KR BlogReading


Reading James Wood on C??zanne (via Maud Newton), I felt very much like a dog eagerly awaiting a treat from the dinnertable and getting none. Merleau-Ponty has written quite eloquently on C??zanne, who is at least as much the philosophers’ painter as the literary one.

“C??zanne’s Doubt” is an essay on painting and perception, and the two are intimately related. As Plato pointed out, we don’t see the world directly–we see what we think we ought to see. This is why perspective in art was a discovery–if we saw the world exactly as it was, a child drawing a table would draw the rhombus that actually appears on his retinas, not the rectangle that he knows the top of the table to be. This is why an examination of C??zanne’s use of color, especially in comparison to the impressionists, is philosophically, as well as artistically, interesting.

Merleau-Ponty writes:

Impressionism was trying to capture, in the painting, the very way in which objects strike our eyes and attack our senses. Objects were depicted as they appear to instantaneous perception, without fixed contours, bound together by light and air. To capture this envelope of light, one had to exclude siennas, ochres, and black and use only the seven colors of the spectrum… The composition of C??zanne’s pallate leads one to suppose he had another aim. Instead of the seven colors of the spectrum, one finds eighteen colors–six reds, five yellows, three blues, three greens, and black. The use of warm colors and black shows that C??zanne wanted to represent the object, to find it again in the atmosphere… One must therefore say that C??zanne wished to return to the object without abandoning the impressionistic aesthetics which take nature as its model.

Furthermore, “Of nature, he said, ‘the artist must conform to this perfect work of art. Everything comes to us from nature; we exist through it; nothing else is worth remembering” (Such a statement could not be more true this time of years, when the weather is crisp and the leaves are turning on the trees). As much as literary circles may appreciate fine art when they see it, C??zanne belongs more to the philosophers, having “discovered what most recent psychologists have come to formulate: the lived perspective, what we actually perceive, is not a geometric or photographic one.” Merleau-Ponty discusses at length examples from C??zanne’s work and how they match psychological perspectives.

Of course it is worth keeping in mind the examination by Merleau-Ponty is considerably longer than Wood’s, and doubtless that is why it appears to have more merit–Merleau-Ponty simply has more room to explain the depth and breadth of C??zanne’s work. But Wood’s characterization troubles me on another level. The implication seems to be that C??zanne is important only insofar as he

is probably the most “literary” of the great modern painters; some of the painter’s earliest admirers and collectors were writers. Zola was a childhood friend; the two boys were devoted to the countryside around Aix. Rilke wrote a series of famous letters about the experience of viewing C??zanne’s work, day after day, and these fragments of lyrical criticism, torn off the poet’s larger work, still have eloquent things to say about his overwhelming visual presence. Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo were very early collectors; it was in Gertrude’s apartment that Picasso was so taken by the Portrait of Madame C??zanne. Woolf was fascinated by C??zanne’s radical approach to form and representation. C??zanne reverberates in Wallace Stevens’s poetry. And so on.

Wood’s characterization of C??zanne’s work is weak, especially in comparison to Merleau-Ponty’s, and considerably shorter than the time he spends discussing the writers who liked C??zanne. It is certainly true that C??zanne can inspire writers to great heights of prose (Merleau-Ponty’s example again comes to mind). But unfortunately, C??zanne does not seem to inspire Wood to the same heights, not least because Wood does not see C??zanne’s merits alone–his examination of perspective, of color, of perception, the way he wanted to reconcile art and nature. Wood ignores this, in pursuit of the point that C??zanne fits with the moderns, C??zanne’s own words, speaking of himself in comparison to the Old Masters, “They created pictures; we are attempting a piece of nature.”

This is why C??zanne doesn’t quite fit with the category in which Wood was attempting to place him. One of the main themes of modernism was its estrangement from nature, as in, say, “The Wasteland.” C??zanne, attempting to create his piece of nature, is, as always, somewhere off the beaten path.