‘Isn’t Cézanne’s art precisely about not knowing?’


Woman with a Cafetière, Paul Cézanne, c.1895

From London Review of Books:

The critics all seem to know, or think they know, what ‘as if they were apples’ means – what apples are like, and what painting them consists of, technically and temperamentally. But isn’t Cézanne’s art precisely about not knowing? Painting, if you pursue it for a lifetime, may give you a glimpse of the apple and your approach to it; but only if painting starts from, and maybe finishes with, the proposition that an apple is not an ‘object of knowledge’. There are no apples in the two pictures I’ve started with, so fix your attention, if you can (it is part of the Cézanne effect that attention seems to be solicited and then made to feel almost illicit, as if some kind of taboo were being violated), on the coffee cup and spoon, or the flower in Madame Cézanne’s hand, or the folds of the Vermeer curtain. What would it be like to paint a head or face ‘as if’ they were the flower or the curtain? There are no ‘as ifs’ in Cézanne’s universe: nothing is analogous to anything else, the world is made up of unique particulars, and painting sets itself the impossible task of seeing disparity as totality. The spoon in Woman with a Cafetière is upright with its own identity: it has a halo of shadow to keep the rest of reality from contaminating it. The woman’s hands (or her hair with its geological parting) have the same weight and distinctiveness as the spoon. And yet spoon, hair and hands are fitted like cogs or levers into the picture’s naive, elaborate offer of the world-all-at-once: the table so eager to be there for us, pushing its way through the picture plane; the flowers tumbling down the wall, changing colour as they hit the floor; the long central seam of the woman’s dress splitting open under her fist.

So finally I am on the side of the extremists, the Becketts and Sedlmayrs. ‘Loss of world’ is in question in Cézanne’s art, because – Lawrence in particular insists on this – the artist knows that ‘world’ has become, or is fast becoming, a cliché. The more talk of Gemeinschaft, the deeper each individual’s isolation. There seems, to put it baldly, no good alternative to the Sedlmayr view, or at least to its basic assumption. Certainly the idea that Cézanne’s approach to picture-making is essentially technical and ‘objective’, locked in a painter’s preserve (the Charles Morice proposal, which will never die), is useless. It offers false comfort. Cézanne is not in the least ‘detached’ from his sitters, he is relentlessly intimate with them. It is what he proposes intimacy to be that is the terror. He seems to have wanted, maybe to have achieved – with Madame Cézanne, whom he did not live with, with the various Parisian men he distrusted, with the Aixois peasants he paid to sit still – an existence with others that did not depend on an exchange of insides. A behaviour without the pejorative ‘behaviourism’ attached to it. ‘Material of a strictly peculiar order, incommensurable with all human expressions whatsoever.’

There is a cluster of poems by Wallace Stevens, mostly from the 1940s, that seems to me helpful. I think they were written with Cézanne in mind. ‘Less and Less Human, O Savage Spirit’ is central, and especially the poem’s conviction that ‘It is the human that is the alien,/The human that has no cousin in the moon.//It is the human that demands his speech/From beasts or from the incommunicable mass.’ Compare the instructions in ‘Credences of Summer’: ‘Let’s see the very thing and nothing else’; ‘Look at it in its essential barrenness’; ‘Without evasion by a single metaphor.’ (A flower in Cézanne is never a metaphor for the person holding it.) ‘Words, lines, not meanings, not communications,/Dark things without a double.’ (Dark as the seam in the Woman with a Cafetière’s dress.) ‘Any stick of the mass/Of which we are too distantly a part.’

Of course this insight into the world and our place in it is not one we can live with – Stevens knew that full well. If we truly were confronted with an apple with eyes; with teeth; with sound coming out of it, as if from an inwardness, but only ‘as if’ … if that happened, if we saw it, if we came across it, would it be bearable?

So Beckett’s strong reading will not do.

“Relentless Intimacy”, T.J. Clark, London Review of Books