Articles Issue #26
BY Richard ShiffNovember 11, 2018
BY Richard ShiffNovember 11, 2018
What is history? By my account, more a chronicle of chance coincidence than a sequence of cause and effect. The observer’s attitude determines whether an innovation deemed consequential is itself the result of confluent causes or merely an accident of history, a case of historical luck. Cause can always be constructed, just as chance can always be invoked.
I often link the aesthetics of twentieth- and twenty-first-century art to my study of nineteenth-century art; I do this not because the later era finds its cause in the earlier but because the central issues—those of interest from my perspective—remain much the same. To distinguish the postmodern from the modern within this historical span seems academically myopic, especially if the intention is to signal a definitive disjuncture in cultural practice.1 It is all “modern,” this art of many media and techniques, produced under conditions of rapid technological change and increasingly global commerce that threaten whatever persists of traditional forms of social interaction. All the while, conventional sources of identity (nationality, ethnicity, race, gender, profession), even in their transgressional manifestations (statelessness, queering), lose their import. All appear the same to technology and commerce, unruly offspring of human ingenuity. They show no respect, exercise no tact, acquire no manners.
Changing the world
A colleague recently made an off-hand remark, a friendly provocation to a person like myself, engaged in interpreting the techniques and imagery of painting: “You know, photography changed the modern world a lot more than Paul Cézanne ever did.” If taking second place in transforming history amounts to creative or moral deficiency, the failing was in Cézanne’s preferred medium of painting, not in the artist, who was remarkably independent and bold. Photography and painting are both technologies; but by the usual standards, photography is the more advanced—by the usual standards. Photography generates visual imagery with increased representational nuance, greater efficiency, and greater economy than is possible with painting. After a relatively short period of commercial development, its quotidian use required minimal familiarity with its materials and virtually no training. Yet the same could be said of painting, which enjoyed a late nineteenth-century vogue as a bourgeois pastime—anyone could do it. “To be a painter or not to be a painter! This is the great modern anxiety,” Octave Mirbeau ironized in 1892: “We are living in the age of oil.”2 The results of amateur painting, however, remained far less refined than those of amateur photography, less comparable to an acknowledged professional standard. We sometimes refer to self-taught painting as “outsider art”; I have yet to hear of “outsider photography.” Photography, a great leveler, had the advantage of standardized equipment and a mechanism with the potential of normalizing its use. Representation within this medium rendered the differentiation of amateur and professional, as well as the distinction between document and work of art, nearly irrelevant. Photography truncated any future for painting, a medium comparatively rarefied that would never again play a leading role in public communication. Perhaps painting retains some competitiveness as graphic design rather than as naturalistic depiction. The most recognizable painter’s image within the West may be Edvard Munch’s Scream, which, in reduced graphic form, rivals the familiarity of corporate logos like those of Apple and Nike, yet lacks their global reach.
Without hesitation, I agreed with my colleague’s ranking of photography above Cézanne. Of course, I thought, photography has had the greater impact, and by far. It quickly became the reigning public medium, conveying visual information with relative transparency, comparable to the mass-circulation newspapers and bulletins of the nineteenth century that rendered information accessible in verbal form, just as broadcast radio did in the early twentieth century. Photography had the advantage of seeming impersonal, therefore objectively accurate, at least with respect to its mechanism: “One Artist has one touch for foliage, another has another; and we may from such characteristic touch devine the intended tree and perhaps name the Artist. But your photogenic drawing [the calotype process of William Henry Fox Talbot] would … exhibit the touch of the great Artist, Nature.”3 Nature’s touch had universal style—that is, no style. Talbot himself argued that the new photography would improve the quality of existing modes of representation, not undermine them: “Even the accomplished artist will call in sometimes this auxiliary aid, when pressed for time in sketching a building or a landscape, or when wearied with the multiplicity of its minute details.” There remained “ample room for the exercise of skill and judgment” because the human operator would control certain variations, such as those produced by differences in exposure time.4 By this reasoning, the capacity of photography to capture depersonalized detail presented no threat to the creativity associated with the traditional fine arts. It merely enhanced the field of aesthetic nuance.
A reviewer of the Cézanne retrospective of 1995, timed to the centennial of the artist’s first exhibition at Ambroise Vollard’s Paris gallery, stated the obvious without noting an obvious limitation: “It has become almost conventional to view Cézanne as the founding father of a new, 20th-century way of seeing and thinking about the world.”5 Here is the catch: if Cézanne’s art provided access to conceptualizing the world in a modern way, if his unorthodox methods stimulated a new way of thinking about the world, photography, along with its technological derivatives—transparencies, film, video, photoelectronic imagery of all kinds—was and is this world, its pellucid self-image.6 Painting, having lost its preeminence, would be reduced to studying and critiquing photography. And this has happened in abundance during the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. Studio artists today commonly choose photography or film as their representational model in preference to working from a living body or a physical object.7 Traditional painting retained the material world as its primary object of study; “modern” painting has been studying dematerialized images of the world.
A possible counterargument: painting had always depended primarily on images; its sources were preexisting paintings and sculptures, as well as collections of prints and drawings. In one way or another, painting has always been an art of appropriation. To generalize from painting to other media: all cultural forms are cannibalistic. The various genres of photography were merely derived from those of painting. Yet—a further complication—a new technology, like that of photography, introduces novel qualities of vision, perhaps to be cannibalized by work in the existing technologies. Derivativeness is reciprocal, ultimately indistinguishable from innovation. The notion is common among critics: we innovate by deriving in an abusive form.
The learning curve for photography was hardly steep. From the nineteenth century on, most people have felt competent interpreting photographic depictions. We now receive this imagery on screens of various kinds, thoroughly dematerialized, universally expandable and contractible, suited to all conditions of viewing. Far fewer people would claim competence in interpreting contemporary painting, or, for that matter, Cézanne’s painting, even though in public view for well over a century. Professional critics and academics are aware that photography has a rhetoric just as painting does; but the general population accepts photography as if they understand its rhetoric as a natural language. They acknowledge little need for the analytical distinctions devised by Roland Barthes and other theorists.8 If we are already walking, we hardly need a theory of walking; so it is with photographic imagery, which has saturated social and cultural life. We already perceive and interpret it as a second nature (as Barthes realized and sought to counteract, identifying its mystifications, in effect, its ideology). Photography and its electronic derivatives have entered both public and private realms to such an extent that the imagery has become a naturalized, and hence ideologically compromised, component of modern living. A writer of film criticism can instruct the reader regarding elliptical aspects of a plot or obscure historical references built into a cinematic narrative but has no cause to explain how to watch the movie. The viewer already knows.
Just as photography remedied perceived shortcomings in painting and drawing, in turn, a critique of photography remains implicit in any rival technology that does what photography does not. I have suggested that a critique has long been coming from painting. In the wake of photography, painters felt liberated to pursue ever more esoteric interests, if only because the social demand for transparency was being satisfied elsewhere. Modern painting, like work in other modern outgrowths of traditional media, such as sculptural assemblage and relief, has become a zone for testing perception and challenging acculturated habits of vision, including those induced by photography.
So perhaps I concurred too quickly, conceding that photography was more transformative than painting. I might have argued that, by historical irony, any medium that achieves dominance ceases to be transformative. Yes, photography changed the world, but this revolution in graphic imagery succeeded all too quickly, like the recent revolution in modes of electronic transmission. Whose world did photography change? It left its nineteenth-century world open to being affected by whatever forms of imagery exposed aspects of human experience that photography was never programmed to reveal. One example: the extent to which visual experience has a tactile component becomes apparent only when the more tactile medium of painting mimics a photographic image or process, restoring the suppressed tactile dimension. The high resolution of photographic imagery conceals its underlying physicality—in analog photography a play of minute elements of emulsion, in digital photography a play of electronic pixels.9 A second example: painting indicates the extent to which a photographic image has been (unnaturally) rendered static, stilled, even deadened. When painter Vija Celmins reflected on her use of photographic images as models during the 1960s, she described setting these images “back in the real world—in real time. Because when you look at the work [of painting] you confront the here and now.”10 An image of “the here and now” is inherently low-resolution, relative to whatever passes for a perfected standard, the focused high resolution that is gradually acquired and seemingly timeless. A pictorial surface of low resolution corresponds to the transiency of sensory experience. By the 1960s, when Celmins and numerous other painters were enlivening photographic imagery (often, as with Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol, by means of transfer or screen printing), it had become fashionable to refer to the life in photography as death; photographs connoted what-had-been.11 The immediacy of a process of painting would return a living quality to a stilled image, a quality of now as opposed to then. Painting induces acts of viewing that animate its imperfect image.
Photography had probably already “changed the world” by the 1860s, a full century before Celmins, Rauschenberg, and Warhol, when many painters, such as Gustave Courbet and Édouard Manet, were stressing the coarse material qualities of their tactile medium. Their technique indicated no interest in competing for photographic finish. This was the “changed” world that Cézanne entered as a young artist. A judgment of what might count as transformative in 1870 as well as now will depend on whose photography and whose painting is under consideration, and how the cultural context of any transformation is to be conceived.12
The analog model and its exception
The so-called academic painting of the nineteenth century was an institutional product designed for standardization and ease of comprehension. Its preferred techniques furthered an effect of transparency by generating a polished surface that was analog in appearance, suppressing signs of its facture, its material fabrication. J.-A.-D. Ingres, often invoked as an exemplary figure, believed that all signs of the manipulation of materials should recede from view, allowing art to rise above folkish craft: “Touch should not be apparent … Instead of the object represented, it makes one see the painter’s technique; in the place of thought, it proclaims the hand.”13 Aside from contour drawing, the fundamental representational device was chiaroscuro, the play of dark and light. A prominent mark or index of the hand would interfere with the continuous transitions of tone known as “modeling”: “The more the mark [tache] assumes importance in itself,” Félix Bracquemond stated in 1885, “the more the modeling disappears.”14 He was writing during the age of impressionism, characterized by painters’ techniques that pressured traditional analog ideals with the evidence of digital process. As culturally coded representation, the mark alluded primarily to making, whereas the modeling alluded primarily to pictorial reference. Two bodies of information, neither of them the greater, but different in kind.
Of course, standing close to a work of large scale would reveal marks of the hand of the most skillful of academic painters; but close was not the natural distance. Resolution was evaluated relative to size. Evident marking at easel scale became far more problematic: “The artist who paints with broad strokes within a small format contradicts himself dramatically because, even as the small scale of the frame invites me to come near, the largeness of the execution holds me at a distance.”15 Charles Blanc, academic theorist and critic, made this statement in 1866. He nevertheless tolerated visible facture in artists who demonstrated pronounced poetic sensibility, such as Camille Corot, whose “impression” of an outdoor scene substituted feeling for precise definition [fig. 1]. Corot’s images manifested, by Blanc’s account, “leaves missing from the trees … fissures left out of the rocks.”16 The image became more of a synthetic visual memory of a scene—a reverie—than its instantaneous (photographic) transcription, all detail included. Critic Charles Clément had preceded Blanc in accepting the look of the “impression” before the manner became codified as “impressionism.” In 1853, he wrote: “[Corot] renders his impression simply and naively… He reduces technique to its most elementary form and puts on the canvas only enough painting to say what he feels, as if he feared obscuring his thought with the veil of an abundance of execution.”17 Elements inessential to an artist’s expression had no cause to be included in the depiction. The implied moral dictum: paint only what you feel, as you feel it, whether directly from nature or from memory. A viewer’s response should also amount to a condition of feeling: “Don’t analyze Corot by dissecting his painting,” Alfred Sensier stated in 1870, “love him as you love a bountiful tree.”18 The sense of an “impression” could be either objective or subjective. In fact, it threatened to obliterate the distinction.
Having praised Corot, Blanc followed with a complaint. Many younger painters were unthinkingly imitating the looseness of this artist’s expressive “impression”; they were creating the “sense of having finished when they had hardly begun.”19 With the critical response to Corot, a low-resolution foot had been stuck in the door of modern painting, as if to acknowledge the perversity of eliminating marks of the hand from a hand-oriented process. As an inherently low-resolution medium in the new world of high-resolution photography, painting reserved its right to poetic expression—but only so long as it avoided abusing its license. It was left to photography to become the paradigm of objective depiction. Of course, critics have demonstrated ad nauseum that the objectivity of photography is mythical, that subjective choice enters the photographic process in numerous ways (as Fox Talbot already realized). But some medium needs to occupy an extreme end of the scale of subjectivity and objectivity, lest the distinction—threatened by the paradoxes of impressionism—lose all meaning.
In 1890, William James defined the habit of vision that identified an artist: “The whole education of the artist consists in his learning to see the presented signs [the marks] as well as the represented things. … The ordinary man’s attention passes over [the patches of color] to their import; the artist’s turns back and dwells upon them for their own sake.”20 In photography, there were no acknowledged marks or “presented signs.” With greater efficiency, the photographic process provided the toneless, uninflected imagery that academic painters had been trained to produce. Those working in the academic tradition would resist excessive involvement with precisely what a modern theorist such as James claimed should be their focus—“signs” in preference to “things.” Theirs was the painting that had no future.
Acting on sensation
Cézanne’s kind of painting—the digital kind, composed of discrete marks—is so far removed from the analog illusions of photography that its engagement with cultural issues is of a divergent sort. By rendering its technique explicit, it revealed its liaison with living sensation, eye-to-hand. Artist-theorist André Lhote wrote in 1920: “A large part of the emotive power of Cézanne’s canvases derives from the fact that the painter, rather than hide them, shows his means.”21 Hiding generates an integrated, analog effect; showing generates a fractured, digital effect. The emotion Lhote addressed did not belong to the subject represented, which by 1920 could be arbitrary without being criticized as such. André Derain wrote to Henri Matisse in 1906 (the final year of Cézanne’s life) that both were fortunate to belong to the first generation at liberty to let their chosen material assume “a life of its own, independent of what one makes it represent.”22 So the emotionality of the art need no longer correspond to the artist’s thoughts about the model depicted, its cultural identity, and all it might connote. A stronger or more direct emotion derived from the material basis of the representational process. Viewers sensed this emotion to the extent that they perceived that a life had been lived mark to mark, moment to moment, sensation to sensation. Such was Cézanne’s life, his digital reality, lived at the same pace as that of the people, objects, and land he painted—lived along with his world. The physiological fiction of a direct correspondence of eye to hand to mark could operate so long as the discrete marks remained unadulterated by adjustments to produce a more analog look. When the painter imposed one mark upon another, the process could be understood as registering a sequence of sensations rather than a correction to, or a refinement of, a picture already conceptualized.
Cézanne was all painter. “Painting in oils”—Michael Fried writes, distinguishing painting from photography—“has had the capacity of thematizing the fact that a finished picture is inevitably the product, and in certain respects, the record, of the painter’s sustained absorption over time in the act of painting.”23 Initially, in the early years of photography, a greater correspondence between the two technologies would have applied. “Absorption over time” becomes an apt characterization of the experience of the first subjects of photographic portraiture—and perhaps, by metonymic contact, the operators of the equipment as well. By enduring the extended photographic exposure, the early models contributed to the creation of their own pictures. This was Walter Benjamin’s now-celebrated insight: “The procedure itself taught the models to live inside rather than outside the moment. During the long duration of these shots they grew as it were into the picture and in this way presented an extreme opposite to the figures on a snapshot.”24 With decreased exposure time, photography soon developed “outside the moment”—its moment was hardly long enough to be one—whereas painting remained “inside the moment.” Cézanne told his portrait model Vollard to “be still like an apple.”25 Still like an apple in time, not like a still photograph, which passes out of time.
Yes, Cézanne was a painter; and facture, which entailed effort through time, was an issue. “I have very strong sensations,” he remarked in 1870, early in his career.26 He intended his statement to justify the aggressive, disjointed appearance of his strokes. He implied that painting must follow, even reduce to, the life of sensation. Shortly after Cézanne died, the critic Charles Morice reversed the equation. In his perception of Cézanne, living had not been enhanced by painting but had been restricted to painting: “We hardly dare say that Cézanne lived; no, he painted.”27 Rather than give clues to the many dimensions of a life, Cézanne’s art seemed to have become the only dimension his existence possessed. The painter’s message concerned painting, not the human issues that his subject matter—naturalistic, idyllic, domestic, or literary—would evoke when represented by a different type of artist. Another critic stated a variant of Morice’s notion at about the same time: “They say that Cézanne spent his life clarifying for himself and for others the issues of technique, without caring about the results.”28 However instructive Cézanne’s method might prove, the image he created, his result, remained either incomplete or inconsequential as a reference to an objective situation in the world.29 More existentialist than idealist, he rendered a situation subjective and transitory, not objective and fixed. The so-called “subject” of traditional art was itself hardly subjective but rather identifiable and nameable, a potential object of collective, objective knowledge, as opposed to private sensation. “The subject disappears,” said Cézanne’s admirer Paul Sérusier: “There is only a motif.”30 The motif that gave Cézanne’s painting its integrity or wholeness did not reside in any subject (the person, still life, land, or fantasy depicted) but in the sequence of the painter’s marks—whatever rhythms, harmonies, and bits of internal order might be discerned.31 Thadée Natanson, responding to the 1895 exhibition at Vollard’s gallery, wrote that Cézanne’s art was not to be noted for its cultural thematics but for “all the remainder, which is nothing but painting itself.”32
When a life reduces to sensation, and the sensation reduces to marks, is the artist working “mark to mark” or “mark by mark”? The two phrases can refer to the same condition and distinguishing them is an arbitrary exercise. I nevertheless prefer “mark to mark” because it better conveys the temporal sense of discrete moments in transience. “Mark by mark” connotes adjacency, a spatial sequence. “Mark to mark” is movement from one action to another; it connotes temporal passage. Like the digital ticking of the mechanism of an analog clock, time and space work in synchrony: mark to mark, mark by mark.
When painting from nature, Cézanne in many instances seems to project an inclusive, unedited vision, like that of a camera obscura without the inversion. He filled the field of his image with whatever passed or fell within the scan of his vision. In his portrait of the influential critic Gustave Geffroy, 1895 (fig. 2), local areas of marking are more compelling than the sense of the whole as a composition. Fragments of Geffroy’s library and furnishings surround him. Aside from the portrait subject occupying the central area of the canvas, compositional hierarchy is suppressed. The painting does not lack compositional features, but its composition is indiscriminate. A play of diagonals involves the rigid posture of Geffroy’s arms, the open books on his desk, the angles of his chair and fireplace instrument, and the placement of the volumes on his shelves. His body becomes one among these equivalent, exchangeable elements. Because Cézanne’s framing of the entire view seems arbitrary (as it might in a photograph), Geffroy’s accoutrements appear only casually arranged, as if they could continue beyond the edges of the canvas with as much order (or lack of it) as within. The critic’s writing desk falls forward, belonging not to pictorial, composed space, but to lived space—as if Cézanne were looking forward at the sitter, then down at the desk, and failing, or not caring, to coordinate and integrate the two perspectives.33 His painting preserves the sequential existence of the features of the scene as they formed his experience, while the picture offers no instruction as to what a viewer should notice first. The composite image is dense with the spatial and temporal charm of life, its vicissitudes and variations. The portrait of Geffroy is a living scene, yet its life is not the sitter’s. It belongs to the experience of the artist.
Composite yet not strictly compositional might designate Cézanne’s pictorial effect of mixed perspective and arbitrary endings. His graphic mark usually makes little or no direct reference to the surface qualities of the objects and environments he represents: the edges of actual human bodies are neither discontinuous nor multiple; and actual apples are not faceted, as they appear in Still Life with Fruit Dish, a characteristic work of about 1880 (fig. 3). Cézanne’s mark is natural only in relation to becoming an index of his brush or, at times, his palette knife—an index of his bodily action in time. The mark tends to repeat as a cipher, not an icon, one slanted stroke beside another. It projects no personality, becoming a non-mimetic abstraction, the record of a sensation that represents itself before it refers to anything else, including its author-artist. Rather than the artist’s signifier, it is sensation’s signifier. And when evidence of a specific category of sensation appears in Cézanne’s art, consistent use is unlikely to follow. Sensation—for an artist (as James indicated)—does not fall under the control of categorization. In Still Life with Fruit Dish, two of the apples reflect their color onto the neutral white napkin beneath them. The apple in the central foreground casts its green below; the apple to its left casts its blue below—a blue denoting the shaded, recessive turn in the volume of the fruit. Yet Cézanne did not adhere to a principle of reflectivity, for no other apple follows this schema. Apparently, no schema was in operation; instead, the artist experienced two unique observations, moment to moment. His arrays of marks denote the interaction of an object-to-be-seen and an artist-seer, constituting clustered moments of sensation.
Categories of sensation can be discussed and theorized; as categories, they are already generalized. The painter’s sensation is otherwise. Shoshana Felman writes: “Unlike saying, doing is always trivial [specific, singular]: it is that which, by definition, cannot be generalized.”34 Seeing or sensing is doing. Recording the painter’s vision, the mark does something without saying something or saying very little, nothing that sustains commentary. Although Cézanne’s arrays of marks are typical of his practice and recognizable as his, each array projects a unique state of emotion. Think of how the tonality of a spoken sentence projects its affect, independent of the fact that the sentence refers to a situation, or repeats another statement, or connotes a degree of cultural status. Cézanne’s themes are generic and familiar; his renderings often become variations of each other. Many of his paintings (usually the smaller ones) appropriate images authored by others. Despite all this, Natanson in 1895 alluded to a localized, concentrated force in Cézanne’s art that had no parallel: “He makes apples his own … They are to him as an object is to its creator.”35 To paraphrase: Cézanne’s “apples” are a breed apart, like the rest of his thematic material. They are not the apples known to society, culture, and history; and to evaluate them in relation to the generic apples of apple-lore and apple-mythology—the customary channel for interpretation—dims the light of their particularity.36 Cézanne’s erudition and wit—he would “astonish Paris with an apple”—as well as his (possibly ironic) indulgence in themes of lust and violence became lures to psychoanalytically oriented critics during the twentieth century. His immediate contemporaries put their attention elsewhere: apples as brute sensation, neither sophisticated literary reference nor wish fulfillment.37
As Cézanne laid down his marks, his hand was never as quick as the camera mechanisms of his time, able to focus a scene and fix it on film with light-sensitive emulsion. Although painters have often imitated the technical effects of photography, including variable focus and blur, their work in the guise of a camera is more like that of a surveillance video, for a painter’s image has unlimited potential duration; it reaches a state of completion and separation only arbitrarily. Most of Cézanne’s canvases leave the impression that he could have resumed painting on them. “I’d like to finish all these,” le Douanier Rousseau reportedly said when he saw Cézanne’s works at exhibition.38 Recording nature through time, Cézanne could not catch up with himself: “I cannot reach the intensity that develops in my senses,” he wrote in 1906, already at the end of his years of trying.39 By the Corot criterion, Cézanne needed “only enough painting to say what he feels”; if, by his own estimation, he usually fell short of this modest goal, it would explain his tendency to rework some canvases excessively while leaving others only scantily covered. Most likely, he had abandoned the paintings left in a rudimentary state, while those laden with paint and even overworked in appearance represent his search for “only enough.” The repetitive excess of his marking represented his continuing sensation, always fresh.40
Cézanne’s view of an inhospitable ravine, probably painted around 1878–79 at the Mediterranean town of L’Estaque, shows areas of foliage and rock with passages of blue sky as their nominal background; the sky, our immaterial atmosphere, is as heavily encrusted with paint-matter as the adjacent forms that represent substantial physical substances (fig. 4). As in certain still life and figure paintings, the contours that define the articulated forms—dividing tree branches from rocks, rocks from sky—are depressed in relation to the adjacent passages of much heavier paint application. Apparently, at this point in his career, Cézanne felt a need to adjust the interiors of forms more extensively than the initial layout of the elements of the landscape. This suggests that as the artist worked on the canvas, he regarded composition, the general order of representational elements, as secondary to sensation, the recording of moments of vision. In fact, the composition of this painting seems arbitrary and unconsidered; our interest is drawn to color and texture rather than to a play of directional vectors. It remains odd that the sensation of blue sky, presumably invariant in the Mediterranean climate, required such a degree of reconsideration. It may be that at some point in Cézanne’s process, the source of sensation became the canvas itself and not the external view—a condition that would put all areas of the developing image equally in play. This possibility accords with Émile Bernard’s estimation that Cézanne gradually distanced his image from external observation, one mode of sensation supplanting another: “The more he works, the more his work removes itself from the external view [and] the more he abstracts the picture.”41 In instances of portrait painting, this same condition induced the type of remark repeated by several critics: “Cézanne takes no more interest in a human face than in an apple.”42 All elements of a picture attain analogous sensory significance—people and things look alike (as in the portrait of Geffroy)—when engagement with the technical process supersedes concern for a pictorial result guided by normative thematic hierarchies.
“Sensation above all else,” Cézanne said.43 It mattered little what the sensation was. He sought a method of painting that would track the transiency of sensory experience, the range of qualities the senses presented, as well as his changing emotional state, which might be confused (rightfully) with the state of the surrounding environment. Sensations and emotions are always present to be represented: in fast time, in slow time. There were days when Cézanne was deliberative: one of his young friends in Aix-en-Provence, using hyperbole to make the point, reported that the painter “sometimes remained still for twenty minutes between two strokes of the brush.”44 Pierre-Auguste Renoir recalled that his old impressionist colleague used paper flowers as a studio prop because live ones would fade faster than he could develop his painting.45 Yet deliberation over the marks did not prevent Cézanne from shifting to impulsive and spontaneous actions, perhaps an aspect of his futile attempt to keep pace. Bouts of self-criticism followed prolonged, intense engagement: “Cézanne at his easel, painting, viewing the countryside: he was truly alone to the world, ardent, focused … and sometimes he would [abruptly] quit the site dispirited, abandoning his canvas on a rock or in the grass.”46 On a good day, the direction of a painting might settle into a compelling rhythm, with visual sensation and pictorial evolution seeming fully integrated; on a bad day, the process became unworkable. Changes in attitude, in behavior, and within a specific painting might occur for something less than an articulate reason, by a cause so beyond logical reach it might as well be chance: a feeling.
Sensation and feeling
“Sensation above all else”—but what is sensation? C. S. Peirce, precisely Cézanne’s age (historical coincidence), theorized sensation in a way suited to the artist’s painting. Peirce’s terminology distinguishes sensation from feeling; the latter is such a primary experience that we merely endure it rather than consciously attend to it. “Feelings compris[e] all that is immediately present, such as pain, blue, cheerfulness … A feeling is necessarily perfectly simple, in itself.” Properly speaking (in Peircean language), sensations mark the transition from one state of feeling to another—each is a disturbance. Sensations are “sensations of reaction.” They oppose feelings, marking consciousness of one feeling as consciousness of a subsequent feeling: “Suppose I had nothing in my mind but a feeling of blue, which were suddenly to give place to a feeling of red; then, at the instant of transition, there would be a shock, a sense of reaction, my blue life being transmuted into red life.”47 This is the shock of sensation, like Cézanne’s red mark next to a blue, whether rendering a woman’s dress or Mont Sainte-Victoire. Sensations are feelings activated, as one feeling displaces another. They are themselves actions.
Every stroke of Cézanne’s brush, every mark, represents an act of sensation—more reactive than imitative. By 1885, Paul Gauguin, who had purchased Cézanne’s Still Life with Fruit Dish, was proclaiming its extraordinary quality to anyone who would listen. He admired the “essentially pure” character of Cézanne’s technique, the direct, uninflected quality of his marking, which he distinguished from the look of Claude Monet’s paintings of the same period, with their cultivated virtuosity.48 Gauguin referred to Cézanne’s brilliant arrays of color as products of sensory intuition rather than an intellectual system, believing that the marks conveyed emotional content independent of the subject matter.49 This division of “form” from “content,” perceived in Cézanne, became the hallmark of decidedly “modern” painting, regarded as a means of escape from the dehumanizing, restrictive culture of the bourgeoisie (recall Derain’s comment to Matisse). Intellectual or conceptual “content,” that is, subject matter, fell under the regulation of ideological systems. “Form,” however, if generated by sensation rather than theory and academic training, evaded ideological control. Sensation, which might translate into no more than “a simple decoration for the pleasure of the eyes,” became the means to social and cultural salvation.50
Though we feel life as continuity, its feelings are experienced only as one (Peircean) interruption after another, a digital effect of discrete moments of sensation. In resistance to fixing an image of any specific moment, a “modern” painting reveals its process of production—in Lhote’s terms, shows its means. It becomes not only the record of an experience in lived time but the generator of such experience. Painting brings to the surface of its imagery the moment-to-moment quality of consciousness, a digital reality that the photographic process—analog and mechanical in the nineteenth century, digital and electronic now—disguises as thoroughly analog. By this distinction, photographic imagery becomes fantasy imagery—the fantasy of fixity—detached from the essential physicality of living.
In 1889, aesthetician Paul Souriau, a near-contemporary of Cézanne, noted that French academic painters were often criticized for the artificiality of their figures’ gestures; the complaint was justified because these artists relied on preconceived models and standardized compositions, as if to depict only “those postures we adopt to express our feelings to show them on the outside.” The notion of an academicized mode of representation corresponded to standardization in bourgeois behavior. Souriau continued: “Truly expressive postures are those that do not set about to express anything but are unconsciously determined by a deeply felt emotion.”51 This insight—if uttered today, vaguely Freudian—raises an interesting possibility: subtle movements that reflect a subject’s emotional state represent nothing specifically nameable. Perhaps Souriau’s thinking recalls the results of candid photography, its capacity to capture unguarded postures, difficult to interpret. But Cézanne’s marks are also such unguarded movements, often violating the implied norm of a contour. Souriau’s distinction between, as it were, exterior and interior postures parallels Felman’s differentiation of saying and doing. Each gesture or act of sensation must have a unique meaning—yet a meaning that is unique is no “meaning” at all because it lacks the means to participate in discursive exchange. Although we feel such “meaning,” or imagine that we do, we have no capability to articulate it, paraphrase it, discuss it. The emotional force of a sensation is inarticulate, a difference absent any terms of differentiation.
During the summer of 1906, Cézanne painted from positions along the river Arc, outside Aix-en-Provence. His remarks to his son indicate his sensitivity to the shifting emotionality of sensation in time and space, from moment to moment, angle to angle: “The motifs multiply, the same subject seen at a different angle takes on the greatest interest, and there is such variation that I believe I could work away for months without changing position but just by leaning a little to the right and then a little to the left.”52 Unlike Monet, who conceived his series of views to capture different times of day or changes in atmospheric conditions—effect of fog, effect of rain, effect of dawn—Cézanne did not conceptualize his repetitions of a scene. His multiple views of Mont Sainte-Victoire suggest no sequential or otherwise rational order.
Painting a photograph
Each of us enters human history with a specific set of tools, devices, and practices at our disposal, corresponding to our position within an evolution of technologies. If the electromechanical computer has changed the shape of my society within the span of my lifetime, how, if at all, has it changed me? It determines much of my daily activity, yet I lived my most formative years without it. Has it altered only the quantity of information available, or has it also affected the qualities I perceive? And if so, for better or for worse? I could ask the same of photography and painting, though they have been contributing to my aesthetic and cognitive experience, presumably forming it, always. This was Cézanne’s situation as well, but just barely; he entered human history in January 1839, twelve days after Louis Daguerre introduced his photographic process, converting his private invention into a public resource.
It remains an open question whether an evolution in perception follows from technological advances or enables those advances. Once a need emerges, technology adjusts to meet the need. Technological innovation also appears to generate the needs (or desires) that its devices satisfy. I was unaware that I needed a wireless telephone until I had one, just as those with fast postal service (as it once existed) did not realize they needed a telephone, wired or otherwise. Silent movies satisfied their audience until the advent of sound film, which arrived as if an improvement on mime had been demanded. Perhaps perception and discernment also improve according to demand, desire, or need. However much the development of skills and sensitivities may increase perceptual capacity, it seems odd to consider that human perception itself changes for the better. It may be that acuity in one area of perception entails diminishment in another. Nothing guarantees that changes in perception are progressive.
If there is an evolution, or many evolutions, in visual perception, its fossil history can be found in the appearance of created objects, especially objects of art through which the greatest amount of perceptual energy has been concentrated. To create a work of art, Bridget Riley wrote in 1965, “perception is the medium.”53 Painting, Riley’s aesthetic technology, contacts perception and expands the artist’s awareness in the process of creating art: “In order to see one had to paint and through that activity found what could be seen.”54 Finding by making is key to her understanding. At around the same moment—another historical coincidence—psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan pondered the case of Cézanne: “Those little blues, those little browns, those little whites, those touches that fall like rain from the painter’s brush. … the painter’s brushstroke is something in which a movement is terminated. … we are faced with the element of motive in the sense of response, in so far as it produces, behind it, its own stimulus.”55 Painting doubles back on perception. Painters, according to Riley and Lacan, paint the feel of seeing rather than what they see. Cézanne recognized this in himself, articulating the experience as “The motifs multiply, the same subject seen at a different angle takes on the greatest interest …”56 The river Arc remained the same, true to its conceptual identity; but the sensation of it, the seeing, shifted.
When Cézanne took a graphic image as his model—often a print he had acquired, or an illustration from an art publication or popular magazine—he responded to the preexisting image as he would to external nature, applying his process of marking. He would regenerate aspects of the look of the alien image as if it were the sole occupant of his attentive vision. It was also not unusual, certainly not exceptional, for Cézanne to use a photograph as his model. Photographic imagery was no farther removed from nature than the imagery of printed illustrations—in fact, in most respects, photography was closer, since (as argued by the earliest practitioners) no aesthetic temperament stood between the mechanism of the camera and its object in nature. Among Cézanne’s known photographic sources, most served his portrait and other figure painting, just as photography did for his contemporaries. There exists an anomalous case: Cézanne once enlisted as a source a photograph of a landscape, presumably an image of the forest at Fontainebleau, possibly a work of Eugène Cuvelier (fig. 5).
Most likely, Cézanne painted the work now called Melting Snow at Fontainebleau (fig. 6) during the winter months of 1879–80 while keeping a studio in Melun, a town located about thirty miles southwest of Paris.57 Another five miles would bring the artist to the village of Fontainebleau, the site of a royal château surrounded by scenic forest cut by glacial ravines, formerly reserved as a hunting ground. Perhaps convenience was the impetus to turn to a landscape photograph—the need to remain indoors during inclement winter weather. By the 1870s, scenes of Fontainebleau forest had become pictorial cliché. The area attracted hundreds of landscape artists—painters, both conservative and experimental, joined by numerous photographers—all of them struck by the size and age of the trees, as well as the primitive ruggedness of the terrain, the stuff of romantic fantasy.
Cézanne remained faithful to the general distribution of forms in the photograph, while converting the original black-and-white to full chromatic color. As with his views from nature, he kept elements of the scene as they were, with subtle adjustment resulting from his marking process, more, it seems, than from decisions over the general composition. Nevertheless, with respect to the source, Cézanne’s input is immediately evident. He developed the Fontainebleau image at a much larger scale and with a notably different quality of resolution. At a width of one meter, nearly forty inches, the canvas is unusually ambitious for a Cézanne landscape of its time. The changes not only distinguish a painting practice from a photographic parallel, but also reflect the technical experience and aims of Cézanne as an innovative artist. When the Museum of Modern Art, New York, acquired this work, curator Alfred H. Barr, Jr. described it as “austerely beautiful,” presumably a response to the prominence and relative rigidity of its marking system.58 Here, as in other paintings that Cézanne derived from a planographic source, the pattern of small parallel strokes maintains a noticeable regularity of touch, as if the artist were responding to the lack of actual volume in the model.
When Cézanne rendered the Fontainebleau photograph with his characteristic hatch marks, he converted an analog image to a digital effect, introducing an altered sense of time to the image. The marks have their own organicism, their own life, independent of the depicted trees and rocks. There is also color to consider. Cézanne endowed the black-and-white image with chromatic energy. Converting black-and-white to full color was for him hardly an alien process. Bernard, having visited the artist’s studio in 1904, wrote: “To my great astonishment, Cézanne had no objection to a painter’s use of photography; but in his case, it was necessary to interpret this exact reproduction just as he would interpret nature itself.”59 According to another observer, “Cézanne sometimes copies onto his canvases scenes from popular prints and almanacs … faithful to them at least in terms of the [subject matter] … Through color he composes.”60 The essential graphic forms would remain as they were, though transformed by the new chromatic scale.
Ironically, landscape photographs of Fontainebleau capitalized on the soft-focus effects of a paper-print process, allowing their take on nature to become more competitive with paintings of similar subjects. A subtle sense of photographic blur would animate the pictorial surface, bringing its optical effect closer to a typical naturalistic painting, one displaying a relatively coarse pattern of discrete strokes with fuzzy edges (recall the work of Corot in 1866). In Cézanne’s photographic source, both foreground vegetation and background foliage appear off-register with respect to the camera mechanism; the sharpest focus is reserved for the trees of the middle ground. For nineteenth-century viewers, the shifting focus, this unstable factor of resolution, generated more of an aesthetic pleasure than consciousness of a technical deficiency. Paper-print photography pushed the medium known for precision in the direction of a medium (painting) less precise but more expressive, more personal.61 When critics reviewed exhibitions of landscape painting, they tended to admire a degree of poetic license, often objecting to descriptive accuracy that had been taken too far.62 Such detail violated the reality of living vision; it approached the “photographic.” A looser look, with a greater indication of the intervention of the artist’s hand—and through the hand, the personality—added expressive features to the naturalistic detailing of shape, color, and illumination. Such “expression” animated the view.
To stress the point: paper-print, negative-process photography (the calotype) lessened the focus present in the rival positive process, the daguerreotype. This technical switch increased what nineteenth-century viewers regarded as the expressive character of the image. The cultural preference for animation—like that of a lively human face or a tree branch quivering in the breeze—encouraged aesthetically oriented photographers to mimic some of the imprecision of painting. Whether they thought of it this way or not, mid-century photographers were gesturing in the direction of the early impressionism of Cézanne and other naturalistic painters. The same cultural imperative encouraged painters themselves to “blur” their brushwork, stressing its animate quality by allowing its movement (the hand at work) to remain apparent. The two groups, photographers and painters, recognized a common need to which they were destined to respond. Hippolyte Taine, who taught art theory to Cézanne’s contemporaries at the official École des beaux-arts, equated the sensory observation of external objects to “transient moments of our being.”63 Taine emphasized the instability of any experience of reality, which, although leaving a lasting imprint in the human mind, also remained subject to change. Sensation affected the individual long after its occurrence; it was both immediate and lasting (like “our being”). For the following generation, Henri Bergson’s notion of “duration” (la durée) established much the same principle.64 An artist’s need to provide a permanent picture of transiency corresponds to Cézanne’s understanding of his own “sensation”; his term linked external observation to internal feeling, preserving both in fruitful tension.
How to represent—or, better, to create—“sensation” in a painting? The challenge was to introduce the experience of external and internal simultaneously. Further complication: the demand would have to be met without losing the active presence of the living artist, that is, without reducing the process to a mechanism. A problem for photography: even when it exhibited blur, it suffered the slur of appearing mechanistic. A satisfying image of nature would need to incorporate, on the one hand, nature’s essential animation, and, on the other hand, the animation associated with the living, sensing being of the artist—the artist as both sensing nature and recording this sensation. Melting Snow at Fontainebleau becomes a demonstration of how the problem of representing sensation resolves itself. Here, the painter’s object is not a view into the forest but the study of a photograph. It is as if the nature that the mechanism of still photography deadened (despite the photographer’s intention) was being returned to life by a living act of painting. In his last years, Cézanne received credit for having reanimated a moribund classical tradition, nobly represented by the art of Nicolas Poussin. “To bring Poussin back to life by nature,” was the aim Cézanne announced, according to those who labeled him “the Poussin of impressionism.”65 As it seems, he was also the impressionist of photography, or rather, of black-and-white. Every time that he painted from a black-and-white source (photograph, book illustration, graphic print) he was doing what he did with Poussin’s classicism—restoring an alienated genre or medium to life. In each instance, along with the movement of his brush, color was the animating force.
Cézanne regarded any object of vision—landscape en plein air, still life in the studio, bathing figures reimagined from the holdings of the museums—as an appropriate target for his paint-embedded expression. Everything was “nature,” an object of sensory experience. Near the end of his life, he advised a young admirer: “If the strong sensation of nature … is the necessary base of every artistic idea … knowledge of the means of expressing our emotion is no less essential.”66 Melting Snow at Fontainebleau renders apparent the “means of expressing our emotion.” Cézanne’s reinvention of a photographic play of black-and-white as color exposes his method to plain sight. The transformation of photograph into painting is, however, double-edged. At the left side of the photograph, in the far distance—compositionally, between two large trees in focus in the middle distance—is an area of dense undergrowth that the camera captures in detail as nuanced grays (fig. 7). Perhaps too detailed to accommodate Cézanne’s expressively coarse touch. In response, he converted the undergrowth to a rise in the ground plane; this invented aspect of the “representation” could be conveyed broadly, as was Cézanne’s custom (fig. 8). He rendered this area as brilliantly colored as any other, as if a place of illumination rather than fade. It amounts to an exercise in poetic license, sparked by the sensation of the painting emerging from his brush, not to mention the technical exigency.
Technical exigency applied to the photographer as well. Advances in the photography of Cézanne’s era were rapid, but mid-nineteenth-century practice remained limited by the relatively long exposure time required to capture details in the less illuminated areas of an outdoor scene. Snow on a winter day at Fontainebleau challenged the capacities of the medium by its extreme contrast of areas of light (foreground snow, background sky) and areas of dark (the trees, the depths of the forest). Even a summer view would have produced a bleached-out sky; and for the winter view, the same problem extended to parts of the foreground. Performing his transformation, Cézanne articulated the relatively blank areas of the photograph with a material density and intensity that he introduced throughout, deploying his accentuated brush work. He animated all parts of the image equally, bringing “sensation” where there had been little or none. The foreground coloring, primarily blues and greens mixed with whites (bits of yellow and violet also), represents areas of snow with protruding vegetation and rocks. This predominately cool range of hues leaves a relatively neutral impression, seeming to capture the tonal range of the photograph quite faithfully. The trees themselves, correspondingly dark, gradually reveal to the eye a surprisingly full chromatic range. Cézanne appears to have mixed near-complementaries, such as dull ochre and deep blue, to arrive at complex chromatic browns—linear bands alive with color. He reserved his most aggressive combinations of hues for the spaces that amount to photographic left-overs, the areas of background sky that become over-exposed and, as it were, inert. His painting converts these areas to parallel strokes of a full spectrum of hues, including an ample amount of yellow, orange, and pale violet, which together generate a warm glow (fig. 9). Coupled with the brilliant color, the divided strokes—sometimes tracing the contour of a rock or a tree, sometimes independent of any descriptive shape—constitute the essence of Cézanne’s variant of impressionism.
Where nineteenth-century photography fails, because of insufficient capacity to capture both lights and darks, nineteenth-century painting reaches its heights of inventiveness. Cézanne’s landscape combines areas that are structured by value contrast and areas that are structured chromatically.67 It borrows only so much from the photograph and then goes its own way, in a direction that the photography of the time could not pursue. Late in life, Cézanne stated his goal: “To rid the mind of the formulas of our illustrious predecessors, [giving] the image of what we see, forgetting how things appeared before our time.”68 Melting Snow at Fontainebleau reveals the elemental nature of this process, applied appropriately to an elemental, primeval landscape, with the added irony that the artist’s age-old medium brought enhanced expressiveness and even enhanced descriptive power to a product of advanced optical technology.
Does the claim of greater descriptive power go too far? Consider the factor of time. Walking toward Cézanne’s painting is like walking into a forest. Melting Snow at Fontainebleau reveals dimensions of temporal experience as well as those of spatial experience. At first glance, and especially from a distance, its light appears more neutral, tonal, and photographic than it will subsequently seem. Move closer, and the painting becomes progressively more animated as it appears more chromatic. The high contrast of the foreground colors suggests spatial proximity as well as a strong, cold light (like reflection off a bank of snow). Move still closer, and the warmth and complexity of the coloration of the tree trunks and branches becomes evident. Then the areas of sky open channels of warm brilliance into indeterminate depth. Yet, at every moment, the materiality of the stroke—and with it the presence of the fabricating painter—remains palpable.
By comparison with painting like Cézanne’s, the photography of his era stilled its image. “Still photography” is no misnomer. Photographs represent past moments, yet the images lack temporal dimension. Only in recent years, with the innovative photographic work of artists like Chuck Close (analog in a strange way [fig. 10]) and David Hockney (digital in a strange way [fig. 11]) has practice in this medium introduced the degree of dimensionality present in Melting Snow at Fontainebleau. Significantly, Close and Hockney are painters, applying a painter’s understanding of scale, variable resolution, and focus to the construction of photographic images. Cézanne, who may never have taken photographs himself (this is unknown), may yet have taken photography, along with painting, into its future.