February 21, 2018

“To See Takes Time” — Valentine’s Day Encounters With Cézanne, O’Keeffe, and the Director of “Nobody Lives Forever”

PATTERN OF LEAVES: This 1923 oil on canvas by Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986), from The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, was acquired in 1926. © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

About suffering they were never wrong, The old Masters …. –W.H. Auden (1907-1973)

There are four artist’s statements writ large on the walls of the Princeton University Art Museum’s exhibit “The Artist Sees Differently: Modern Still Lifes from The Phillips Collection.” The first and catchiest is Cézanne’s “The day is coming when a single carrot, freshly observed, will set off a revolution.” The most technical is Braque’s “The goal is not to be concerned with the reconstruction of an anecdotal fact, but with the constitution of a pictorial fact.” More generally philosophical is Giorgio Morandi’s “To achieve understanding, it is necessary not to see many things, but to look hard at what you do see.”

In the wake of the school shootings in Florida, the truest and timeliest statement may be Georgia O’Keeffe’s:

“Nobody sees a flower — really — it is so small — it takes time — we haven’t time — and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.”

The Human Connection

When I scribbled O’Keeffe’s quote in my notebook, I didn’t think much about it, though the humanizing of perception resonated since my wife and I were in the museum on Valentine’s Day. O’Keeffe’s analogy encourages you to think beyond the objects in the paintings to the artist’s friends, lovers, models, the owners of the vases and jars, flowers and fruit: the clarinetist in the back story of Braque’s Still Life with Grapes and Clarinet (1927), the gardener in Marsden Hartley’s Gardener’s Gloves and Shears (ca. 1937), or even the cook in Stuart Davis’s Egg Beater No. 4 (1928). As I write, an email from a friend in England urges me to read Yeats’s poem “The Municipal Gallery Revisited,” where after viewing portraits of people he knew, the poet concludes “Think where man’s glory most begins and ends,/And say my glory was I had such friends.”

Looking Hard

If you take Giorgio Morandi’s advice and “look hard” at Cézanne’s Ginger Pot with Pomegranate and Pears (1893), what you see seems the antithesis of “still life”: the paint glitters, shimmers, sparkles, scintillates. Blame Valentine’s Day, but there’s something mellow and alluring about the benign blueness at the painting’s center that rouses thoughts of first love, calling you close, romancing you, and staying with you as you move on to other paintings. In the light of Cézanne’s statement, his is the most seductive work in the show because it’s both freshly observed and rendered. The freshness of a fluid moment shows in the disordered arrangement; the books pushed to the edge of a table jutting from one corner; the pomegranate balanced on a plate tilted at an angle on the desk under the table; a white cloth flung as if carelessly into the tableau of converging forms.

The Mystery Guest

Featured on the exhibit’s home page, Jean Négulesco’s dark, densely configured Still Life (1926) is the work of an artist who became a successful Hollywood filmmaker. Born in Romania, Négulesco went to Paris, studied with Brancusi, hung out with Modigliani, came to the U.S. in 1929, sold this painting to Duncan Phillips, and headed for movieland, where his first job at Paramount was as a technical advisor for a rape scene in the film version of William Faulkner’s Sanctuary (“I did some drawings showing how the scene could be managed so as to pass the censors”). He was soon working as a second-unit director of musicals, as he explains in The Celluloid Muse: Hollywood Directors Speak (NAL 1969), “because of my painter’s pictorial sense. I arranged camera angles for all the musicals, integrating the songs rhythmically with the movement of the images.”

Although he went on to direct big-budget CinemaScope productions for such stars as Marilyn Monroe, Joan Crawford, and Fred Astaire, Négulesco’s most interesting work was done in the 1940s. The shadow-rich atmosphere of muted thrillers like The Mask of Dmitrios, Three Strangers, Road House, and Nobody Lives Forever is presaged in the blunt-object density of Still Life, with its stylized prototypes of film noir decor reflecting the future director’s preference for “sombre, low-key moods.” The painting’s latent violence is suggested by the heft of objects like the purple vase in the center and the Deco bookend with its sinister shadow, a weapon waiting to be put to use like the statue of a Chinese idol that becomes a murder weapon in Three Strangers and ends up in the domestic still-life on the mantel of the director’s Beverly Hills mansion. Explaining his fondness for filming in black and white, Négulesco says, “It’s curious that when you see actors moving and talking in semi-darkness it’s always more exciting than seeing them plainly, because you identify with them more.” His remarks about the movie audience’s desire “to share the actor’s situation, to be a vicarious part of the action” could also apply to museum goers projecting their own
scenarios on the settings these artists have constructed and assembled in the name of what Braque calls “pictorial fact.”

When News Impacts Art

Later that same Valentine’s Day afternoon we heard the news from Florida. While we’d been looking at art in the sanctuary of the museum, the sanctuary of a school was being violated by a 19-year-old with a semi-automatic rifle. The front page of Saturday’s New York Times with its montage of the faces of the dead, most of them teenage kids, reminded me of Georgia O’Keeffe’s phrase “to have a friend takes time” and her painting, Pattern of Leaves (1923). In the museum moment, the immense leaf seemed striking but characteristic O’Keeffe. In the aftermath of the shootings, the burnished brown, borderline blood-red shape split down the center suggests an image of violation. In fact, it’s the darkest work in the exhibit.

On Auden’s Birthday

Perhaps the best-known of museum poems is “Musée des Beaux Arts” by W.H. Auden, who was born on this day, February 21, 1907. After referring to how well the old Masters understood art’s “human position: how it takes place/While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along,” Auden cites “Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away

Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may

Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,

But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone

As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green

Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen

Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,

Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.”

So, while we were “quite leisurely” admiring two interesting but unspectacular Picassos from 1921 and 1939, a pair of Roualt Bouquets from 1938, two Braques from 1927 and 1944, and a number of bright cheerful paintings like Milton Avery’s Milk Pitcher (1949) and Gladiolus (1940), as well as Arthur Dove’s charming Rose and Locust Stump (1943) — forsaken children were dying violently, suddenly, in Parkland, Florida.

Cézanne’s Lovelights

It would be presumptuous to say that Cézanne’s still life alone has qualities that transcend reality’s degradations, yet it’s the only painting I knew I had to see again before I left the museum, and when I did I found it less “still,” more shiningly alive than it was when I first stood in front of it “looking hard.” Its lights were on, its stars were out, its warmth true to the amorous sentiments of the holiday.

On February 24 the museum presents “Landscapes Behind Cézanne,” curated by John Elderfield with Calvin Brown, associate curator of prints and drawings. Described as an “intimate exhibition,” it will be on view through May 13, Princeton its only venue.

“The Artist Sees Differently,” which runs through April 29, has been organized by The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. in collaboration with the Princeton University Art Museum. There will be a celebration of the exhibit on Saturday, February 24, beginning at 5 p.m. in 10 McCosh Hall, with a panel discussion on the theme of still life and modernism with John Elderfield, Allen R. Adler, Class of 1967, Distinguished Curator and Lecturer, Princeton University Art Museum; Philip Fisher, Felice Crowl Reid Professor of English, Harvard University; and Susan Stewart, Avalon Foundation University Professor in the Humanities and Professor of English, Princeton University. A reception in the Museum will follow.