The Ins and Outs of Banksy and Cezanne

No sooner do I blog about Cézanne’s letters than a certain street artist–Banksy by name–quotes from these very letters on his new website: www.banksyny.com. By the looks of it, the site will cover his shenanigans in New York, where he will be for the next month. The street, the caption for the main image informs us, is in play. I’ll return to that image later.

banksyny page

www.banksyny.com, with Cezanne quote circled.

Banksy announces his main theme at the top of the website: “better out than in.” It’s an expressionist’s manifesto (don’t bottle it up!) and a phrase I’ve always associated with belching. But it could also easily extend to other bodily acts. In a recent Los Angeles piece, Banksy links it to puking and gives the “out,” the floral vomit, a sculptural dimension.

Banksy, Better out than in, 2013

Banksy, Better out than in, 2013

Bansky’s “out” is also, of course, the art of the street, rather than the “in” of the studio (and by extension, the gallery and the museum). This brings us nicely to the quote he takes from Cézanne’s letters, where “outside” means landscape painting:

Cezanne quote from banksyny.com

Cézanne quote from banksyny.com

Banksy finds some kinship with the Nineteenth Century and a kind of historical justification for street art, but only by cheekily ripping the quote out of context. That’s part of the fun.

Scholastic aside: he uses the version of the quote given in John Rewald’s edition of the letters, rather than the one in Alex Danchev’s just-published version. (Heavens forbid that we might struggle with Cézanne’s French.) Here is the quote in a fuller context, as it appears in Danchev’s translation: “You know, all the paintings done indoors, in the studio, will never be as good as the things done outdoors. In showing outdoor scenes, the contrast between the figures and the ground are astonishing, and the landscape is magnificent. I see some superb things, and I must resolve to paint only out of doors.”*

Cézanne wrote the letter to Emile Zola and it’s dated 19 October 1866, which makes it a very early declaration of plein-air principles. The letter includes a number of pencil sketches of paintings Cézanne was then working on. One of the paintings, he explains, features two of their friends, “Marion and Valabregue leaving for the motif (a landscape of course).” Reproduced below is an oil sketch Cézanne made of the same subject.

Marion and Valabregue setting out for the motif, oil study

Cézanne: Marion and Valabregue setting out for the motif, oil study

Cézanne creates an origin story for landscape painting–the companionable departure of the well-equipped artists, the search for the motif, and the anticipated conversion of nature into paintings.

Banksy, too, makes his own kind of origin myth and one that likewise involves an act of male camaraderie, albeit now with a touch of illegality added. An old-timey street urchin helps his partner in crime reach for some incongruously modern equipment. We imagine the activation of the can and this spray will serve as the final proof of the adage. For, from the point of view of the street artist, aerosolized pigment is also “better out than in.”

Banksy, The Street is in Play

Banksy, The Street is in Play

*Mais, vois-tu, tous les tableaux faits à l’intérieur, dans l’atelier, ne vaudront jamais les choses faites en plein air. En représentant des scènes du dehors, les oppositions des figures sur les terrains sont étonnantes, et le paysage est magnifique. Je vois des choses superbes, et il faut que je me résolve à ne faire que des choses en plein air.