March 18, 2020

“Wonder Wonder” — A Moveable Feast of Hemingway and Cézanne

By Stuart Mitchner

It makes surreal, unhappy, pandemic sense, that after last week’s preview of the long-awaited five-day Bryn Mawr Wellesley book event at the Princeton Day School gym that ended after less than two days, I find myself writing a book review about a once-in-a lifetime art event that closed a week after it opened. The e-mail invitation from the Princeton University Art Museum (PUAM) offering “great art” as “a source of solace” came with an implicit now or never alert. The fact that a “number of steps” had been taken to assure the public’s safety left little doubt about the endgame possibility. The promise of “a touch-free museum experience,” and the proviso to keep our social distance, no handshakes, no hugging, along with the assurance that “new disinfection protocols are in place” seemed clinically antithetical to the spirit of the show.

At the same time, there was an irresistible attraction in the element of risk, the idea of an embattled and unprecedented showing of Cézannes, two galleries of “infinite riches” by the “wonder, wonder painter,” as Ernest Hemingway once called him. And there was the paradoxical upside, that because of the threat of the virus, there were no crowds bustling between you and the work of a painter who once told a friend, “One minute in the life of the world is going by! Paint it as it is!”


My tendency to connect the painter with the writer derives from Hemingway’s posthumous Paris memoir, A Moveable Feast (1964), in which he says, “I was learning something from the painting of Cézanne that made writing simple true sentences far from enough to make the stories have the dimensions I was trying to put in them.” He goes on to admit that he was “not articulate enough to explain it to anyone. Besides it was a secret.” In a later chapter, he finds a more effective way to explain his appreciation: “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.”

Writing as his youthful alter ego in a 1972 collection of early work (The Nick Adams Stories), Hemingway expresses boyish enthusiasm (Cezanne “was the greatest”) in a short hitherto unpublished piece titled “On Writing”: 

“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.”

“Wonder, wonder painter”

Then there’s the famously super-expansive fifty-something Hemingway quoted by Lillian Ross in her landmark May 1950 New Yorker profile; he’s at the Metropolitan Museum, having looked “for  several minutes” at Cézanne’s Rocks—Forest of Fontainebleau (on loan 70 years later in the pandemic-suspended PUAM show): “This is what we try to do in writing, this and this, and the woods, and the rocks we have to climb over …. Cézanne is my painter, after the early painters. Wonder, wonder painter.”

Really, what else but words like “wonder wonder” can do justice to the two rooms of Cézanne in The Rock & Quarry Paintings? Even the museum’s card of invitation to the “Exhibition Celebration” that-might-have-been was such a joy to see, such a pleasure, that we kept it displayed in the dining room in the weeks when the Coronavirus was gathering newsworthy momentum. Looking at “a thing of beauty” as you go about your as yet undisturbed daily rounds, you know that art will endure, survive, transcend this mysterious adversary.

Gazing on the card’s cover image of Trees and Rocks, I could imagine the young, hungry Hemingway in Paris seeing Lake Michigan in the blue shape at the top, a sure reminder of the upper peninsula landscape he grew up in and paints in prose in “The Big Two-Hearted River.” Nick Adams imagines it in “On Writing”: “He knew just how Cézanne would paint this stretch of river. God, if he were only here to do it. They died and that was the hell if it.” This sounds very much like the writer with the “secret.” Then, seeing how Cézanne “would do the stretch of river and the swamp,” Nick “stood up and stepped down into the stream.”

In that moment of submergence in seeing, painter and writer, young, old, and ageless, become one.

Let’s Drink

Hoping that this wonder wonder show will live to see another day, I’m saving most of the notes I made during my visit to the exhibit last Saturday. Curator John Elderfeld’s necessarily more restrained commentary was informative and enlightened throughout, although my wife would have added a label pointing out how much the design of her favorite Peruvian Connection sweaters owed to Cézanne. I’m particularly thankful for the translation of Bibémus in Quarry at Bibémus. It’s not just that “let’s drink” evokes the spirit of Hemingway stories like “The Three Day Blow,” it’s the way it brings to mind the line, “Drink to me only with thine eyes,” from Ben Jonson’s song “To Celia.” I can’t say why without sounding like the eternal English major that I am, but  somehow the spirit of those words and the ones that follow, “And I will pledge with mine,” captures how it felt to have that hour in the museum and to hope, to drink to, its return before the summer’s over.