Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Stories in painting III: like a dog

Paul Cezanne. Compotier, Glass and Apples. 46 x 55 cm. Oil on canvas. 1880.  
This still life by Paul Cezanne returns us to the tale of disappearances of stories from paintings (here are two first posts from this little series: 1, 2). Another episode of this particular plot in the history of painting: its conscious divorce from "literature" in the age of impressionism. 

Rainer Maria Rilke recounts an interesting dialogue in his "Letters on Cezanne" (letter of October 12, 1907). He asked a painter friend of his, Mathilde Vollmoeller, to go with him to Cezanne's exhibition; and at one point, she told him: "He sat there in front of it like a dog, just looking, without any nervousness, without any ulterior motive." 

A remarkable turn of phrase, "like a dog", isn't it? I believe it means, first and foremost, "story-less": a quieted mind, without endless "stream of consciousness" which tends to keep talking in our heads, weaving endless stories about itself and the world, and creating nervousness and ulterior motives in the process.  

As far as I recall, Noam Chomsky estimates that this ceaseless silent talking constitutes 95% of our linguistic activity; in other words, 95% of talking goes on in our heads without ever being "externalized". Which means, for him, that that is the function of language: thinking, not communication. Yet there is also a theory (or rather, a cluster of theories from different fields) that real thinking happens non-verbally; that this eternal internal story-telling, while not without some usefulness, takes over too much of our inner life and distracts us from awareness of here and now; from being fully alive and present in the moment: like a dog.  

There is also this hypothesis (present in somewhat different forms in different theories) that this inner storyteller's role (however one calls it) in our lives has been increasing throughout history and is actually getting out of hand, occasionally becoming more harmful than it is useful. Insofar as this is true (as I believe it might be), this evolution could just be what the age of Impressionism was responding to -- in moving painting away from stories and towards here and now.    

It might also be the reason why impressionism remains relevant, and meaningful, and so alluring for painters and viewers. I will return to this theme tomorrow, please stay tuned... 

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