Author’s Note: Writing this text on Paul Cézanne in 1979 led me to a singular historical and anthropological discovery: the universal, age-old belief that images seen by pregnant women shaped the humanity they bore. Cham’s caricature, reproduced below, published in Le Charivari in 1877 with commentary by the critic Louis Leroy (the inventor of the term “Impressionists”), has informed my work ever since this first encounter. Innumerable similar narratives and images guided an important part of my thinking in The Cult of Art in Nazi Germany, 2004 (for example in Chapter 4, “Reproducing the Genius”) and in The Barbarian Invasions: A Genealogy of the History of Art, 2019 (passim). I am currently writing on this belief and its implications in a book provisionally titled Jacob’s Trick: Artistic Theories of Human Evolution (La Ruse de Jacob. Théories artistiques de l’évolution humaine).
“Since sensations are the root of my work, I believe I am impenetrable.” — Paul Cézanne
In the years preceding the Second World War, the art historian John Rewald persisted in pruning the branches of the Aix-en-Provence countryside. He believed this would make it possible to recover, through the lens of his camera, the raw data Cézanne perceived. For him, time was a parasite whose marks he wished to erase, just like he wished to purge from the historical record a Cézanne faithful to nothing.1 Proust wrote against such illusions: “What we call reality is a certain relationship between sensations and the memories which surround us simultaneously—a relationship which is suppressed by a simple cinematographic vision, which actually moves further away from the truth the more it professes to be confined to it.”2
“One must make an optic,” Cézanne would say.3 Reading his last letters4 and statements made in his old age,5 it is difficult to escape the fascination of such formulas, both enigmatic and banal. And if we know that what he meant by optic was a “logic” that could only be that of “organized sensations”—sensations defined as “coloring” (colorantes)—then it is very tempting to articulate these formulas as a coherent whole, to shape them into a body of homogeneous doctrine. That would be not only to forget his own words (“I don’t have a doctrine like Bernard, but you have to have theories, sensation and theories”6), but also to forget that a painter’s writings or statements can never exhaust the meaning of his oeuvre. More fundamentally, it would be to deny that the way we look at Cézanne’s paintings necessarily modifies the meaning of his remarks, and to forget his defiance of all autonomous theory as someone who did not want to be “right in theory, but in nature.”7
All of Cézanne’s “theory” seems to come down to what he calls realization, an operation of conversion that he was the first modern painter to attempt. Critics had a premonition of it, condemning his “too exclusive love of yellow” and warning the public: “If you visit the exhibition with a woman in an interesting position, pass quickly by the portrait of a man by Mr. Cézanne… That strange-looking head, the color of boot cuffs, could make too vivid an impression on her and give her fruit yellow fever before its entry into the world.”8
An anecdote told by Joachim Gasquet allows us to pinpoint the meaning of this operation. Did Gasquet invent it or faithfully relay this moment of “conversation?” Either way, here is where he seems to come closest to the painter:
[Cézanne] goes to get a book from the shelf, his old Balzac. He flips through La Peau de chagrin.
Yes, you have your metaphors and comparisons. Though it seems to me that constantly multiplying the use of “like” is like us when our drawing is too visible. You mustn’t tug at people’s sleeves. But us, we have only our tones, visibility. Here, look, he talks about a table with food on it. He creates a still life, Balzac, but in the style of Veronese. A tablecloth…
“…white as a layer of freshly fallen snow upon which the place settings rose symmetrically, each one crowned by little blond rolls.”
All my youth, I wanted to paint that, that tablecloth of fresh snow. I know now that I must paint only “the place settings rose symmetrically” and “little blond rolls.” If I paint “crowned,” I’m ruined. Understand? And if I truly balance and nuance my place settings and my rolls as if painting from nature, you can be sure that the crowns, the snow, and all the flickering will be there too.9
Cézanne does not paint the effect; he paints the conditions for the production of the effect, preparing the conditions for its possible emergence in others’ eyes. By contrast, Seurat’s “error,” in terms of vision, was to paint the contrast’s effect instead of producing the conditions of its apparition: this effect, once painted, canceled the contrast. By inscribing on his canvas a virtual reality stemming from a visual experience, he made this very virtuality impossible. Seurat thus prevented viewers from experiencing the effect of contrast on their own; he condemned them to read the complicated notation that generated other effects unknown to the painter.
To paint crowned, to paint metaphor, is to gag the object in order to fix its meaning, diminishing its reality. As Rilke wrote: “They’d paint: I love this here; instead of painting: here it is…”10 Metaphor may be the greatest danger Cézanne never stopped fighting against: to paint metaphor is to paint the bond we have with an object; Cézanne, by contrast, said Rilke, “knew how to swallow back his love.”11 This is the price he paid to “produce paintings that are an education.”12 He kept himself in this state of reserve to paint and to teach.
Metaphor is essentially poetic, and this is why it threatens painting: “You must never try to work [it] into your painting. If you do, you’ll have literature. Poetry will come on its own.”13 A man who once translated a Virgil eclogue,14 who wrote poems that he sent to Zola or sometimes saved on the back of a watercolor or sketch,15 always feared missing his destiny: “Yes, a man like Monet is fortunate; he fulfills his beautiful destiny. It’s an unfortunate painter who fights too much with his talent, who perhaps wrote poetry in his youth…”16 Yet he knew how to stick impeccably to his destiny, a man who could respond to the question, “What name would you prefer if you had the choice?” “Mine.”17
If to paint as a littérateur is to paint crowned, if too many likes are to writing what too much drawing is to painting, then Cézanne leaned on this refusal of metaphor in order to constrain himself to the invention of a “beautiful formula.” To reject the temptation of likes and obvious drawing is to reject the idealistic conception that makes painting the projection of a subjectivity, that sees in the painted canvas the artist’s states projected outside himself. But of course Cézanne also rejected the “realist” conception that wanted to make painting the reflection of the real. Such conceptions rest on an analogous conception of vision: they suppose a subject “always already” separated from the world that he sees and paints, a look brought to an outside. Alberti’s window and its intersector, Dürer’s gate, and later Père Dubreuil’s drawing machine are the first optical prostheses that emerged from such theories of vision. The painter would only have to paint this separation to make the spectacle of the world visible. We often misjudge the importance of these machines’ descendants in the 19th century: Aueracher’s Quarreograph, Brunelle de Varenne’s Metroscope, Lalanne’s perspective shears, Fevret de Saint-Mesmin’s Stereograph, Symiau’s Agatograph, Picart’s Perspectograph, Gavard’s Diagraph, the Hemerograph, Hyalograph, etc. We mustn’t underestimate their pervasiveness when understanding Cézanne’s sworn hatred of the objectif, a multivalent term for the lens of the photographic instrument, “realist” vision, and the objectivity of the object itself. (“Painting does not mean slavishly copying the objectif.”18) This hatred is nothing like a hatred of photography, as people have often wanted to believe. When Cézanne took a shot of Émile Bernard to work him into the Apotheosis of Delacroix that he was planning, Bernard reports that “[Cézanne] was not opposed to a painter using photography, but the painter would have to interpret this exact reproduction just as he interprets nature.”19
Cézanne does not misjudge this separation of subject and world; he wants to suspend it. “Look,” he says to Jules Borély, “between that tree and us there is a space, an atmosphere, I grant you; but then there is that tree trunk, palpable, resistant, a body… Look like a newborn child!”20 His vision does not go from his body to other bodies; it operates in the totality of bodies from the start. As such it goes back to Bergson’s attempt described by Merleau-Ponty as “regain[ing] at the heart of man a pre-Socratic and ‘pre-human’ meaning of the world.”21
Condemning the projective schema, Bergson’s Matter and Memory forcefully states that “external objects are perceived by me where they are, in themselves and not in me”; that by vision I am really placed outside myself; that in “the system of images which is called the material world…my body is one of them”: “a body, exposed, like all natural bodies, to the action of external causes which threaten to disintegrate it.” Far from being passive, my body resists, fights, and as such constitutes itself—little by little—as the center of my perception. This is why, Bergson says, what constitutes our pure perception is at the very heart of the totality of bodies, “a system of nascent acts which plunges roots deep into the real.” Idealism and realism “see in matter only a construction or a reconstruction executed by the mind,” while “the reality of things,” “the sensible qualities of matter” are susceptible to being “touched, penetrated, lived.”22
“Fathom what you have in front of you, and make every effort to express yourself as logically as possible,” wrote Cézanne.23 This was the fundamental experience he had to paint. His effort was focused on what he called localities, or local colors, which he complained often escaped him: “All painting is there, to abandon to the air or resist. To abandon it is to deny localities, to resist it is to give localities their force, their variety.”24 Jacques Rivière grasped this: “Color … is not the color that light sprinkles and spreads over things like water over objects …, it is motionless, it comes from the depth of the object, from its essence; it is not its envelope, but the expression of its inner makeup.”25 Conversely, Émile Bernard could not understand Cézanne’s assertion that “painting must develop from nature.”26 He reproached Cézanne’s lack of “creative imagination,” his inability “to draw without a model, a serious obstacle to credible creation”27 which he saw as the reason for his failure. Because he only identified vision with mystical contemplation or naturalistic observation, Bernard could not understand this relentless determination to surrender to the motif, to go on studying from nature (l’étude sur nature), or this incessant need for the model that Cézanne always refused to paint from memory. He could not understand why this presence was necessary to the painter, nor how laying down a stroke was, for him, a movement that prolonged an active vision. “The past is only idea,” wrote Bergson, “the present is ideo-motor.”28 But just as Bergson sought—while conceiving concrete perception as always occupying a “certain breadth of duration,” “full of memories” and contracted moments, and also recognizing a certain subjectivity—to define a pure perception that would exist “in theory rather than in fact” (the perception of a being “absorbed in the present” and capable of eliminating all memory),29 so Cézanne sought to see as a newborn child, although he knew his vision was subjective and heavy with memory, “for we are not forever numb to the vibrations of those sensations activated by that lovely Provençal sun, our old childhood memories, those horizons, those landscapes, those unbelievable lines that have left such a deep impression on us”30—“from the land where I have experienced so much, without even knowing it.”31
But this is how Cézanne’s difficulties began: “It is only providing proof of one’s ideas that presents serious obstacles.”32 Lawrence Gowing believed he could deduce from Cézanne’s statements and paintings (the late watercolors above all) a coherent system of color distribution that would provide the clue to his research. He believed that by using Cézanne’s own terms and applying them to the late works he could rigorously determine a logic of organized sensations. He called it metaphorical color and made it a doctrine, a deliberate system, a convention: “the color sequences in which form was modeled are increasingly independent of direct transcription of sense data.”33 Going further, he adopted Émile Bernard’s judgment: “His vision (son optique) was much more in his brain than in his eye.”34
I believe these interpretations of Cézanne come from a profound misunderstanding of the meaning of his work. The painter never effectuated a direct transcription of sensory data because such a transcription does not exist. This is why the notion of metaphorical color is unfortunate, because color is not the locus of a transfer but the instrument of a conversion from the perceived to the seen: it makes us see how the world touches us, as Merleau-Ponty would say. “There is nothing but a vague fever before the act of expression, and only the work itself, completed and understood, is proof that there was something rather than nothing.”35 Attributing to Cézanne a coherent (or even evolving) theoretical system to which he adhered in front of the motif is to deny the contradictions of his statements and his work. On the contrary, Cézanne admitted his obsession with “the ability to renew one’s emotion by daily contact with nature” or the model,36 and claimed that “style is perfect when it is commensurate with the character and grandeur of the subject it interprets.”37
Proceeding to a skillful and interesting review of terms that recur in the painter’s statements (modulate, sensation, realize), Gowing sets out to prove that Cézanne conceived painting as “an art of rational intelligibility.”38 Sketching a history of Cézanne’s use of sensation, Gowing defines it in the artist’s “final stage” as “[a sense] of color which [was] as much innate as experienced.”39 He forgets that the painter’s sensations were also “painful sensations”40 of illness, age, and heat “that sap the brain so much that I can’t even think in painting (penser en peinture).”41 They were not only the data of sight and feeling, as Gowing has it; they were also bodily affects, so strong that he sometimes closed himself off to other bodies and could no longer think in painting. But because he wanted to “re-create what the confusion of sensations offers,”42 he kept “seeking to express those confused sensations that we bring with us into the world”43—sensations that have nothing innate but are like those of the newborn child, encompassing sight and touch. In this sense he remained, as he liked to say, “the primitive of the path I discovered.”44
It would be wrong, then, to look for a rational convention in Cézanne’s painting. Émile Bernard only wanted to see in it the essence of things; Gowing saw only pure signs.45 But Cézanne’s painting is no more conventional than language is to its objects: his confused sensations are to his painting what onomatopoeia—as myth—is to language. They signify nothing other than this: that humanity only begins with the “nonsensuous similarity” of those articulated signs in which, “like a flash, resemblance appears.”46 Making those signs and their articulation a rational convention would repair the break between the perceptible and the intelligible to which Cézanne adhered. This is why he did not separate reading the model from realization, why he did not start with a statement, a word-for-word guide to form to which the organized sensations of real-making (rendre-réel) would then be superficially applied (Gowing). Just as his color patches (taches colorées) do not resemble the color-attribute of the object (its “real” color), none of the colored lines he drew merely resemble the model or indicate its contours. He “modulates” these lines in the same way as the color patches: a complex network slowly takes form, displacing the boundaries of the model that are “always on the near or the far side of the point that we look at, always between or behind whatever we fix our eyes upon.”47 The modulations of these patches and lines are not products of arbitrary convention; they cover and measure continuums of modification. Thought and vision were so intertwined for Cézanne that when “penetration” was lacking he preferred to leave white alone rather than break its “harmony parallel to nature” with a random color.48 For him, to “write as a painter what had never yet been painted” (“écrire en peintre ce qui n’est pas encore peint”)49 is to use painting to begin an unnatural history of the world that visualizes the perceived. This is where his difficulties in realizing began. Shortly before his death he wrote to his son, “I can’t achieve the intensity that builds in my senses, I don’t have that magnificent richness of color that enlivens nature.”50 His doubt was justified: “He considered himself powerless because he was not omnipotent, because he was not God and wanted nevertheless to portray the world, to change it completely into a spectacle, to make visible how the world touches us.”51
Because he considered a painting an education and wanted “to make the public sense [sentir] what we ourselves feel [ressentir],”52 he had to make a new calculation every time, starting over with a plastic idea that would encompass the primordial experience of vision inscribed in the thickness of time. For him the Louvre was not a book in which one learned to read, or where one found “support, like a diving board for a bather.”53 He advised Camoin to do studies after the Louvre’s great masters, “but as you would from nature—which I myself have never quite succeeded in doing.”54 A painting should paradoxically produce its effect—its education—only at the point when it lets itself be forgotten. “To make them feel without knowing. All art!…”55 As Matisse would later say, “ideally the beholder is captivated, without being aware of it, by the mechanism of the painting.”56 But what is it exactly that most seduces in art? The visible? According to Cézanne, ever enigmatic and precise, “it is the personality of the artist himself.”57 All of a picture’s education is in its seduction, a total seduction that is always slipping away. “In the end I’ve come to believe that we are of no use to others.”58
Such artists, Matisse said, “died represented.”59
Translated by Bridget Alsdorf
NotesTranslator’s Note: This essay first appeared as “Les sensations de Cézanne” in the French journal Critique no. 390 (Nov. 1979), and remains an essential essay on Cézanne that deserves a broader anglophone readership. It was written in response to the recent publication in French of Lawrence Gowing’s “Cézanne: The Logic of Organized Sensations” (“Cézanne: La logique des sensations organisés,” Macula no. 3/4, 1978), the new edition of Cézanne’s correspondence edited by John Rewald (Paul Cézanne: Correspondance, Grasset, 1978) and an anthology of primary sources on the artist edited by P. Michael Doran (Conversations avec Cézanne, Macula, 1978). The journal Critique was founded by Georges Bataille featuring articles that respond to several books at a time. Jean Piel continued the tradition. English-language sources are provided in the notes wherever possible. In some cases I have adopted the English translations in these sources. Where I have not, or made minor changes, I have indicated that the translation is modified. If there is no English-language source referenced in the notes, the translation is my own. To facilitate further research and verification against the author’s French-language sources, these are included in underlined form after their English translations. — BA