William Scott Williams

Fiction by William Scott Williams

Merleau-Ponty on “Cézanne’s Doubt”

Setting aside the tortured artist trope for a moment, it can be said that art is a living philosophy. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, in his essay, “Cézanne’s Doubt,” (from Sens et non-sens, 1948) extracts Cézanne’s aesthetic from a life seemingly ill fitted for day-to-day existence. Cézanne was unhappy, unapproachable, at times quite unfriendly; a man at odds with himself and the world around him. Diagnosed schizothymia could explain away the rough behavior, however, Cézanne’s actions are also a by-product of his “painting from nature.” Building a living aesthetic is hard work and Cézanne took this work very seriously.

A Cézanne still life is a physical exegesis of perspective. According to Merleau-Ponty, “The lived perspective, that which we actually perceive, is not a geometric or photographic one. […] To say that a circle seen obliquely is seen as an ellipse is to substitute for our actual perception what we would see if we were cameras: in reality we see a form which oscillates around the ellipse without being an ellipse.” Cézanne’s cups and saucers and pears and oranges are seen almost from all sides at once.

Cézanne’s landscapes are an even bolder undertaking: to represent the world fully, as it exists in a single moment in time and all at once. To this end, “…All the partial views one catches sight of must be welded together; all that the eye’s versatility disperses must be reunited; one must, as Gasquet put it, “join the wandering hands of nature.””

The science behind this aesthetic is crucial; Cézanne’s palette more than doubles the number of colors in the spectrum. “If the painter is to express the world, the arrangement of his colors must bear within this indivisible whole, or else his painting will only hint at things and will not give them in the imperious unity, the presence, unsurpassable plenitude which is for us the definition of the real. This is why each brushstroke must satisfy an infinite number of conditions. Cézanne sometimes pondered hours at a time before putting down a certain stroke, for, as Bernard said, each stroke must “contain the air, the light, the object, the composition, the character, the outline, and the style.” Expressing what exists is an endless task.”

On landscapes: “”A minute of the world is going by which must be painted in its full reality.” His meditation would suddenly be consummated: “I have a hold on my motif,” Cézanne would say, and he would explain that the landscape had to be tackled neither too high nor too low, caught alive in a net which would let nothing escape. Then he began to paint all parts of the painting at the same time, using patches of color to surround his original charcoal sketch of the geological skeleton. The picture took on fullness and density; it grew in structure and balance; it came to maturity all at once. “The landscape thinks itself in me,” he would say, “and I am its consciousness.””

On the constitution of a romantic realism: “In La Peau de chagrin Balzac describes a “tablecloth white as a layer of fresh-fallen snow, upon which, the place settings rose symmetrically, crowned with blond rolls.” “All through my youth,” said Cézanne, “I wanted to paint that, that tablecloth of fresh-fallen snow…. Now I know that one must only want to paint ‘rose, symmetrically, the place settings’ and ‘blond rolls.’ If I paint ‘crowned’ I’m done for, you understand? But if I really balance and shade my place settings and rolls as they are in nature, you can be sure the crowns, the snow and the whole shebang will be there.”

Despite the certitude of the above statement: “[…Cézanne] was never at the center of himself: nine days out of ten all he saw around him was the wretchedness of his empirical life and of his unsuccessful attempts, the debris of an unknown celebration. Yet it was in the world that he had to realize his freedom, with colors upon a canvas. It was from the approval of others that he had to await the proof of his worth. That is why he questioned the picture emerging beneath his hand, why he hung on the glances other people directed toward his canvas. That is why he never finished working. We never get away from our life. We never see ideas or freedom face to face.”

(Text from “Cézanne’s Doubt”, Sense and Non-Sense by Maurice Merleau-Ponty; images from The National Gallery of Art – Cézanne in Provence: http://www.nga.gov/exhibitions/2006/cezanne/)


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