten water-colors; but one day when the work was going badly, and after he had fretted and fumed and consigned both himself and the Almighty to the devil, he suddenly opened the stove, and tearing the water-colors from the walls, flung them into the fire. I saw a flicker of flame. The painter took up his palette again, his anger appeased.

Cezanne, The Stove in the Studio, c.1865

Cezanne, The Stove in the Studio, c.1865

xviii. To slash in an excess of despair or anger

Gasquet, p.136:

He believed that people were following him, spying on him. He hastened his step, struck out at passers-by and fled. Children howled at the grotesque clown. He reached his atelier in Les Lauvres, closed all the doors and windows, barricaded himself in, and with clenched fists, in front of some canvas, occasionally slashing it in an excess of despair or anger, he wondered what he could have done to people and things to be surrounded this way by such unanimous hostility, he who loved everybody….

xix. To walk over, to fold, to wedge, to leave to rot, to never complete, to realize

Gasquet, p.138:

Now he was invaded by a kind of hatred of himself, of the work he had done, and this grew with his loneliness. Never, I believe, had anyone felt such scorn for his life’s work. He was completely detached from it. His canvases, the most beautiful of them, lay about the floor, he walked over them. One, folded in four, was used as a wedge in a wardrobe. He left them in the fields, he left them rotting in bastidons where the peasants put them under cover. With his fanatical taste for perfection, his worship of the absolute, they represented for him only a moment, an inarticulate leap towards the formula that he was never to complete. He attached no more importance to them than a saint does to the material aspect of good works accomplished for the love of God. He forgot them right away, to move on to a more significant task. To realize, as he would say; he wanted to realize.

xx. To tread on, to ignore

Gasquet, pp.131-2:

For eighteen months at the Jas de Bouffan, he worked furiously at the Old Woman with a Rosary. When the canvas was finished, he thrust it into a corner. It became covered with dust, lay about on the floor, unrecognizable, trodden on and unheeded. One day I spotted it, found it against the stove under the coal-scuttle, where a drop of condensed steam from the zinc pipe was falling on it every five minutes or so. I don’t know what miracle had preserved it intact. I cleaned it. She appeared before me…

Cezanne, Old Woman with a Rosary, 1895-6

Cezanne, Old Woman with a Rosary, 1895-6

xxi. To tear, to burn, to destroy, to restart

Gasquet, p.78:

Until his death, and beginning at this period, when he made his first sketch inspired by Rubens, he worked constantly on an enormous canvas, abandoned and taken up again twenty times over, torn, burnt, destroyed, restarted, the final version of which is in the Pellerin collection.

Cezanne, Great Bathers, 1906

Cezanne, Great Bathers, 1906

xxii. To slash, to work on (again), to leave unfinished

Vollard, pp.45-7:

In 1890 Cézanne exhibited three canvases at the “Twenty” in Brussels [including] a composition of Bathers. Subsequently the painter slashed this last canvas with a palette knife, then worked on it again, and finally left it unfinished.

The Bathers included in Les XX Exhibition, 1890

Cezanne, The Bathers included in Les XX Exhibition of 1890

xxiii. To abandon, to be reabsorbed, to be replaced

Gasquet p.120:

And he worked. Slowly. Fervidly. Stubbornly. When a work was almost finished, he sometimes abandoned it, left it in the sun or rain, to be reabsorbed by the countryside like dust—a seasonal offering to be replaced by a later growth, another image.

xxiv. To toss, to collect, to  continue

Vollard, p.63:

Cézanne’s household held the painter in such respect that, when he left a mangled canvas in the garden or on the ash heap, they saw to it that it was put in the fire. An exception to the rule was a certain still-life. Cézanne had tossed it out of the window, but it had caught in the branches of a cherry-tree, and had hung there a long time. Inasmuch as they had seen Cézanne armed with a long pole prowling about the tree, they decided that he intended to recover the canvas, and consequently they left it severely alone. I was present when the canvas was rescued. We were walking in the garden, Cézanne, young Paul, and I. The painter, who was a few paces in advance, his head slightly bent, turned around suddenly and said to the young man: “Son, we must get down the Apples; I think I’ll work on that study some more.”

cezanne, apples

Cezanne, Apples, c.1880


Michael Doran (editor), Conversations with Cézanne (Berkeley: University of California Press).

Joachim Gasquet, Joachim Gasquet’s Cézanne (London: Thames and Hudson, 1991 [1921].

John Rewald, The Paintings of Paul Cézanne: A Catalogue Raisonné (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.)

Ambroise Vollard, Cézanne (Mineola: Dover Publications, Inc., 1984 [1914].