Loving Van Gogh and Learning from Cézanne with John Doe, Hemingway, and Debussy
By Stuart Mitchner
Cézanne…was the greatest. The greatest for always. — Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway’s love of Cézanne is expressed more guardedly in his posthumous Paris memoir, A Moveable Feast (1964). Even there, after saying he was learning “very much” from Cézanne, he admits he was “not articulate enough to explain it to anyone. Besides it was a secret.” Here’s a world-famous writer entering his 60s and he’s still celebrating his enthusiasm as if he were a boy with a secret. Writing as his youthful alter ego in The Nick Adams Stories (1972) he lets his feelings show (Cezanne “was the greatest”) in a short hitherto unpublished piece titled “On Writing.”
Love at First Sight
“I love this painting!” The speaker, a man well beyond retirement age, seems to have surprised himself. Hemingway would have approved, I think, for the words come in a gasp, as if from a blow to the solar plexus. The setting is the Princeton University Art Museum, but this is not your typical museumgoer. My guess is he didn’t want to come, that he could care less about an exhibit called “Cézanne and the Modern.” He’d probably given his wife a hard time (“The modern what?”) so she’s left him standing there, alone in front of the work that’s unmanned him. It’s clear that “love” is not a word he’s comfortable using. Nor is he comfortable in a museum. Possibly the only reason he’s there is because it’s free.
The painting he loves is Van Gogh’s Tarascon Stagecoach (1888), the one work in the current show with the power to turn surly grown-ups into delighted children. This is that rare being, a virgin viewer, wholly without affect or guile, clueless to the core, and here he is, gazing wide-eyed at the day-before-yesterday freshness of the pigment, the primal energy, the blue-beyond-blue of that patch of sky, the Provençal-sun-bathed whites of the buildings, the gouty, creamy brushstroke-crazed surface on which the red carriage with its yellow wheels, green awning, and gold lettering is balanced, all but tilting backwards with the thrust and surge of the paint. There’s an overflow of restless recklessness about it that makes you want to grab some brushes and oils, or some fingerpaints, or marking pens or spray guns, or any mechanism at hand, and start making something.
I’ve been listening to a lot of Debussy lately, and while I hadn’t intended to bring him into the gallery with me, I find it hard to focus on Cézanne’s watercolors without hearing a medley of piano arabesques, sarabandes, masques, nocturnes, and preludes. Listening to Debussy is like looking at Cézanne, and vice versa, though Debussy, who was interested in cinematography and imagined “filming the nine symphonies of Beethoven,” claimed in an article from 1913 that “musicians alone … have the privilege of being able to convey all the poetry of the night and the day. Painters, on the other hand, can recapture only one of her aspects at a time, preserve only one moment.”
But what a moment! As Robert Bresson observes in Notes on the Cinematographer, Cézanne does it all, “painting with the same eye and the same soul: a fruit dish, his son, the Montagne Sainte-Victoire.”
In fact, the oil paintings on view at the University Art Museum, Mont Sainte-Victoire and Cistern in the Park of Château Noir, have depths and layers comparable to orchestral works while watercolors like Trees Forming an Arch and Still Life with Carafe suggest subtleties more evocative of a solo piano. But whether heard or seen, what it all comes down to is poetry, thus Rilke’s devotion to Cézanne, quoted by the curator in regard to the watercolors’ “very light pencil outlines, and here and there, as if for emphasis and confirmation, … an accidental scattering of color, a row of spots, wonderfully arranged and with a security of touch, as if mirroring a melody.”
Even if you know some pieces in “Cézanne and the Modern” from previous visits to the museum’s 19th-century galleries, one of the exhibit’s special features is the opportunity to see the watercolors and oils of Mont Sainte-Victoire and Cistern in the Park of Château Noir in close proximity. Just as you can enjoy the illusion that you’re hearing Debussy himself playing and thinking and feeling pieces like Suite bergamasque and Pour le piano, it’s even easier to imagine yourself looking over Cézanne’s shoulder, just you and you alone following the invisible hand of the artist. It’s as if the painting were haunted by the watercolor’s fragmented presentation of it, not a sketch or an outline so much as the spirit of the subject, or what the online notes term “traces of his working process.” According to the notes, “In the watercolor, the spatters juxtaposed with more carefully brushed layers of pigment serve as evidence of Cézanne’s method, which combined spontaneous touch with a deliberate one.”
If you’re thinking musically, a word like “spatters” seems out of synch in a creative moment where every move is pitch-perfect, whether the “music” is scored or improvised on the spot. The watercolor of Mont Sainte-Victoire resembles a light, subtle, muted emanation of the finished work. The brighter, bluer tones in the watercolor of Cistern in the Park of Château Noir create a charming effect that is nothing if not melodic. You have to strain a bit to “hear” Sainte-Victoire; not so the Debussy arabesque accompanying Château Noir.
Sound and Color
If this coalescing of sight and sound seems a stretch, it’s clear that composers and artists alike took synesthesia seriously. Alex Danchev’s biography of Cézanne, which notes that “hearing” color and “seeing” sound was “deeply embedded in the culture,” refers to a friend of Rimbaud’s teaching the poet to play the piano “by sticking little pieces of colored paper to the piano keys, believing that each note of an octave corresponded to a particular color.”
The same friend, a musician named Ernest Cabaner, “must have talked to Cézanne about his metaphysics of sound and color.” Besides pointing out that the composer Scriabin “associated E-flat major with red-purple” while Rimsky-Korsakov “insisted it was blue,” Danchev quotes Cézanne on the fact that Flaubert saw purple when writing Salammbo,” while Cézanne himself saw a “‘Flaubert color,’ a bluish russet given off by Madame Bovary.” Danchev reports an exchange where Cézanne playfully asks a poet friend what scent was emanating from his landscape-in-progress. When the friend replies “a scent of pine,” Cézanne corrects him, “You say that because of the two great pines swaying in the foreground. But that’s a visual sensation. Besides, the pure blue scent of pine, which is sharp in the sun, must blend with the fresh green scent of the fields in the morning, and with the scent of stones, and the perfume of the distant marble of the Sainte-Victoire.” Although he’s alerted us to the friend’s tendency to “embroider on Cézanne,” Danchev can’t resist quoting from a conversation where Cézanne says that the “turmoil of the world” is “resolved, deep down in the brain, into the same movement sensed by the eyes, the ears, the mouth, and the nose, each with its own poetry.”
Danchev saves a gem from the same source for his epilogue, in which Cézanne exclaims, “One minute in the life of the world is going by! Paint it as it is!”
Both quotes bring to mind the joyous dancing turmoil of Debussy’s Tarantelle Styrienne, an early work from 1890, and L’isle joyeuse from 1906, either of which can send a dull day soaring, particularly as played by the late Aldo Ciccolini. Genres, art forms, museums, conventions, are all blown sky high as music does to the listener what standing in front of a Van Gogh does to the breathless viewer who gasps “I love this painting!”
The Hungry Eye
Whether or not the man who loved Van Gogh came away seeing the world differently, there’s no doubt that Ernest Hemingway’s viewing of Cézanne on an empty stomach affected his approach to writing. Looking back to his 20s in Paris in A Moveable Feast, he recalls, “I learned to understand Cézanne much better and to see truly how he made landscapes when I was hungry. I used to wonder if he were hungry too when he painted; but I thought possibly it was only that he had forgotten to eat. It was one of those unsound but illuminating thoughts you have when you have been sleepless or hungry. Later I thought Cézanne was probably hungry in a different way.” In his visits to the Musée du Luxembourg Hemingway was “learning something from the painting of Cézanne” about “writing simple true sentences.” Again, it’s up to Nick Adams to articulate the “secret”:
Cézanne started with all the tricks. Then he broke the whole thing down and built the real thing. It was hell to do. He was the greatest. The greatest for always …. Nick, wanted to write about country so it would be there like Cézanne had done it in painting. You had to do it from inside yourself. There wasn’t any trick. Nobody had ever written about country like that. He felt almost holy about it. It was deadly serious. You could do it if you could fight it out. If you’d lived right with your eyes.”
“Cézanne and the Modern: Masterpieces of European Art from the Pearlman Collection” will be at the Princeton University Art Museum through January 3, 2016.