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The Pixels of Paul Cézanne by Wim Wenders review – director as (generous) critic…

Wim Wenders.
‘A low-key, almost conversational style’: Wim Wenders. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

“It’s only when I write that I can see things through to their conclusion,” Wim Wenders states in I Write, Therefore I Think, the opening essay in The Pixels of Paul Cézanne. For him, as with many of us, writing things down is a way of seeing clearly, but it is also somehow related to “being reliant on seeing and having sharpened this sense more than any other”.

As a film director, Wenders’s way of seeing tends towards the poetically enigmatic, often imbuing the quotidian with a luminous beauty, as evinced by his most famous film, Paris, Texas. On the page, he is more matter-of-fact, employing a low-key, almost conversational style which moves from the anecdotal to the often keenly descriptive, but always with Wenders’s own, often singular thoughts on the subject foregrounded. Thus, in Getting to Know Yohji, his short meditation on the elusive fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto, Wenders begins by acknowledging his own ignorance of the fashion world, even admitting that he was unsure if Yamamoto was male or female. A few pages later, the essay, which is a kind of homage to the master tailor, concludes with an acknowledgement of their deep friendship – “Still close to me, like a brother, all these years.”

Closer to home, Wenders casts an understanding eye on the film-makers who have helped shape his vision: Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni, Anthony Mann, Douglas Sirk, Yasujiro Ozu and Sam Fuller. Of them all, Fuller is perhaps the unlikeliest: low-budget, hardboiled and macho to Wenders’s more refined and poetic European sensibility. Illuminatingly, Wenders titles his homage to Fuller The Storyteller. Fuller was, we learn, someone who told stories continuously: wild, far-fetched, autobiographical stories that chimed with, as Wenders previously put it, “that very same impetus and attitude” as his films. “What sometimes sounded like an exaggeration was just his art to dramatise any story and to tell it in a way that would have your attention from the first sentence.”

Wenders covers a lot of ground, eulogising the visionary choreographer Pina Bausch, as well as the hardcore war photographer James Nachtwey, both of whom share an extreme vision of their respective crafts. He is on less convincing ground with his celebration of the fashion photographer Peter Lindbergh, in whose work he detects a kind of demystification of the surface glamour of the medium – “he turns those goddesses into human beings without taking any of their aura away!”

Most of the essays herein are short (hardly justifying the paperback’s £14.99 cost) and I would like to have read a lot more on the subtext of the title essay, the sense that Cézanne’s “close inspection”, as applied to the small pencil and watercolour sketch La Montagne Sainte-Victoire, represents a lost world of deep looking that digital manipulation has utterly consigned to history.

This being a series of essays on, as the blurb has it, “the fellow artists who have influenced, shaped and inspired him”, it may be churlish to expect the praise to be tempered by a degree of critical reservation, but the single, sustained note of reverence throughout does begin to rankle after a while. (The essays were written previously as book introductions or laudatory speeches.) That said, there is enough insight here for both the curious and the faithful, even if the biggest insight of all is Wenders’s affinity with, and generosity towards, his fellow artists. One can’t help thinking it might have made for a more illuminating read if he had included some essays on the art and artists that he doesn’t like. Maybe next time...

• The Pixels of Paul Cezanne and Reflections on Other Artists by Wim Wenders is published by Faber (£14.99). To order a copy for £12.74 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

This article titled "The Pixels of Paul Cézanne by Wim Wenders review – director as (generous) critic…" was written by Sean O'Hagan, for The Observer on Sunday 11 February 2018 09.00am

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