Arts and Music

The World is an Apple: The Still Lifes of Paul Cézanne at the Art Gallery of Hamilton

I hope Hamiltonians appreciate the miracle of having all this stuff in one room. See them. Better yet, get a membership and drop by every few days.

By Mark Fenton
Published November 07, 2014

I learned how to make a landscape from Mr. Paul Cezanne by walking through the Luxembourg Museum a thousand times with an empty gut.

—Ernest Hemingway

I know artists used to go hungry, but it's hard for me to picture an emaciated Hemingway, at least based on any photos taken after his gig with the Toronto Star. Rather than empty, the documentary evidence of Mr. Hemingway's gut suggests a popped shirt button and a host of spidery stomach hairs. A fine way to move through the Luxembourg Museum.

More importantly the observation fails to reveal what Hemingway actually got from Cézanne. At a time when few visitors to the Luxembourg Museum would have given these pictures much attention, the mere fact of his interest is intriguing.

Jorge-Luis Borges tells us that "every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past..." If that's the case it might be useful to work backwards from Hemingway's strange, stark, descriptive prose to find a way in to Cézanne.

Hemingway's early writing has been given the lofty academic tags 'iceberg theory,' and 'theory of omission,' meaning that 90 percent of the story is below the surface, or simply suppressed.

It's a strain of modernism characterized more by what's left out than by what's put in. The writer gives us fragments and signposts which convey a deeper, implicit story more vividly than would a comprehensive record.

It doesn't surprise me that one of the greatest practitioners of the iceberg approach found inspiration in Cézanne. Looking at the current Art Gallery of Hamilton show of Cézanne still lifes I'm struck by how, as with Hemingway, it's much easier it is to describe what the works don't give me than what they do.

As I survey the room I think of how far Cézanne's paintings are from the still lifes of Dutch masters. I hit Google Images on my iPhone and bring up Floris van Dijck's Still Life with Cheeses dated 1613.

Floris van Dijck, Still Life With Cheeses, 1613
Floris van Dijck, Still Life With Cheeses, 1613 (Image Credit: London Food Film Fiesta)

There's a lot going on here. In the centre of the composition the cheeses in question are piled three deep on a plate. Surrounding them are a fruit bowl, an urn, a plate of grapes, a beer stein, a plate with a halved apple, and various disordered scraps typical of what you see when you're the one stuck clearing the hors d'oeuvres table at the end of a gallery opening.

If you were to draw a loose circle around he objects on the table you'd have something close to a balanced oval in the centre of the picture.

The rendering of familiar, homely objects is meticulous, particularly in the near photographic precision of the table-cloth, and the detail of the white-on-white runner with symmetrical birds in the centre of an elaborate geometry.

The texture is so nuanced, the pattern so well-defined and well-proportioned, the lace edges so soft, that a skilled textile manufacturer could duplicate it for a Floris van Dijck biopic (should a fetish for minor 17th century Dutch painters ever sweep through Hollywood studios.) And van Dijck's representation of physical space is equally flawless. The fold lines of the cloth towards a vanishing point are accurate to the standards of an architectural draftsman.

This and a dozen similar ideals of representation are exactly what we don't get from Cézanne's still-lifes.

I'm now standing in front of Cézanne's Still Life with Bottle Glass and Lemons, and writing this on my iPhone as three AGH guards eye me nervously, worried that I might impulsively turn my device 90 degrees and start using it as a camera. (Despite my having been warned that photography is prohibited.)

It's the earliest painting in the show that fully represents the artist's mature vision, and you can relax because it's the only picture that I'm going to take apart. For the remaining 18 pictures you're on your own.

Sure, as with van Dijck, stuff is on a table. Stuff that people ingurgitate and the vessels people use to contain the stuff that people ingurgitate. But that's where the common ground between van Dijck and Cézanne ends.

It's a good thing Cézanne tells us that the two rounded objects are lemons. They could just as easily be potatoes. Behind them is something that might be a pepper mill, but could be a lemon squeezer, or something entirely else. It's a distinctive shape. Some historian of culinary gadgets in 19th century France knows what it is. I don't.

In front of the lemons is some long green thing with a convex curve roughly the contour and proportions of a straight razor blade. It alarms me. I think it's a vegetable, but if it is, the vegetable it most resembles is one of those small zucchinis I sometimes get in our organic food share - one that's grown thin and withered and liquidy because I dumped it in the crisper and forgot about it for six weeks.

Behind the stuff I've already mentioned is a wine bottle and next to it a glass that's about a quarter full of red wine. There's no elegance in how the objects are arranged as there is in van Dijck's painting. The objects look to have grouped themselves together tightly and artlessly, as though for the sake of combining body heat or from fear of being alone.

The bottle casts a plausible shadow on the cloth. Its angle and width might get a B minus from a drawing instructor. However, the shadow of the glass consists simply of two thin and haphazard marks of dark paint. Not only do the marks not quite connect, they don't reflect the object that casts the shadow and the shadow doesn't correspond in either angle or bandwidth with the shadow produced by the bottle. It almost certainly gets an F from the drawing instructor.

There's nothing in this rendezvous of objects that orients me. I'm not transported to 19th century France. I'm not transported anywhere except to the surface of a rectangle.

A few inches from the bottom of the canvas is a line indicating the edge of the table. We only identify it as such because we've looked at so many beautifully executed tabletops in exquisitely painted still-life's like van Dijck's and know that that's about where still life painters like to place the edge of the table in the rectangle. But the line does nothing to indicate a shift from horizontal to vertical. It renders no sense of perspective. It's just a line in a field of grey.

At the vertical halfway point in the canvas the tablecloth ends and a solid black backdrop begins. Rather than suggesting an undefined negative space between the table and an indeterminate back wall - the way the black background operates in Van Dijck's painting and which my limited knowledge of Dutch still lifes tells me is SOP for the genre - the black of Cézanne's picture isn't negative space. It's solid and opaque.

I stood about ten feet back from the picture and held my thumb up to eclipse the objects on the table so that only the black and grey rectangles remained. The composition now reminded me of one of those late Rothko's consisting solely of a grey rectangle in the bottom half and a black rectangle in the top half.

I quickly found an example Rothko on Google (at this point the guards are really wondering about the mental health of someone who has entered the gallery to stand in front of a single picture for forty minutes, the majority of which time he's staring down into his phone and I think they're whispering to one another in order to decide whether they should radio for backup).

Yeah, there's one. A 1970 Rothko titled Untitled Black on Grey.

Mark Rothko, Untitled Black on Grey, 1970
Mark Rothko, Untitled Black on Grey, 1970 (Image Credit: Wikipedia)

I expected it to have gone a step beyond the Cézanne in abstraction. To my surprise it's more immediately evocative and representational than the Cézanne. A stark landscape consisting of a desolate foreground, a horizon line, and then the empty night sky of the infinite. Rothko's picture gives us a primal sense of ground, sky, space, and void. Cézanne make us struggle much harder for universal references.

Looking up from my phone again and back at Still Life with Bottle Glass and Lemons, I'm more struck than ever at how Cézanne's table and the blackness behind the table are simply rectangles of grey and black. There's no sense of tableness. There's no sense of a darkened room. It's just paint in a rectangle showcasing a bunch of barely definable stuff clustered in the middle.

If my description of the picture is unhelpful to you, that's because the painting is inscrutable to me in the best possible sense of being inscrutable. In the sense that I could look at the picture every day for the rest of my life and not get any closer to describing why it terrifies and excites and confounds and compels me, and I could do the same thing for at least 80 percent of the pictures in the show.

I suspect that's how Hemingway felt about the three landscapes in the Luxembourg Museum (one of which, L'Estaque, Melting Snow, 1871,

Paul Cezanne, L'Estaque, Melting Snow, 1871
Paul Cezanne, L'Estaque, Melting Snow, 1871 (Image Credit: Wikipedia)

was my desktop background for longer than any other image I've had up there.) If you have a laptop, try it. You screen dimensions will be close to the actual size of the picture.

A snow-covered slope corners off the left-bottom third of the painting. Gunmetal clouds barrel-roll away from the viewer and beneath the clouds, open-mouthed and terrified, crouch red-roofed and starkly rendered houses.

But no aspects of geography or architecture or style tell us where we are. These houses could be anywhere I've ever lived, and could just as easily be somewhere no one has ever been.

Because it's one of the pictures he would have seen in the Luxembourg Museum, it's often cited in connection to Hemingway's great two part short story "Big Two-Hearted River," which on the surface does little more than describe a solitary fishing trip in a manner that's intensely visual and at the same time hard to connect to anything else that's happening in the world.

It's a story with little attention to motive and much attention to being in the moment; yet there's much to infer about the world if you care to go deeper. And that's not a bad way to describe the work of Mr. Paul Cézanne.

Since his death, the curve of Cézanne's reputation has been upward and increasingly steep: from unsalable amateur, the darling of the avant-garde elite, to a secret handshake between serious painters everywhere, to universal adulation and some of the highest prices ever paid for paint on a canvas.

Today even critics wary of hyperbole make pronouncement like "the greatest French painter," and "the greatest oil painter period." For both quality and quantity (how many painters made masterpieces in five decades?) he has few equals.

I hope Hamiltonians appreciate the miracle of having all this stuff in one room. See them. Better yet get a membership and drop by every few days. They give more back each time you spend time with them.

The World is an Apple is on display at the Art Gallery of Hamilton until February 8, 2015

Mark Fenton lives in Hamilton and works in transportation logistics. He is the author Pim, a children's book for all ages. The eponymous Pim tweets daily @PIMSLIM_. A physical copy of Pim will be published soon and in the meantime Pim is available as a Kindle e-book which you can buy. Mark maintains a website at www.markfenton.ca.

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By Missy2013 (registered) - website | Posted November 07, 2014 at 21:19:38

Interesting interpretation, well described and well written. Agree that the abundance of works on display give a rare opportunity to consider the work.

Cant say though that the works "terrify", "excite", "confound" and "compel".

I think, as with most art works, there must an element of resonance, soul to soul, spirit to spirit ... Cezanne doesn't do it for me. But he, clearly, does it for you.

Thank you for this review.

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