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I could paint for a hundred years, a thousand years without stopping and I would still feel as though I knew nothing.

–Paul Cézanne
January 19, 1839 – October 22, 1906

A birthday commemoration to an artist whose work just keeps speaking to me. This love affair started when I was a teenager, and it has never tired.

And yes yes yes to the sentiment of this quote.

(On a more topical note, the homage to him on the Google logo today was a heartening thing to see.)

Waiting for Hurricane “My Name is Earl” to gather over the Northeast. We will be descending nonetheless on Cape Ann for a weekend of nuptial celebrating with Alexis and JP. So begins a month of wonderful wedding weekends. Life happens like that, big shifts that occur all at once, like the culmination of storm systems that become a hurricane. Nature does excess so effortlessly (which could be used as a defense for my own proclivities to go too far, too big, too much.)

Meanwhile here is another set of ideas from Juhani Pallasmaa that speaks to the concept of the eye (the human version that is):

An essential line in the evolution of modernity has been the liberation of the eye from the Cartesian perspectival epistemology. The paintings of Turner continue the elimination of the picture frame and the vantage point begun in the Baroque era; the Impressionists abandon the boundary line balanced framing and perspectival depth; Paul Cezanne aspires ‘to make visible how the world touches us’; Cubists abandon the single focal point, reactivate peripheral vision and reinforce haptic experience, whereas the colour field painters reject illusory depth in order to reinforce the presence of the painting itself as an iconic artifact and an autonomous reality. Land artists fuse the reality of the work with the reality of the lived world, and finally, artists such as Richard Serra directly address the body as well as our experiences of horizontality and verticality, materiality, gravity and weight.

The same countercurrent against the hegemony of the perspectival eye has taken place in modern architecture regardless of the culturally privileged position of vision. The kinesthetic and textural architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, the muscular and tactile buildings of Alvar Aalto, and Louis Kahn’s architecture of geometry and gravitas are particualarly significant examples of this.

Rainer Maria Rilke

More on the theme of poets and artists: Good friend Sally Reed steered me to a slender volume, Letters on Cézanne by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. These letters were written mostly to his wife Clara while he was living in Paris in 1907, a time when he was spellbound by Cézanne’s work.

Once asked to identify the most formative influences on his poetry, Rilke answered that Paul Cézanne had been his supreme example. “After the master’s death, I followed his traces everywhere.” For Rilke, Cézanne was the sine qua non of the artist who took residence in the very center of his work and stayed in that place of authenticity for 40 years. It was that perseverance that brought on a “conflagration of clarity”, said Rilke, and without it, the artist would flounder in the periphery, only capable of accidental successes. Those are deep and profound lessons for a young poet to learn from a painter.

So many great passages, but I’ll highlight just a few here:

Somehow I too must find a way of making things; not plastic, written things, but realities that arise from the craft itself. Somehow I too must discover the smallest constituent element, the cell of my art, the tangible immaterial means of expressing everything.

It seems to me that the “ultimate intuitions and insights” will only approach one who lives in his work and remains there, and whoever considers them from afar gains no power over them.

For the next thirty years he did nothing but work. Actually without joy, it seems, in a constant rage, in conflict with every single one of his paintings, none of which seemed to achieve what he considered to be the most indispensable thing. La réalisation, he called it, and he found it in the Venetians whom he had seen over and over again in the Louvre and to whom he had given his unreserved recognition. To achieve the conviction and substantiality of things, a reality intensified and potentiated to the point of indestructibility by his experience of the object, this seemed to him to be the purpose of his innermost work.

It’s not really painting I’m studying (for despite everything, I remain uncertain about pictures and am slow to learn how to distinguish wha’ts good from what’s less good, and am always confusing early with late works.) It is the turning point in these paintings which I recognized, because I had just reached it in my own work or had at least come close to it somehow.

[Cézanne] was almost incapable of saying anything. The sentences in which he made the attempt become long and convoluted, they balk and bristle, get knotted up, and finally he drops them, besides himself with rage. On the other hand, he manages to write very clearly: “I believe the best thing is work/” Or: “I’m making progress every day, although very slowly.” Or: “I am almost seventy years old.” Or: “I will answer you through pictures.”

All chatter is misunderstanding. Insight is only within the work.

From the preface by Heinrich Wiegand Petzet:

It is mainly an understanding of the decisive role “balance” plays in this art; that balance between the reality of nature and the reality of the image which was Cézanne’s entire striving and which, when he achieved it, he likened to a “folding of hands.” Rilke was well aware that this balance, this perfect equivalence (impossible without previous insight into the inadequacy of mere “representation”) was nothing less than a major event in the history of art. And there is a statement, the most important, perhaps, in the entire sequence of letters, which raises this idea above the level of aesthetic discourse: where he speaks of the “scales of an infinitely responsive conscience…which so incorruptibly reduced a reality to its color content that that reality resumed a new existence in a beyond of color, without any previous memories.” Nowhere has the literature on art come closer to stating Cézanne’s achievement that does Rilke in this sentence.

Apples and Oranges, by Paul Cézanne (Photo: Galerie du Jeu de Paume, Paris)

Proust was a Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer sat for several years on my bookshelf (the one that is, unfortunately, gravitationally challenged and is sagging precariously) waiting for its chance to get cracked open. That finally happened during those luxurious, divinely isolated hours you get when you fly cross country. Using his experience of working in a neuroscience lab as a lens, Lehrer explores the neurological insights to be learned from a number of artists including Walt Whitman, George Eliot, Auguste Escoffier, Paul Cézanne, Igor Stravinsky, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Wolf and of course Marcel Proust.

Every chapter was fascinating, but I was particularly compelled by his comments about Cézanne. Here’s a sampling:

This is Cézanne’s genius: he forces us to see, in the same static canvas, the beginning and the end of our sight. What starts as an abstract mosaic of color becomes a realistic description. The painting emerges, not from the paint or the light, but from somewhere inside our mind. We have entered into the work of art: its strangeness is our own.

The symbolist poet Charles Baudelaire, a natural skeptic of science, reviewed a photographic exhibition in 1859 by proclaiming the limits of the new medium. Its accuracy, he said, is deceptive, nothing more than phony simulacra of what was really out there. The photographer was even—and Baudelaire only used this insult in matters of grave import—a “materialist”. In Baudelaire’s romantic view, the true duty of photography was “to be the servant of the sciences and arts, but the very humble servant, like printing or shortland, which have neither created nor supplemented literature…If it [photography] is allowed to encroach upon the domain of the imaginary, upon anything whose value depends solely upon the addition of something of a man’s soul, then it will be so much the worse for us.” Baudelaire wanted the modern artist to describe everything that the photograph ignored: “the transient, the fleeting, the contingent.”

Cézanne often spent hours contemplating a brushstroke. Out in the open air, he would stare at his subject until it melted under his gaze, until the forms of the worlds had decayed into a formless mess. By making hbis vision disintegrate, Cézanne was trying to return to the start of sight, to become nothing but “a sensitive recording plate.” The slowness of this method forced Cézanne to focus on simple things, like a few red apples set on a trapezoid of table, or a single mountain seen from afar. But he knew that the subject itself was irrelevant. Stare hard enough, his paintings implore, and the laws of the known universe will emerge from just about anything. “With an apple,” Cézanne once said, “I will astonish Paris.”

Cézanne discovered that visual forms—the apple in a still life or the mountain in a landscape—are mental inventions that we unconsciously impose onto our sensations. “I tried to copy nature,” Cézanne confessed, “but I couldn’t. I searched, turned, looked at it from every direction, but in vain.” No matter how hard he tried, Cézanne couldn’t escape the sly interpretations of his brain. In his abstract paintings, Cézanne wanted to reveal this psychological process, to make us aware of the particular way the mind creates reality. His art shows us what we cannot see, which is how we see.

Meyer Schapiro noted, in a Cézanne painting, “it is as if there is no independent, closed, pre-existing object, given to the painter’s eye for representation, but only a multiplicity of successively probed sensations.”

Since publishing Proust in 2007, Lehrer has just released his second book, How We Decide. Once again he approaches the quotidian with a scientist’s eye. In an interview he claims that the idea to write this book came partly from his indecision in the cold cereal aisle at the grocery store. The plethora of Cheerios choices stumped him repeatedly. So researching how the brain makes decision seemed like a good idea, for him and for the rest of us.

I like the way Lehrer thinks, as witnessed in this passage:

I was about halfway through writing the book when I got some great advice from a scientist. I was telling him about my Cheerios dilemma when he abruptly interrupted me: “The secret to happiness,” he said,”is not wasting time on irrelevant decisions.” Of course, this sage advice didn’t help me figure out what kind of cereal I actually wanted to eat for breakfast. So I did the only logical thing: I bought my three favorite Cheerios varieties and combined them all in my cereal bowl. Problem solved.

In spite of the fact that most of the photographs of Lehrer suggest he is all of about 17, I’d say he’s got some serious sage potential.