Still Life with Apples and a Pot of Primroses, Paul Cézanne
An autumn morning, we freshmen sat upright in wooden chairs. Professor Butterworth in neat italic wrote on the blackboard the first six lines of Wallace Stevens’s 12-line poem.
- I placed a jar in Tennessee,
- And round it was, upon a hill.
- It made the slovenly wilderness
- Surround that hill.
- The wilderness rose up to it,
- And sprawled around, no
- longer wild....
Professor Butterworth asked us to explicate — make clear the meaning — Stevens packs into these lines. This was Honors English I. We were brighter or more verbally apt than average. But coarse.
I’d tramped wilderness. I’d seen slip out from forest into tall grasses the rusty patch of red fox. I’d heard exorbitantly noisy Steller’s jays, my eye followed their scolding until among leaves, feathers flashed blue (no color in nature do I like as well as blue). I’d looked higher yet, gotten goosebumps when sun sloshed clouds a florid pomegranate. I’d seen a mountain peak pierce the full moon. Even ravished by, up to the neck in nature, my eyes could still crave, get hungry for something a hand made, for a round jar, for art.
So that fall morning, I leaned over my desk and improvised an explication, picked out “meaning,” as at my grandmother’s behest, I’d picked out oily minuscule nutmeats from the black walnuts she blended into cookie batter. This jar, I figured, was art — Art.
Coarse, young (I was 16 that year), Art in the context of Stevens’s poem meant to me visual art, painting. I adored paintings. I had grown up in Manhattan, had from third grade on kept a Museum of Modern Art — MOMA — membership that allowed me to walk to West 53rd and, without paying an entrance fee, sail in and sail out of the museum at will. I acquired the membership through my school, which prided itself on progressive attitudes toward education (we called teachers by first names, and those of us who hated math never got around to geometry).
That I didn’t have to pay liberated me from a sense of duty to get my money’s worth by shuffling cow-eyed from wall to wall. Always, first I dared myself to approach the stairs leading to the second floor and look up at Pavel Tchelitchew’s
Cache-Cache (in English, Hide-and Seek). I would challenge my eyes to bear up under Tchelitchew’s terrifying pink and orange and red intrauterine vision of decapitated infants’ heads, toothless baby mouths agape, floating among a web of blood vessels. Thoroughly frightened (this painting and an equally scarifying weekly radio show The Creaking Door overran my nightmares), I would seek out Braque’s long-necked Woman with a Mandolin and Picasso’s high-busted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon . Edward Hopper’s peculiarly unrealistic “realist” House by the Railroad was a regular stop. Hopper painted onto a lurid before-the-storm, blue green background a two-story Victorian house with mansard roof. The house dominates a rise above railroad tracks. Deep shadow shrouds the side of the house that faces the viewer. I could not then, cannot now, remain long in his paintings’ presence without feeling I don’t have left a friend in the world, that everything I treasure any minute will be snatched from me.
Last, I visited Matisse’s Red Studio. This huge (71 1/4 x 86 1/4 inches) canvas had been painted red and over the red, on the studio walls of his picture, Matisse hung Lilliputian versions of his own paintings. Matisse’s intense ebullient colors, doll house-size miniatures (ripe plump figures ready to leap off canvas) woo the eye. Then and now, this vast “studio” could hold me joyful and wordless in its blissful red.
Cache-Cache, House by the Railroad , the Matisse, Braque’s chrome-green-lit Crucifixions, Modigliani’s angular women: I looked at them and they looked back at — and into — me. If no one bumped me, no one spoke audibly, if this rapt mutual study were not broken, the painting absorbed me, took me up into itself. I felt, when this happened, blot ted up, for instance, by Matisse’s paradisiacal red studio.
I also valued MOMA membership because it permitted my going to the museum café to order lentil soup, of which I was fond and which, inevitably, I dribbled down my dress front. As well, when in early adolescence, I became curious about what adults did in bed, the card allowed me down in MOMA’s basement to see French and Italian movies in which actresses with unshaven armpits soul-kissed men in leather jackets.
The purely representational left me apathetic. At the Metropolitan Museum all those gilded cherubs, dark broody landscapes, those portraits of queens and burghers in powdered hair and ruffs people wore in movies seemed quaint. Nothing happened to my eyes when I stood before anything painted much earlier than during the last decade of the 19th and the first of the 20th Centuries, when Cézanne (1839-1906) moved back to the south of France, to Aix, the scene of his childhood, and again and again, on canvas after canvas, painted from his studio window the Mont Sainte-Victoire that loomed from across the valley. (This series of paintings, together with still lifes and portraits painted largely from memory, have about them a discontinuous, unfinished, soulful presence. Shown across Europe in the time immediately before and after Cézanne’s death, these last paintings sired virtually all advanced art of the early 20th Century.)
I heard adults scoff at “modern art.” "I don’t know what people see in it,” they’d say. I was then, am now, puzzled by the rancor — almost rage — against the nonrepresentational. As a teenager, I dismissed adults’ dismissal of the new with the thought that these grown-ups (who also hated Elvis and despised Jerry Lee) merely preferred elevator music for canvas, eye Muzak. Now I think it is perhaps rather like the frustration any of us feels when the ophthalmologist puts drops in our eyes: we can’t see straight. I suspect that many viewers of painting, presented with Cézanne’s apples, find that the word apple appears happily and even tartly in the mouth, but that when these same viewers arrive before Jackson Pollock’s skeins of oil, enamel, and aluminum paint seemingly spit and tossed onto ten feet of canvas, no word comes. In that space of time when silence reigns in the mind, people can become afraid.
Paintings are silent. What I liked, as a youngster, and like now, about painting, is what I have always liked about music: it doesn’t come in words, it tells no story. In Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Brick says,about his need for alcohol: “This click that I get in my head that makes me peaceful. I got to drink till I get it.... It’s just a mechanical thing, something like a...switch clicking off in my head, turning the hot light off and the cool night on and all of a sudden there’s — peace!” I like about looking at painting, hearing music, that the click goes off in my head. Words get turned off.
I’ve always been suspicious of talk about visual art. I early took to heart painter Frank Stella’s “What you see is what you see.” I’ve liked, too, John Updike’s “Pollock painting is the subject of Pollock’s paintings. Abstract Expressionism has the effect of glamorizing the painter, of making him, rather than the sitter or the landscape or the Virgin, the star.”
More recently, I copied out from George Steiner’s Real Presences into my notebook a paragraph with which I felt instant agreement: “In painting and sculpture, as in literature, the focused light of both interpretation (the hermeneutic) and valuation (the critical-normative) lies in the work itself. The best readings of art are art.”
I knew — know — nothing about painting, dwelt in edenic ignorance of technique and theory. As a youngster, I felt self-conscious at so much emotion before paintings. Was I taking on airs, did I feel all this ardor for art, or did I believe my heart should thump-thump faster and therefore was I manufacturing emotion, was it all a case of the emperor’s new clothes?
All these years I’ve wondered, “ What do other people see, what do they feel, what happens to them, when they look at painting? ” With that question, I turned to two recent anthologies in which writers reflect on painting — Poets on Painters and Writers on Artists — and to poet John Ashbery’s Reported Sightings, Art Chronicles, 1957-1987; and novelist John Updike’s Just Looking, Essays on Art.
Writers on Artists editor Daniel Halpern first thought to gather essays by writers on artists when he accompanied poet Elizabeth Bishop through the Unicorn Tapestry exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum.“Through Ms. Bishop’s words and relentless eye, I have continued to see the unicorn and its territory in a way that has remained brightly alive....”
J.D. McClatchy, Poets on Painters’ editor, suggests that “for most poets paintings are primal, as ‘real’ as the bread and wine on the table, as urgent as a dying parent or concealed lover in the next room.”
Poets on Painters ’ poets are 20th Century English and American. The collection opens with W.B. Yeats’s 1913 essay “Art and Ideas,” in which, at the Tate Gallery, Yeats, 48 then, admires anew, and touchingly, the pre-Raphaelite painters — Millais, W.H. Hunt, Rossetti — popular during his youth.
“Am I growing old,” I thought, “like the woman in Balzac, the rich bourgeois’ ambitious wife, who could not keep, when old age came upon her, from repeating the jokes of the concierge’s lodge where she had been born and bred: or is it because of some change in the weather that I find beauty everywhere, even in Burne-Jones’s King Cophetua , one of his later pictures, and find it without shame?”
As if to prove McClatchy’s proposal that for most poets paintings are “primal,”“real,” William Carlos Williams, the Rutherford, New Jersey pediatrician and poet, writes about Matisse’s Blue Nude :
The dust and noise of Paris had fallen from her with the dress and underwear and shoes and stockings which she had just put aside to lie bathing in the sun in the sunlight.... No man in my country has seen a woman naked and painted her as if he knew anything except that she was naked. No woman in my country is naked except at night.
Both collections contain essays on Hopper by Mark Strand. American realist Hopper (1882-1967) painted solitary figures in desolate diners, offices, hotel rooms. His reportorial and minimally anecdotal depictions, his uninflected passionless settings are the very definition, in paint, of low affect. Many Strand poems might be similarly described. The lines below from Strand’s “Story of our Lives” might be reflecting upon Hopper’s painting.
We are reading the story of our lives which takes place in a room. The room looks out on a street. There is no one there, no sound of anything.
In “Crossing the Tracks to Hopper’s World ” (Poets on Painters), Strand writes about The House by the Railroad:
The house glares at us from what seems like an enormous distance. It appears so withdrawn, in fact, that it stands as an emblem of refusal.... And Hopper’s famous statement of his aims — “What I wanted to do was paint sunlight on the side of a house” — seems misleading in its simplicity, for the sunlight in his paintings illuminates the secretive without penetrating it. Thus we feel separated from something essential and, as a consequence, our lives seem frivolous.
Strand writes in “Hopper: The Loneliness Factor” (Writers on Artists):
It is often remarked that many of Edward Hopper’s paintings engender feelings of loneliness. It is also assumed that such feelings are in response to narrative elements in the paintings, but in fact they are in response to certain repeated structural motifs. We often feel left behind, even abandoned, while something else in the painting, usually a road or tracks, continues. We feel caught in a wake that offers no possibility of catching up to whatever has departed. Likewise, if we have the impulse to linger, allowing ourselves to be taken into the painting’s reduced ambience, we are resisted by a force within the painting that closes us out. It is this being left behind or left out that gives rise to our experience of alienation.
Writers collected in Writers on Artists are 20th Century, English, American, and European: Aldous Huxley on El Greco, Jean Genet on Rembrandt, Kenneth Rexroth on Turner, Joyce Carol Oates on Winslow Homer, William S. Wilson and Rainer Maria Rilke and D.H. Lawrence on Cézanne, Norman Mailer on Picasso, Camus on Balthus, Randall Jarrell hectoring the abstract expressionists.
I want especially to recommend Jean Genet’s essay on Rembrandt. Genet spent much of his early life in prison. His first novel, Our Lady of the Flowers , was written in a prison cell. A paragraph from that novel shows the dispo sition Genet brought to looking at Rembrandt:
But there is no question of resuming contact with the precise and tangible world of the cell. I lie down again until it’s time for bread. The atmosphere of the night, the smell rising from the blocked latrines, overflowing with shit and yellow water, stir childhood memories which rise uplike a black soil mined by moles.
Here, from “Something Which Seemed to Resemble Decay,” Genet comments on an exhibition of Rembrandt’s paintings:
Under...the fur-edged coats, under the painter’s extravagant robe, the bodies are performing their functions: they digest, they are warm, they are heavy, they smell, they shit. However delicate her face and serious her expression, The Jewish Bride has an ass. You can tell. She can raise her skirts at any moment. She can sit down, she has what it takes.
On Cézanne, Lawrence is predictably, delightfully, perversely, and annoyingly Lawrence. He complains that Cézanne could not paint people “intuitively and instinctively,” that faced with the human form, Cézanne’s “mental concepts shoved in front,” offering the painter no more than “mere representations of what the mind accepts, not what the intuitions gather.” Given women to paint, Lawrence insists that Cézanne failed. “Woman he was not allowed to know by intuition: his mental self, his ego, that bloodless fiend, forbade him.”
Lawrence, however, admired apples Cézanne placed on the tablecloth in his Still Life: Apples and a Pot of Primroses.
The actual fact is that in Cézanne modern French art made its first tiny step back to real substance, to objective substance, if we may call it so. Van Gogh’s earth was still subjective earth, himself projected into the earth. But Cézanne’s apples are a real attempt to let the apple exist in its own separate entity, without transfusing it with personal emotion. Cézanne’s great effort was, as it were, to shove the apple away from him and let it live of itself. It seems a small thing to do: yet it is the first real sign that man has made for several thousands of years that he is willing to admit that matter actually exists....
Our instincts and intuitions are dead, we live wound round with the winding-sheet of abstraction. And the touch of anything solid hurts us....
So that Cézanne’s apple hurts. It made people shout with pain.
In 1907, the year after Cézanne’s death, a memo rial retrospective showing of his work was hung in Paris at the Salon d’Automne. Rilke, 32, was writing what would become The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Day after day, Rilke stood before Cézanne’s paintings and wrote about Cézanne to his wife Clara.
[H]ow great and incorruptible this objectivity of his gaze was, is confirmed in an almost touching manner by the circumstance that, without analyzing or in the remotest degree regarding his expression from a superior standpoint, he made a replica of him self with so much humble objectiveness, with the credulity and extrinsic inter est and attention of a dog which sees itself in the mirror and thinks: there is another dog.
Those essays I’ve quoted confer on the reader a privileged moment in which he sees paintings — as did Daniel Halpern with Elizabeth Bishop— through the writer’s eye. The essays, as I thought they would, answered,in part, my question — What do other people see and feel, what happens to them, when they look at paintings? What I had not expected is the pleasure with Yeats or William Carlos Williams or Lawrence or Genet, or, here, with Rilke, of hearing the voice of the essay speak in tones familiar from poems and novels.
Reading Ashbery’s Reported Sightings, Art Chronicles, 1957–1987 (edited by David Bergman) and the two collections of various writers, I became increasingly fascinated with affinities (such as that expressed by Mark Strand for Hopper) between certain writers and painters. Ashbery has been notably attracted by gorgeously lit paintings like those by Bonnard, Edouard Vuillard,and his American friends Jane Freilicher (whose Painter’s Table adorns Ashbery’s book jacket) and Fairfield Porter (1907–1975), a close friend of Ashbery’s for the last 20 years of his life.
Following Ashbery on his rounds through museums and galleries, a reader sees the art about which he writes and also the ideas that art inspires.Thoughtful, stylish, witty, and gossipy, many Ashbery pieces— like those on an Ashbery favorite, French impressionist Pierre Bonnard (1867–1947) — read as if they might be postcards to old friends; on these postcards Ashbery has set down his latest rejoinder to an argument regarding this or that art world movement.
Porter, born to wealthy parents,graduated (like Ashbery) from Harvard, married, fathered five children, lived in Maine in summer and Southampton, Long Island, the rest of the year. Porter rejected the abstract expressionism that dominated the world of New York painters in which he lived. Porter painted (in his phrase) “things as they are”:Maine’s rocky harbors and Southampton’s opulent lawns, portraits of his children and friends, sunlit domestic interiors, still lifes.
One of four pieces on Porter in the Ashbery collection is Ashbery’s review of a 1983 Porter retrospective, “Fairfield Porter: Realist Painter in an Age of Abstraction,” assembled by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Ashbery writes that “Porter is one of those innovators whose originality can come perilously close to seeming old-fashioned.” Ashbery suggests, however, that the paintings are not old-fashioned and that Porter is “only the latest of a series of brilliant know-nothings who at intervals have embodied the American genius from Emerson and Thoreau to Whitman and Dickinson down to Wallace Stevens and Marianne Moore.”
Porter’s paintings, Ashbery continues (in an exhibition catalogue for the Boston retrospective), “are intellectual in the classic American tradition of the writers mentioned above because they have no ideas in them, that is, no ideas that can be separated from the rest. They are idea, or, consciousness, or light, or whatever.”
John Updike (another Harvard graduate) also attended Boston’s Porter retrospective. His review,“Violence at the Windows,” appears in Updike’s Just Looking: Essays on Art. (The title comes from Updike’s comment,“Sunlight explodes with terrific violence at the windows of Porter’s hushed interiors.”)
Gazing at his friend Porter’s painting, Ashbery ruminates on “idea” while Updike simply bestows upon his reader the voluptuous description and novelistic detail with which his fiction flourishes.
Porter painted what he saw, and what he saw were the big, bright rooms brimming with possessions,not the claustrophobic furnishings of the old rich but the disheveled plenty of their vaguely bohemian offspring,who seem to live in summer houses all year long. Nice people, nice places, pleasantly redolent of affection and sensitivity and, that great underwriter of both, money.
Writing “The Apple’s Fresh Weight,”Updike basks beneath Lucas Cranach’s two oils on panel, “Adam” and “Eve”:
Cranach’s Eve is also somewhat snakelike— a snake with a seductively luminous skin. What an erotic apparition she is! Her soft apple-sized breasts are pulled upward into the same tilt as her slitted eyes. Her orange hair explodes behind her in corkscrews of energy. Adam’s hair, too, is curly; his fingers explore it in this initial moment of male puzzlement. Eve’s hand in contrast, clings to the same limb where her mentor, the serpent, entwines in ominous echo of her own flexible radiance. She has shaved thoroughly, a fact ill-concealed by the leaves that a branchlet extends with a deference we might fancy ironical. No bathing-suit tan has ever striped this woman’s skin; the hardened and airbrushed nakedness flaunted in countless twentieth-century centerfolds cannot recover her immaculate, sumptuous pallor.… Eve’s face wears an Oriental calm brought from beyond the rim of Christendom. Adam’s legs could come from a crucifix; yet his abdomen is unscarred and presents, like Eve’s, a tender frontal challenge. Flesh is delicious. We gaze here upon the primal scene— the parents of us all when young, desirous, their hands curved above the apple’s fresh weight. Lost Eden still hangs above their heads; the stony earth of the future lies at their feet. Between, the naked present shines.
William S. Wilson, in the course of his essay on Cézanne (Writers on Artists), notes: “Looking at paintings is a truancy, or liberation, from animal biological need.… The freedom to look — freedom of movement for the eyes — is the opposite of the necessity to look at everything that is part of the hunting gathering necessity.”
“The naked present shines.” Standing before The Red Studio, I would not have thought to say, as Updike does (albeit about the story of the Fall as depicted by Cranach), “The naked present shines. ”Explicating Stevens’s poem for Professor Butterworth, trying (at 16) to understand why even in the most exquisite natural settings, I might still crave something a hand made, I would not have written, about that jar in Tennessee, that one of its attributes, as Art, is that because of that jar’s presence in “slovenly wilderness,” “the naked present shines.” I wish I had.