‘Completely Supportless Blue: The Road to Cezanne’ by Lee Posna

  • Several months ago I returned, after finishing a writing project, to the ouija board of creative reading to see what it would spell for me. What will I learn about next? and, ultimately, what will I write about next? I approached the board (in post-writing holiday mood) with a drink in each hand and an unlit cigarette drooping from my mouth in a dining room still bright with natural light. I read several works of contemporary poetry, a few history books, a few novels, the utterly readable 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, and, fatefully, Roberto Calasso’s The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, a fascinating and incisive reading/retelling of Greek myth and culture. I found his treatment of classics nearly as exciting, distinctive and deep as Anne Carson’s, though perhaps with less of an edge – who’s edgier than AC?! Because I’m a slow and feeble reader and, therefore, one with limited time and capacity for dry and/or perfunctory scholarship, Calasso was a great discovery. Bonus – he’s still alive! In Calasso I felt a strong hand guiding the planchette over letters that spelt ‘dig here’. Candles flickered in the still room.

    I got a hold of his La Folie Baudelaire. This is a study, a ‘lavishly illustrated mosaic of stories, insights, close readings of poems, and commentaries on paintings’, of Baudelaire, Baudelaire’s Paris, and its artists, including Ingres, Delacroix, Manet and Degas. In addition to its other virtues La Folie Baudelaire has beautiful, well-selected plates of paintings and photographs. Calasso’s study turned me onto 19th century French painting. I imagined I’d linger a month or two before carrying on toward some unsuspected, greater interest. It turned out that turn-of-the-century European art was that interest.

    Months into the journey I came to love and study exclusively Paul Cezanne (see list of books read (listed chronologically). My flatmate suggested to me an ambiguity in this love: Lee, it’s great that you’re so excited by these art books, but don’t they pale in comparison to the actual paintings? I hadn’t actually thought of that. It made me reflect on the miracle of democritisation that’s allowed me to look at Cezanne, or some version of Cezanne (((whose actual paintings I’ve never seen ((never been to Europe (not out of lack of desire) or museums in the US that possess Cezanne’s works – I’m a real latecomer to ‘culture’))). Wikiart, for one, contains 583 (‘public domain’) images of Cezanne’s paintings, works scattered across the earth from Sao Paolo to St. Petersburg; many are part of ‘private collections’.

    Between the internet and art books I’ve seen a lot of Cezanne – and a lot of variation: google Cezanne’s ‘Lake Annecy’ and see the wild range of tones among the images. Near or far one meets a work of art halfway. This idea has been especially productive in my attempt to write with as much relevance as ‘temperament’ about the great painter whom Picasso thought of as a ‘mother hovering over’ and Matisse as ‘the father of us all’. It’s also provided an implicit way to write about class, which I’ve struggled in the past to do in a way that isn’t merely an exorcism of pain.

    A note on ‘reading’ art books (something I’d never done before). Like other kinds of books, some are better than others. Kurt Badt’s The Art of Cezanne ((a regular (not large) format book (and as such easier to hold/read) with few illustrations)) is hugely insightful and includes a fascinating history of the colour blue in Western painting. Maybe Badt got the idea from Rilke, who wrote in 1907 upon seeing the Cezanne retrospective at the Salon d’Automne, ‘I could imagine someone writing a monograph on the colour blue, from the dense waxy blue of the Pompeian wall paintings to Chardin and further to Cézanne: what a biography!’

    On the other hand a book like Egon Schiele: Landscapes has great reproductions, but rather perfunctory text. By reading the text anyway and taking its cues to study the picture opposite (and sometimes being sent on little adventures to find out about related paintings, etc.), the latter reached a level of saturation in me that it wouldn’t have had I merely flipped slowly through the book, feeling around for a satisfactory ‘huh’ to turn the page. That’s to say that perhaps some or much of the value of large format art books is, apart from basics and occasional sharp insights, the intimacy with paintings they facilitate purely through duration. Of course there are fantastic large form art books like Athanassoglou-Kallmyer’s Cezanne and Provence: The Painter in His Culture, which are the best of both worlds. Recently I found what is by far the best Cezanne website: http://www.cezannecatalogue.com/.

    Lastly, a list of artists. On wiki journeys I encountered many new (to me) painters, and in art books I deepened my feeling for the few I already knew. Below I’ve pasted a list of those I’m especially fond of, some via only three or four pictures I saw online, others through books I now own and love.


    Paul Cezanne

    Henri Matisse

    Odilon Redon

    Paul Klee

    Edouard Vuillard

    Egon Schiele

    Piet Mondrian

    Adolphe Joseph Thomas Monticelli

    Florine Stettheimer

    Vincent van Gogh

    Jan Sluijters

    Gustave Klimt

    Gustave Moreau

    Cuno Amiet

    Paul Sérusier

    Pierre Bonnard

    Marguerite Zorach

    James Abbott Mcneill Whistler

    Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot

    Anselm Keifer

    Mikhail Nesterov

    Charles Filiger

    Konstantin Bogaevsky

    Mikhail Vrubel

    Eliseu Visconti

    John Henry Twachtman

    Oskar Kokoschka

    Leon Wyczółkowski

    Jan Stanisławski

    Koloman Moser

    Caspar David Friedrich

    Hassel Smith

    George Ștefănescu

    Pavel Feyerabend

    Arnold Bocklin


    The second half of this essay is a selection of ten of the twenty-odd pieces I’ve written about Cezanne so far. I call them ‘pieces’ because I’ve got no idea whether they are prose-poems, poems, paragraphs, or anything else. Anne Carson’s ‘short talks’ form is certainly one of my models.


    Alex Danchev in his biography Cezanne: A Life claims that Rilke writes of Cezanne using at least 16 shades of blue. A commentator on Danchev notes that some of the blues Rilke mentions are not colours in Cezanne’s work but observations of colours he’s seen (in Paris, in Van Gogh, etc.). In any case the fact remains of Rilke’s–Rilke!–magical list of 16 blues:

    Some of them are familiar (sky blue, sea blue, blue-green), but for the most part these were no ordinary blues. Among his blues: a barely blue, a waxy blue, a listening blue, a blue dove-gray, a wet dark blue, a juicy blue, a light cloudy blue, a thunderstorm blue, a bourgeois cotton blue, a densely quilted blue, an ancient Egyptian shadow-blue, a self-contained blue, and a completely supportless blue (Danchev 364).

    I find the abstract blues the most interesting, but I use – or plan to use – all of them among the pieces in this book. Any paintings cited (two pieces are titled [in brackets] after the paintings they’re about (cf. ‘ekphrasis’) should be easily googleable.


    The universe is round. The Earth is round. The life is round. In its roundness lies its wilderness, where one wanders, where there is no way. This connection between sphere and void unites two motifs in Cezanne which in most ways diverge: apples and rocks. In composing either he perfects a ‘miniature of the universe’, but at the same time a reality he’s unable to remain in. We stumble upon him at the quarry crying with rage. A shrub eats his canvas. I watch his distorted red face and dash off a few red herrings of his voice saying, There’s the mountain, but the paint isn’t dark enough! and The Intérieur of a Forest isn’t intérieur enough! and The lowest worm can’t enter my apple!


    The freest sign of all I found in the forest of Chateau Noir Park, ca. 1900 on p192 of Duchtung’s Paul Cezanne (ISBN 9783836510127). Finished as any ‘unfinished’ Cezanne I’d seen, the painting he gave to Nature was still wet, not ‘swallowed by the earth’ as Renoir suggested. And just as one stares down a seething patch of ants till it emerges into a sign, I stared at the foot of the granite ledge. Four ages sirened by. Well, I couldn’t find any fault in the canvas from where I was. To fine-tune my vision I decided first to see Chateau Noir Park as it stands in real French gloom, subtracting Cezanne’s vision, the stereoscope, the telescope, etc., all discourse–to see the ‘naked motif’. Once I did this I could attend to the nameless painting no one will ever believe I saw. But Nature’s colours were more, not less than the paint: nothing remained.


    This nothing which remained. I rotated it 90° counter-clockwise and–redshift–it emerged, perhaps what every landscape began (and many ended) as: a portrait of Hortense. A Y-shaped trace of listening blue became her parted hair; two quick dark strokes opened asymmetric eyes; a kind of menhir woke its yellow dress. Paul and Hortense, they could look at each other a long time. An agreement took shape between ever-finer modulations of affection, work, fate as created sur le moment serving a solidity outside fate, work, affection.


    [Village in Provence ca. 1885]

    Village in Provence without a name, what happens here? When does it happen? Time burns inflammable bushes. Here and there a fricative puffs. What does it spell? How, place x, did you end up behind trees half repoussoir, half screen? Can you speak, M. Cezanne, for this orange village, this village you forever might have grown up in, continually might have taken your last breath within? You pass it every day. ‘M. Posna,’ the you of the Self-Portrait in Washington turns round to say, ‘there will always be a vantage, however concealed, from which a screen or repoussoir will frame your motif. Though a Tartar camp undulate on seas of grass with nothing taller than a Tartar for a hundred offings, there will be a distance from which tulip or baobab trees, Columbian masts or chimneys of Chernobyl (‘cheminées de Tchernobyl’), show you the place as you see it’. So (I said) you’re passing the dry and nameless village, framed by seven miles of finitude, birdsong near and far, en route from Aix to the Gardanne of Gardanne in Merion, where the Hortense of Madame Cezanne with Hortensias (Private Collection), she of the Portrait on loan to the Staatliche, and the little Paul of The Artist’s Son in Little Rock live.


    Halfway through life Paul cocks his head four fields distant from Camille, who is four fields again from Hortense. The triangle, or cone, rather, to stick to Cezanne’s three basic shapes, flutters like barely blue silk in the mistral. Now let us make of this cone a pyramid (a domesticated cone) as one makes of Nature a garden. At its apex rests an eye, our eye. We gaze down at the three figures among ochre squares and green, each looking quite determined from our timeless vantage. No thin sheet of fire races under any skin, no gazes smolder to pierce the belts of alders, all is warm wind and bees. Pissarro paints into his country two figures. Hortense one.


    [The Black Clock, ca. 1870]

    ‘You have to know how to catch and cajole these fellows…These glasses and plates talk among themselves. Endless confidences’. Endless. Through a medium like rock which carries the slam of tides from sea to bach, conch calls to clock: Cruel clock, redeem my song, which isn’t mine but the sea’s, save the sea if you can’t help me. Our maker is afraid, afraid of the sea, of himself and of thee. We are one in paint, we three, on this gorgon-marbled cloth his eye made unfree–deliver my song, which is of you and of the sea. Clock calls to conch, Cruel conch, it is for thee alone to save thy dirge, for I with mine, which is not mine but Time’s, need all my courage. Though waves against my numbers surge, and I with space do seem to merge, like our far Maker, completely insupportable blue demiurge, for you to ask this thing of me is hard. You see my hands with nothings verge, and touch your dirge.


    He kept on his nightstand a small Grecian urn as a kind of memento vite. Three years before death Cezanne, as he wrote to Vollard, was ‘working doggedly, for I see the promised land before me’. At the time he wrote this Cezanne was working on a nature morte with three skulls. Banging his head against the Chateau Noir. The final orogeny of Mont Sainte-Victoire moved within him. ‘Shall I be like the great Hebrew leader or shall I be able to enter?’ To reply to this question addressed to no one you must ask, What does he mean by ‘promised land’? Certainty? Pure composition? Well, in light of the late Garden at Les Lauves (1906); in black light of abstraction’s issue to come, traced to the seed of Cezanne, many as the sands of The Sea at L’Estaque; in completely supportless blue light of the tablets he received from Calliope and smashed behind the people again and again, we can see Cezanne as the Moses of Modern Art, who could see from one end of the world to the other, forbidden in the final instance to penetrate the countless fields of foregrounds he elided. To think of replying at all we must take a position at the end of time; we must take seriously Cezanne’s doubt about Cezanne’s Destiny. In light of all the paintings of his own death in the style of the Moses of Deuteronomy; in sienna light of his ascent to the last moment which, as Nebo had for Moses, grew before Cezanne his whole life; in blank (‘unfinished’) light of his knowledge of the fate of every Hebrew in every Canaan, we might doubt his doubt.


    That year (1887) Morley and Michelson compared the speed of light in perpendicular directions: it was the same. There was no ‘aether’. ‘But what about the speed of dark?’ Lewis Carroll says through a lion. The lion turns her attention to Wagner: ‘Queens too, of every biome, must die’, the latter transmits to a beggar through CPR. A flagstone on the path to dark energy, which even the serious depth of Cezanne’s Madame Cezanne (with Unbound Hair) is hopeless to counteract. And just as one unmoors a small boat which drifts toward a blue fata morgana in which sleeps the Mother of God, progenitress of the Mona Lisa, more and less voyaged gazes, just so she pushes off, living approaching the surface of the canvas. Like Rocks in the Forest, like the Chateau Noir, Cezanne’s Madame Cezanne endures. Hortense Fiquet’s Hortense Fiquet sleeps in some seldom-read letters.


    If Cezanne opened the door to modern art, he must also have opened it to naturalism (for one travelling in the other direction). He is in fact the doorkeeper, admitting whom he chooses, those who talk like they’ve had a good look around. But no, this is not in his power. Not because he’s dead–the dead are omnipotent–but because there is a law which forbids it. What, you ask, is this law against naturalism, this law made to be broken par excellence? Not against naturalism but against retreat. Upheld every time Sisyphus starts from scratch. Broken far more often; it’s unenforceable. What becomes of a law that can’t be enforced? It gives way to grace. Which is what a camera obscura is. You’ve got an inside and an outside. The little man in the dark room merely reports on the sun’s work. He’s only the messenger.


    Nebuchadnezzar had a problem, which was also Cezanne’s problem. He dreamt a bitter, a heartbreaking, a waking dream, and he didn’t know what it meant. Moreover, he forgot the dream. But not the bitterness. So he summoned his childhood friends and worn counsellors. He not only wanted the dream explained, he wanted it told. ‘But your majesty, it was your dream’. Daniel, a smug prophet, was brought from below. On the way up God told him the king’s dream. Daniel told Nebuchadnezzar. This story had a special significance for Cezanne, who always struggled with this idea of Daniel telling the king his dream. Sure, he could tell him the plot. But what’s a plot? He could interpret the symbols. But what’s behind the referents? Words, everyone knows, are impotent to transmit dreams, just as paint fails–how it hurt!–before Nature’s colours. But a picture, like Daniel’s outline, had to suffice. He demanded of his palette not only that it interpret Nature, but that it tell him what he, Cezanne, had seen.


    Lee’s Reading List

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