Paul Cézanne

Still Life With Fruit Basket, Oil on Canvas, 64 x 80 cm, 1888-1890. Musee d’Orsay, Paris, France

Writers and visual artists share many of the same challenges; both endeavor to reveal some aspect of reality and the world in a way that will resonate with another person, some unmet, unknown person who can only come to understand the writer or artist’s mind through the work itself. There is a purity in that communion which belies all the mercantile hype and barkery that seems to assault our every waking minute. Writers and artists aren’t nearly as interested in selling to that stranger as they are in connecting with them. That is the point. That is the whole point. Despite this common ground, there remain enormous differences between writers and artists. Artists, for instance, are renown for their voracious sexual appetites; writers are renown for talking about their voracious sexual appetites. There are many other differences, of course, but that is the only one that is both funny and true so I will leave it there.

Writers rely on many technical devices to tell a tale, but one of the most critical decisions a writer must make is point of view; through whose eyes are we supposed to be experiencing the tale? Henry James used to call this the “post of observation,” being an imaginary position relative to the story from which the reader gets to watch. This is an excellent term for paintings as well. Particularly in older artwork, one finds that artists slavishly followed rules of perspective to render a “realistic” point of view for an onlooker standing at a given position. This rendering of perspective began seriously with Giotto in the early part of the fourteenth century. Before that, perspective was simply ignored and images were rendered much as one sees in the primitive or folk styles of Grandma Moses and others. At this time, too, artists began to experiment with shadowing effects, both in terms of defining the directions of light, but also in terms of rendering human features to create illusions of depth and roundness.

This is where the post of observation becomes critical, because a viewer or reader brings more than a simple geometrical point of view. His view is cultural as well. It is said that when the Dutch first visited Japan they presented a portrait of their king to the Japanese ambassadors who immediately offered deep condolences for the Dutch King’s horrible disfigurement. The Japanese at that time had no art in the western style, their artists made no attempt to fool the eye. What the western mind had been trained to see as depth and roundness they saw as simple smears on a perfectly good face, the obvious signs of some horrible cancer. I offer this anecdote not to reflect on those wacky Japanese, but rather to demonstrate how it came to pass that perfectly normal people began to feel that visual art not only ought to change, but that it must change. Quietly, beneath the surface, the artistic sensibility in Europe and elsewhere began to feel a vague discomfort, a recognition that we had all somehow been manipulated, not by a specific entity necessarily, but by our own need to clump together in reassurance that this is the way things ought to be. If the story of the Dutch King’s portrait is true, then perhaps it acted like the butterfly’s wing which wafts in Asia and brings the hurricane to Baja.

There must have been thousands of such events, small phenomena to trip the wires of sensitive artists, to make them look again at what they had always presumed, to ask: “But is it so? Has our own language and experience somehow corrupted our visual sense?  What is really there when we look at a thing?”

I believe that modern art is simply the struggle to shed the chains of symbology to find new ways to interpret and experience the world.  Monet painted Rouen Cathedral then asked himself, “Is that really what it looks like?” Then he went back and did it again, and again, and again at all different times of day trying to rid himself of his preconceived ideas of “What is Rouen Cathedral?” He found to his immense satisfaction that there was not simply one cathedral but an infinite number of them, as many cathedrals as you could be bothered to look at presuming you had the time. He changed his post of observation, not in space, but in time and said, “See, look what a difference this makes.”

Cézanne did something similar with Monte Sainte Victoire, painting it again and again but changing his physical point of view. Monet reflected on the difference in light based on time of day. Cézanne reflected on the difference in light created by things the light itself illuminated. Cézanne noticed that the quality of light was interdependent with the observer’s point of view as well as the lighted object itself. Shine a light in a room and get one effect; shine it in the same room but into a mirror first and the effect is very different. This ought to be pretty obvious, but surprisingly it was a fairly new idea. Cézanne often ignores shadows altogether. They are irrelevant and unreliable. Cézanne recognizes that light is everything, that without it nothing exists visually. Further he recognizes that it is constant, that light itself does not change, but rather we change based on how we view it.

This still life is a lesson from Cézanne on point of view. Within a single painting he is showing us reality from at least four directions. The perspective changes based on where the observer chooses to stand. Specifically, one perspective addresses the view from the upper left hand corner looking down and right to the open-mouth jug and the contents of the basket; one from the left hand midpoint of the canvas looking right to the body of the basket, and the teapot and creamer; one from the bottom right hand half of the canvas looking up at the basket; and one from just below the right hand midpoint looking into the handle of the basket.  It is always the same picture of course, but the focal point of the picture changes based on your point of observation, as does the quality of light in the picture. It fools your brain much as copying a picture upside down can do, but far more impressively because your mind accepts the picture from all these disparate views just fine. In fact, it probably hardly notices anything different. But Cézanne wants you to know and understand that this is not an accident, that he is deliberately playing with your conceptions. Notice the table’s front edge. See anything amiss there? Cézanne is toying with the planes of reality and he’s telling us outright, “You never noticed anything wrong until I made you look.

Cézanne knew that light was the real gift. Light is everything. It is all that matters. Without it we cannot exist.  And light is the same everywhere. This message works for writers, too. The post of observation makes all the difference. Two men sit on a bench side by side and stare at a deer emerging from the wood. No matter who they are, they do not see the same deer. The deer itself hardly matters. It is the viewer who counts. Let’s say one man is the president of the NRA, the other man is the president of PETA. I say again, they do not see the same deer. That is the real lesson of Cézanne; point of view is also everything; it is also all that matters.

Because light never changes, only our perceptions of it.

Fifteen years later Einstein published his special theory of relativity which contains the immortal physics formula:

“That Cézanne, he’s got it going on.”


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