Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Cezanne and Rilke: towards the inner core of art

Paul Cezanne. Mont Sainte-Victoire. 1895. 73x92 cm. Oil on canvas. 

How to see a mountain like Moses

In his introduction to Rainer Maria Rilke's "Letters on Cezanne", Heinrich Wiegand Petzet quotes this remark made by Rilke to Count Harry Kesler in front of a picture of Montagne Sainte-Victoire: 
"Not since Moses has anyone seen a mountain so greatly"
I cannot know which of the multitude of versions of "Mont Sainte-Victoire" they were looking at, but that doesn't really matter: the remark evidently applies to either of them, or rather, to all of them. Just pause and have a long look at this painting above, letting Rilke's sentence play in your mind, and you will feel it.

I wanted to introduce this remark, and Rilke's book -- as non-technical as they are precise in the deepest sense -- before I return to the technical discussion based on Erle Loran's book I began in the first post of this series. As a painter, I am of course very much interested in the technical, constructive aspects of Cezanne's composition (they can teach you more about painting than any teacher); and yet, it's a bit too easy to lose sight of what it is, ultimately, all about if one focuses on techniques and compositional strategies alone. There is too much of this sight-losing in the contemporary world and painting-related discourse, I believe.

That's why I've decided to anchor this series in two books, one by an analytically minded painter, another, by a poet, extraordinarily perceptive to painting and dedicated to uttermost exactitude in words.

A poet and a painter

Paul Cezanne. Rue des Saules. Montmartre. 1867
If you've been following this blog for a while, you might have guessed that my own ultimate source of natural high lies somewhere on the intersection between painting and poetry. It's no surprise, then, that I would be drawn to letters on painting by a poet who is so deeply influenced by, and attracted to, visual arts. If ever this intersection (which I keep seeking, finding and losing again) has been expressed in words, it's right there in Rilke's letters to his wife. (One disadvantage is that reading Rilke's prose makes one think twice before even attempting to string two words together, because everything feels like loose wool in comparison to his clarity and precision. But if you are reading this, it means I have successfully overcome this version of writer's block for the time being).

Even if you aren't really into poetry, these letters are, I believe, a must read for anyone remotely interested in painting. On the one hand, they document how the highest success of a painter in reaching another person's soul, and mind, and the very sense of vision, looks like. This is the highest, and also deepest, level of human communication; compassion, co-thinking, co-vision. On the other hand, Rilke reaches deep into the very essence of painting; his insights are likely to teach you a lot even if you are a painter yourself. And if you are not, this is even more likely (by the way, Rilke himself said that it's only with the help of his artists' friends that he had learned how to see a painting).

These letters to his wife were written in 1907, when Rilke was living in Paris and visiting the Autumn Salon, with two rooms worth of Cezanne's retrospective, every day (Cezanne died in 1906). Sometimes alone, sometimes with friends, but mainly he went to Cezanne rooms, because he felt there was something essential to be understood there, to learn, and described his experiences, this process of understanding, in the letters. He would never write a book about Cezanne, but this collection of letters, with their immediacy and utmost openness, is probably even better.

Life vs. work

Paul Cezanne. Self-portrait with palette. c. 1890.
Rilke grasped the innermost core of Cezanne's achievement: the extraordinary tension between the depiction and what is being depicted, between what is being seen and how it is seen, between painting and motive; the tension that creates both a spark of communicative energy and a sense of ultimate harmony. Loran focuses on the workings of how this tension is achieved: how exactly does Cezanne modify the scene he sees? How does he create the tension between the deep space of illusion and the reality of the picture plane? There will be a lot about this in the future posts, but for now, I want to mention another, larger aspect of essentially the same tension, one that was urgently and personally relevant for Rilke (and is for me). The tension between life and work; life and art.  

Cezanne's life, his withdrawal to Aix-de-Provence, his unwavering focus on his work -- so strong that nothing else really matters (he even missed his mother's funeral because he couldn't lose even a day of work) -- fascinates Rilke no less than his paintings. He understands that such an achievement is only possible if the artist is constantly at the centre of his art, not going in and out to attend to life an its daily trappings, only brushing the art's periphery. This uncompromising solitude, this withdrawal from "life" into the centre of art, tempts Rilke, pulls him into itself as though into an abyss: he feels that he should change his life as a result of this encounter with Cezanne. And I feel his temptation as my own, as though it's the only way to being truly alive.

If nothing else, it is an invigorating change of perspective and tune from the extraordinary noisiness and scurry that surrounds us now and very much defines the contemporary art world; from the pervasive, deafening pretense that things changed so much that now one has got to engage into a flurry of shows, contests, career-building activities, preferably under the wise guidance of an "art world professional", to be a real artist. Reading Rilke's letters, like looking at Cezanne's paintings, gives you pause, silences this noise, draws you, powerfully and irresistibly, into the utmost centre of art.

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