Bathers (1902-06), Paul Cézanne

Private collection
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There is a famous first line, announcing the birth of modern art. In 1890, the painter Maurice Denis declared: "Remember that a picture, before being a battle horse, a nude, an anecdote or whatnot, is essentially a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order."

This slogan is handy enough. It applies to all pictures, modern or ancient. And it remains a good reminder, because people still forget about paint and colour and design. All the same, this aphorism is misleading. Its tense is wrong. It shouldn't be "before", but rather "at the same time as". The important thing is not painting itself, but what painting can do with all those other things. Sometimes, what painting can do is very alien to our normal sense of the world.

Take Paul Cézanne. In one of his old- age visions, he finds a paradise in painting. It's not an especially sweet or sensual idyll. But through painting, he can imagine a world without resistance and without definition. You might call this an angelic state, where bodies interpenetrate. Or you might envisage a creation in which all things are made from the same flesh, the same matter. Either way, it's a kind of bliss, a place where every element embraces everything else.

The picture is named after one of its elements: Bathers. But they're not really bathers. They are women, and there is water, but whatever they're doing, they aren't obviously swimming or washing or basking. Perhaps you're tempted to give them some traditional women-and-water subject, like Diana and her nymphs, or Pharaoh's daughter saving the baby Moses? Art history loves to find sources and echoes. But it's better to accept how vague these likenesses are. What the painting actually shows is no particular story, and no particular actions either.

It's like that with the whole scene. There isn't much to say about climate or terrain. It is a mythic landscape, composed of abstract elements: water, ground, humans, trees, sky, ordered in various centred, symmetrical triangles. There's a pool, and beyond it a river or a lake. Promontories enter on either side, almost meeting, making an hourglass form. Copses of trees rise on left and right, leaning inwards in an arch. Beyond the far water there is a strip of shore, and a range of mountains beyond that, and above that a triangle of sky. The women assemble in three groups, left, middle, right, four figures in each group. Possibly.

Possibly. But at this point, we must remember again what we're looking at. On the one hand, the pictured landscape is made up of animal, vegetable, mineral, solid, liquid, gaseous, light, shadow. On the other hand, and all through, this world is made of paint. More than that, the picture emphasises the paint as its matter, medium, element – reducing all differences to a consistency.

The bodies, for instance: they are not necessarily women. The picture puts no emphasis on female or male. Its figures do not adhere to any firm distinction. It's more as if there is a continuum between the sexes. The figures here exist at the female end of the continuum; nothing more than that. Likewise, anatomy itself. We can't be sure that these bodies are precisely human-shaped, or even how many there are. We can only see that there are areas and agglomerations of human stuff.

Likewise, the whole world. Figures merge into figures – and into ground, and into water, water into ground, ground into bushes, trees into air, mountain into air... Elements fragment, fuse, blend, disintegrate. It is a nature in which things become part of one another. It is a nature where between one thing and another there is an intermediate substance. Entities do not exist as separate forms, within definite edges. Rather, they exist as centres, concentrations of energy, presences stronger or weaker, sometimes establishing borders, sometimes gradually fading out. Everything is in a state of semi-dematerialisation.

Or rather, it is a drama of dematerialisation. Some entities, especially among the human areas, fade out completely into blank. Meanwhile, other entities break the surface in visible outlines – bodies again, trunks, banks, the faint horizon of the mountains. This world isn't all homogeneous, nothing but stuff. It does have resistances and definitions. But they fluctuate lightly, gently. And perhaps this paradise Bathers is the only Cézanne in which he can free painting wholly and finally from violence.

About the artist

Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) was once the father of modern art. Today, that genealogy – Cézanne begat Cubism, Cubism begat abstraction – seems less important. Cézanne can be himself, one of the strangest and most difficult artists in the canon. From unpromising, semi-amateur beginnings in explicit images of sex and violence, and after a serious encounter with Parisian Impressionism, he retreated to Provence on a struggle to create a new way of picturing the world. "What I am trying to translate to you is more mysterious; it is entwined in the very roots of being, in the implacable source of sensations." The goal was never achieved and never clearly defined. What remains are his repeated obsessive attempts – to capture apples, or Mont St Victoire, or imaginary naked women on a riverbank.