Cézanne, the École, and the fuel of rejection

The story says that Cézanne was turned down by the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts when he applied for entrance. He kept going, and admired as he was by many of his contemporaries, he only managed to have his first individual exhibition in 1895, when he was fifty-six years old (at the famous Gallerie Vollard, a shop on the Rue Laffitte, in Paris).

In 1999, “Rideau, crouchon et compotier”, painted in between 1893 and 1894 was sold for a staggering US$60.5 million. A fitting price for a post impressionist painter considered, by most, as the father of modern painting.

This little, yet powerful story, serves as an appropriate preamble for what I am about to say about the role of criticism into an artist’s development.

 Many of my friends have gone through this and I go through it every day. As artists we need the critical view (both positive and negative) of our artistic expression. After all, art is to be viewed by others, not kept between closed doors.  Critics are everywhere as each view entails a criticism of some sort (there is even the old show business adage about the fact that “everyone is a critic”). And the fact is that all who participate of the art experience will have an opinion, and if given the chance, will impart their views to whomever wishes to hear them.

And that is fine. Criticism is good. Even criticism generated from greed, envy, bad blood, or even ignorance…it is all good because it allows us to see things from other perspectives than our own. And for an artist, this is like a gold mine. A source of feelings, new to ourselves, that should lead to more creativity.

But as I have said so many times before, the soul of an artist cracks easily, hurts more than most, and heals only with love and kindness.

That is the reason why rejection, because of its harshness, tends to be one of the worst forms of criticism for an artist. It is as valid as many others, but still, it is the most hurtful because, as we tend to be to critical of ourselves and too sensitive for our own good, it feels final, with shades of a dead end and brushstrokes of questions about our own artistic and personal prowess. And so it damages the most.

Yet, rejection is an intricate part of our maturing process, and of becoming deeper and more sensitive artists.

The key is knowing that rejection is never final. It is not even a detour. It is simply a crossroad where we have taken a certain road for the wrong reasons, or too soon for us or for others to understand where we are going. Knowing that simple fact allows us to push into other parallel roads, look for other ways, or review our own reasons so as to find, within ourselves and within others, that little extra quality, emotion, or explanation, that will open a door which now seems closed or open doors we had not considered as unlocked to us before.

Cézanne is a clear example of this because he simply never gave up on his own convictions. Time was never a real issue (otherwise he would have reconsidered his career). He may have modified and changed as time went by, but he never gave up on his idea that what he was doing was what his heart, and soul, were telling him. And that was nothing more, and nothing less, than painting his own path into a new expression of what he saw and felt.

Unfortunately, as happened with him and with so many other artists throughout history, we may not reap all the benefits or the public recognition of our own artistic endeavors. If we are lucky, that may be something that only time will tell. But we must know that for that to happen, the eyes of future critics will have to change, sometimes mature, or in other cases simply open up into seeing our own personal ways of perception as making a difference, or having a peculiarity that future generations can appreciate.

But whether the formality of history judges us kindly, or none at all, for us the value of what we do must not reside there.

It must lie within us rather than outside ourselves. And we will only reach the summit of our own genius (and I do believe that we all have the spark of genius within us) if, after learning each and every lesson, we break through the pain and barrage of circumstantial opinion and forge ahead in our individual paths.

The truth is that we were given our talents to be exploited to the fullest of our abilities. And we will be judged by ourselves, others, history, God or simply time, by what we have done with those gifts.

Thus, it is not in playing a blame game that the answer will be found. At the end, the fact remains that as harsh as it may sound, we cannot blame anything or anyone other than ourselves for not doing everything in our power to “invest and multiply” those talents. And in that multiplication we may find the “spark”, that artistic moment of brilliance that will make a difference in our lives and in the lives of others. And that will be our legacy, our tiny or giant footstep (that does no matter) into the long path of human civilization.

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