Art and work – the discovery of Cézanne

Photo by Carmela Gross


Artistic decisions in the face of the new division of labor


Preamble or prehistory of the “belle époque”

In the process of social reorganization for the production of goods, consolidated in France throughout the 21th century, the massacre of the Commune, which took place during the Bloody Week (May 28.05.1871-XNUMX, XNUMX), played a corollary role. It completed the implementation of a new work order, initiated – but not yet concluded – by previous measures.

Urban reforms over the preceding twenty years had transformed the face of Paris. The city had been deliberately restructured and sequestered from the people, who had made it an almost permanent revolutionary focus, for the previous sixty years (1789-1848).

It was not just a territorial conquest. In addition to being political – to remove the people from the center of Paris –, the objective of the operation was directly economic and, in this plan, successful, for business: although at the cost of serious social damage, it laid the foundations for a vast productive restructuring.

As Walter Benjamin's study of the Paris reforms has shown,[I] the mega-restructuring of the capital – undertaken as a strategy of war and recolonization of the nervous center of the national territory – demolished the popular neighborhoods. He thus excised the main urban centers from the house-workshop unit, that is, from the vital link that brought together the housing and means of work of a large contingent of French artisan workers under one roof. Deprived of their means, the master craftsmen and their teams found themselves converted into “free workers” suppliers of labor-merchandise, that is to say, the depersonalized and abstract workforce necessary for capitalist expansion.

Vast urban surgery, in addition to sanctioning the domination of the city by business and its transformation by speculation, also functioned as it once did. enclosures in England. These, as we know, by dislodging the old peasants, removing their possessions of the ancestral lands where they lived, achieved much more than a looting or act of concentration of wealth: they produced a huge contingent of beings destined for wages or “free work”. and thus managed to manufacture the labor force required for the so-called Industrial Revolution on English soil.

In France, late in the face of industrialization, and, with popular resistance nourished by the memory of the various revolutionary episodes since 1789, urban reforms in Paris encountered intense opposition. At the end of the second decade of modernizing reforms – elitist and highly unpopular – imposed by Napoleon III (1808-73), the discredit of the regime, aggravated by the military defeat against the Prussians, resulted in the spontaneous popular insurrection of the Commune.


The brief dawn of the Commune

In fact, the uprising of the Paris workers was the culmination and turning point of a long process, aggravated and accelerated in the preceding six months by episodes of overthrow, which flowed and accumulated, leading to the downfall of the regime, in cascade: the defeat of Sedan (01.09.1870); the capture and exposure of the emperor by invading troops; the escape from Paris of the new government; the abandonment of the capital to Prussian troops. In this way, consecutively, the fall of the II Empire and the bourgeois order precipitated. tout court — at least, so it seemed to Communards for a few weeks. On March 28, 1871, the proclamation of a revolutionary workers' state, supported by the International, took place.[ii] The Commune's immediate response from the bourgeoisie, ensconced in Versailles, was civil war.

In short, the Paris reforms were not enough to implement the new order. Indeed, in addition to having an economy accustomed to the tradition of excellence of craftsmen and based on a network of small family rural properties (generated by the French Revolution and subsequently reinforced by the Bonapartist policy), much more was needed in a politicized nation and prone to revolutions : to exterminate the resistance and extinguish the memory of the popular force – without which there would be no substitution of the artisanal way, industrialization and capitalist modernization possible in the country. In fact, it happened in the most bloody way.


the slaughter

In the course of the Bloody Week in which the troops of Versailles annihilated the survivors of the Commune, from thirty to forty thousand prisoners were slaughtered, according to varying estimates, including women and children, summarily executed. By then, official figures attested that 36.309 prisoners had gone through war councils. How many actually?

Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray (1838-1901), a contemporary historian who counted Manet (1832-83) among his listeners, reported at the end of the chapter on repression in his book History of the Commune of 1871 (1876/ 1896): “The mass massacres lasted from the 28th of May to the first days of June and the summary executions until the middle of that last month. For a long time mysterious dramas took place in the Bois de Boulogne. The exact number of victims of the bloody week will not be known. The chief of military justice confessed to seventeen thousand executions. The Municipal Council of Paris paid for the burial of seventeen thousand corpses; but large numbers of people were killed or incinerated outside Paris; it is not an exaggeration to say twenty thousand, a figure admitted by the officials”.[iii]


faceless job

In addition to the reconquest of Paris and the restoration of the “Holy Alliance” between bourgeoisie, “ultras” (supporters of the Old regime), Bonapartists and Prussian invaders, the episode also served as the culmination of the process of radical modernization of the world of work, according to the new order of capital. It also meant the elimination of qualified work, as an extensive productive modality and political subject. Finally, the lethal asphyxia of the artisan-worker was concluded, as an independent social category, and his objectification or metamorphosis into an abstract and faceless being, a mere supplier of metabolic energy.[iv]

In the field of work, the disappearance of the craftsman as a subject of a work experience – in part self-organized – led to the generalization of the stratified split of productive subjectivity into two spheres, henceforth irreducibly polarized: that of intellectual work and that of manual labor .


The place of painting in the new social division of labor

After the tragic end of the Commune experience, which directly involved some influential artists – such as Courbet (1819-77), Manet and Degas (1834-1917), captured by the troops of Versailles and on the verge of paying with their lives for their involvement with the rebels –, the world of painting also accused afterwards, even if in other symbolic terms, the end of an era and the entry into a new historical order. In it, the pre-eminent place of painting – as a practice of excellence – which had been born and lived as an emblematic, exemplary sophisticated result of the excellence of craftsmanship, was extinguished.

For certain circles of vigorous painters – and aware of the traditional values, both intellectual and manual of the craft, but also of the new historical moment –, the disinheritance of painting from the unique place that had been its (for more than five centuries) demanded its refoundation and reinvention.

The post-Manet pictorial generation was possibly the first to be born entirely from the consequences of the disjunction between intellectual and bodily work – a disjunction that gave rise to and took the form of an unprecedented reflection in painting on the issue of work, with practical consequences consubstantiated in new pictorial processes, developed in different directions.

In this sense, this work intends to give a concrete historical content to the sentence – between consoling and ironic – of Baudelaire (1821-1867), from Brussels, in a letter to Manet (11.5.1865). The latter, then a young painter, would still have to be considered, according to Baudelaire, “le premier dans la décrepitude de votre art [the first in the decrepitude of your art]”.[v]

In this case, the form and content of the decrepitude had to do – this is the hypothesis – with the overcoming of artisanal work in favor of the new division of labor, guided – in the new capitalist order in the process of industrialization – by the irreducible eccentricity between intellectual work and the armlet.


Cezanne's Discovery

In other words, a historically decisive step took place between the above sentence, by Baudelaire, and another sentence that – although very misunderstood – also came to constitute a landmark. So it goes that Cézanne (1839-1906) would have said to his interlocutor at the time the symbolist writer Émile Bernard (1868-1941), in the words of the latter, approximately the following: “Je suis trop vieux, je n'ai pas réalisé et je ne réaliserai pas maintenant. Je reste le primitif de la voie que j'ai découverte [I'm too old; I didn't do it, and now I won't do it anymore. I remain the primitive of the path I discovered]”.[vi]

What did Cezanne discover? His discovery – contrary to what Bernard's naive listening (his interlocutor) led to believe, assuming a psychological self-justification on the part of the painter – had to do with the transformation of the general order of the work processes and the consequences that this entailed for the painting.

Very fast or very slow – in any case, always fragmented – painting from now on would no longer have the rhythm and integrity of the metabolic union between intellectual and bodily action, proper to the craftsman's work. Precisely for this reason, Cézanne adopted, in terms of his pictorial work, certain structuring measures – detailed and discussed below.

But Cézanne's response – although the most relevant at that time in the visual arts due to the degree of awareness involved and the conclusions drawn from the question, was not the only one. In fact, in the face of the vast seismic shock brought about by the tragic reorganization in post-craftsmanship molds, of work for capital, other painters, besides Cézanne, also replied – if not to the question, to the set of facts, even if unconsciously – forging different strategies (in short, the modernist “isms”).

It is the comparison and analysis of distinctly emblematic cases in this sense that will be carried out below, in order to better discern the objective historical trends underlying the various artistic currents, based on their position and response to the schism – in fact colossal and far-reaching. world – posed by the restructuring of the social organization of work (Meanwhile, as will be seen below, in fact, the path in question announced by Cézanne was effectively and fully developed by Russian constructivism – without demerit of intermediate experiences such as Cubism).


Practice as a criterion

In the final decades of the 1874th century, after the official advent of impressionism, sealed with the XNUMX exhibition and the successive exhibitions of this movement, different trends and individual artistic experiences developed. The re-proposition of realism's designs, after its updating by Manet,[vii] it certainly included – among other important artistic experiences – impressionism, but also the post-impressionist works of Cézanne, Van Gogh (1853-90) and others, in the course not only of the 1870s, but of the following decades.

However, the overall picture was complex and it is not possible to consider such developments exclusively in the light of realism, just as it is not possible to take this either as a single trend or as hegemonic. Other aesthetic values ​​and currents entered the scene and began to divide the avant-garde field with realism.

Symbolism stood out, including renewed forms of classicism, the opticalist ideology – claimed by impressionists and symbolists –, formalism in general, as an aesthetic and historiographic trend – in this case, linked to the doctrine of “pure visuality”, by K. Fiedler (1841-95) and others –, without forgetting the lateral references to non-European, so-called “primitive” forms.

The new discourses were intertwined and composed the heterogeneity of the general horizon of ideas of the period, disputing the genesis and control of modern artistic experiences. Since then, as in the dispute over Manet's work, the most advanced artistic investigations, such as those of Cézanne, Van Gogh and Cubism, have become inseparable from doctrinal and ideological clashes, and have given rise to quite divergent interpretations. In such a historical framework, with the arts remaining subject to mercantile circulation, from now on the concrete and effective criterion of distinction will increasingly become practice, considered in materialistic and historical terms.

* Luiz Renato Martins he is professor-advisor of PPG in Economic History (FFLCH-USP) and Visual Arts (ECA-USP). Author, among other books, of The Conspiracy of Modern Art (Haymarket/HMBS).

Extract from the opening section of the original version (in Portuguese) of chap. 9, “Painting as a work-form”, from the book La Conspiration de l'Art Moderne et Other Essais, edition and introduction François Albera, translation by Baptiste Grasset, Lausanne, Infolio (2023, proc. FAPESP 18/26469-9).



[I] See W. Benjamin, “Paris, capitale du XIX siècle/ Exposé (1939)”, in idem, Écrits Français, introduction et notices by Jean-Maurice Monnoyer, Paris, Gallimard/ Folio Essais, 2003, pp. 373-400; see also Michael Löwy, « La ville, lieu stratégique de l'affrontement des classes. Insurrections, barricades et haussmannisation de Paris dans le Passage work by Walter Benjamin», in Philippe Simay (ed.), Capitals of Modernity. Walter Benjamin et la Ville. Paris, Éclat, Philosophie imaginaire, 2005, p. 19-36.

[ii] The so-called I International (Associação Internacional dos Trabalhadores, 1864) had already existed for seven years when the Council of the Commune was proclaimed on March 28, 1871 – with the support of the association, although without direct relation to it.

[iii] Cf. DUST. LISSAGARAY, History of the Commune of 1871, avant-propos by Jean Maitron, Paris, La Découverte/ Poche, 2007, p. 383.

[iv] Georges Soria, after citing sources that mention up to 35 executions, presents in Great Histoire de la Commune, a very significant official figure for understanding the impulse of the facts in question for the course of the new division of labor. Between the February elections and those of July 2, 1871, statistics recorded a decrease of one hundred thousand male voters in Paris. An official poll subsequently conducted by three municipal councilors on the labor problem faced by industry and commerce in Paris, pointed to the disappearance of a quarter of the number of workers in the city. Another significant official document, cited by Soria, indicates the different and numerous professions of the “individuals arrested” by the government of Versailles, who survived the slaughter of May and June, to be tried later. In the registers, alongside professions that exist today (108 architects; 15 lawyers; 163 butchers; 123 bakers), several practitioners of other trades, today practically eliminated by industrialization: 34 gunsmiths; 5 balancers; 3 bandagers; 14 gold scouts; 528 jewelry masters; 47 toy masters; 191 launderers; 73 knitting masters; 39 button masters; 67 bronzers; 7 brewers; 119 bricklayers; 89 quinquilheiros; 9 embroiderers; 87 brushes; 16 burnishers etc. It should be noted that the list of trades cited here comprises only those professions whose designations begin with the letters a and b (in French). See G. Soria, Great Histoire de la Commune, vol. 5, Paris, Robert Laffont/Livre Club Diderot, 1971, pp. 47-50.

[v] Writing to his friend, Manet expressed his perplexity at the insults against the Olympia (1863, Paris, Musée d'Orsay) and a caravaggesque Christ Insult (1865, Chicago, The Art Institute of Chicago). Cf. Charles BAUDELAIRE, “To Edouard Manet”, in C. BAUDELAIRE, Au-Delà du Romanticisme/ Écrits sur l'Art, Paris, Flammarion, 1998, pres. M. Draguet, p. 302.

[vi] Cf. AND. BERNARD, “Souvenirs sur Paul Cézanne” (Mercure from France), In Conversations with Cézanne, ed. critique présentee par PM Doran, Paris, Macula, 1978, p. 73. See also, in this connection, Richard SHIFF, Cézanne and the End of Impressionism/ A Study of the Theory, Technique, and Critical Evaluation of Modern Art, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1986, no. 36 to p. 295; see yet also Is. BERNARD, “Paul Cezanne”, the West, no. 6, juillet 1904, p. 25, apoud R. SHIFF, Idem; AND. BERNARD, “La Technique de Paul Cézanne”, L'Amour de l'Art 1 (December 1920), pp. 275, 278, apoud R. SHIFF, Idem. A remark by Jean Pascal summed up Cézanne's image as primitive: "Evidently Cézanne, who retains his bad manners (awkwardness) naive of the primitives, did not effect (n'a pas realisé) their visions”. Cf. Jean PASCAL, Le Salon d'Automne in 1904 (Paris, 1904), p. 11, apoud R. SHIFF, Idem.

[vii] See TJ CLARK, The Painting of Modern Life/ Paris in the Art of Manet and his Followers, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1989; ditto, “Preliminaries to a possible treatment of Olympia in 1865”, in Francis FRASCINA and Charles HARRISON, Modern Art and Modernism: A Critical Anthology, New York, Icon Editions/Harper and Row, 1987, pp. 259-73. On Manet's posthumous annexation to Impressionism, see Michael FRIED, Manet's Modernism or, The Face of Painting in the 1860s, Chicago and London, The University of Chicago Press, 1996; on Manet's realism, see also, in this volume, the preceding texts and ditto, Manet / A Businesswoman, Lunch in the Park and a Bar, Rio de Janeiro, Zahar, 2007, pp. 17-75.

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