Rachel Cohen

4. Cézanne Still and Blue

Frederick Project: To Resolve

Frederick Project To Resolve

Paul Cézanne, Still Life with a Ginger Jar and Eggplants, 1893-94, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photos Rachel Cohen

Today I’m going to work on how Cézanne’s blue resolves.

One sense of resolve is to determine to go forward. Cézanne’s perennial project. Famous for destroying his canvases, for painting them out and scraping them off and beginning again, for going out on the road every day to set up his easel and work again at the view of the bay, the view of the mountain. Speaking to few, often frustrated, lonely.

The resolve took great force of character because it was full of uncertainty. He never was sure. Which points back toward an earlier sense of the word resolve, to melt, dissolve, reduce to liquid. See his acknowledged unsteadiness.

We say that photographs have high resolution when we cannot see the separation of their elemental particles. This could mean that the particles are thoroughly dissolved into the medium, the liquid inks, the electronic fields of color. Highly resolved is when things that have been separate are made continuous.

For Cézanne, blue is a key to resolution. Blue knew how hard he worked and was gracious with him.

The resolution to go forward in uncertain circumstances – a resolution that seems especially necessary to get hold of today – would take its force from a thousand small divergences coordinated into one medium.

This is the incredible property of paint: a liquid medium in which the elements of the world may be dissolved and reconstituted anew.

Frederick Project: To Resolve

Ceacutezanne detail of The Bathers Art Institute of Chicago

Paul Cézanne, The Bathers 1899/1904, Art Institute of Chicago, detail Rachel Cohen

Yesterday, I wrote about Beauford Delaney’s blue, green, and yellow – the way the blue filters down through the trees; the radiant effect of combined green and yellow. Today, I want to pursue blue.

I’ve taught Rebecca Solnit’s essay on blue from her Field Guide to Getting Lost, and I’ve taught Maggie Nelson on blue in her book Bluets. Blue runs through many fields of study – those two writers and many others have traced its threads in landscape, in vision, in philosophy, memory, sorrow, tranquility.

Today I’d like to think about blue as a color of resolve.

My mind skittered for a bit. But it settled on Cézanne. That is a way to talk about blue and resolve. Which Cézanne? The Bay at L’Estaque here at the Art Institute? That unfinished oil I’ve written about that’s at the Fogg Museum in Cambridge? Or the mountain, St. Victoire, that he painted so often. The St. Victoire my mind is most familiar with is the one at the Metropolitan, with that long slow curve of rising brown. Mont Sainte-Victoire, ca. 1902-1906.

Surely I have photos? A kind of desperation to get to them all, photograph them again with their accumulating areas of blue, the blue over blue. Panic of separation. Forty-five minutes of searching through photos, no, it seems I never took pictures of that. How many hours have I stood in front of it. The reproduction is impressive, the Met allows you to focus in on brushstrokes, but it doesn’t seem like my own impression, I feel it effacing my memory. So not that painting. And not the Bay of Marseille, Seen from L’Estaque c. 1885 at the Art Institute either.

We were to go to France this spring. I was going to see paintings and talk with curators, go to Aix, and see, for the first time, the bay at Estaque, Mont St. Victoire. Small losses; nevertheless, impediments to understanding; better to acknowledge.

Here’s what I can find today. I did photograph the painting that hangs next to the Bay on the wall at the Art Institute. Here is the museum's photo of the The Bathers 1899 / 1904.

Four photographs.

And perhaps this is not so bad. Because you could look at them all day.

The lines around the figures are of a deep blue, I think it has cobalt in it. Without those lines the figures would dissolve. And blue is also the atmosphere, the air, sky, and water of the painting.

What I want to think about is this. There are two meanings of the word resolve, both from the French resolver. One began in the 14th century. As etymonline has it:

Late 14c., "melt, dissolve, reduce to liquid;" intransitive sense from c. 1400; from Old French resolver or directly from Latin resolvere "to loosen, loose, unyoke, undo; explain; relax; set free; make void, dispel.”

Why is explain with loosen, set free, undo and dispel?

The second meaning came a century later:

From early 15c. as "separate into components," hence the use in optics (1785). Meaning "determine, decide upon" is from 1520s, hence "pass a resolution" (1580s).

Here the sense of determination, the courage and clarity to proceed. This is what I will think about today, and write about again tomorrow – how is Cézanne’s blue holding both of these senses of resolve?

Giacometti and James Lord

Giacometti and James Lord

Alberto Giacometti, drawing, Portrait de James Lord, 1954

Preparing for class this week, I reread James Lord’s book Giacometti: A Portrait. The book is broken into the eighteen sittings Lord did with Giacometti one fall, in September and October of 1964, for a painted portrait. Lord’s book was published the following year.

The class has just begun, but the students and I intend to reflect on drawing, and especially on returning to the same work repeatedly, and I assigned the book in part because of its repetitiveness. It’s as if Giacometti is practicing painting Lord’s portrait – as he goes on, perhaps most of the times he does it, he does it a little better, but then in despair he paints out large parts of it, in gray, white. He begins again, with some layers remaining of previous efforts, to define the head with strong thin blacks. When it is succeeding, there is a sense of space, of the head and what is around the head; at other times it seems lopsided, opaque. He could go on this way a long time. Neither Giacometti nor Lord has any thought that the painting would eventually be finished, the question is at what point to abandon it.
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[The portrait as it was abandoned in October of 1964 and subsequently sold.]



I don’t know if it would be right to say that I have spent a fair amount of time looking at Giacometti, or if it would be more accurate to say that the time I have spent has felt very acute, indelible. I can return to the experiences with clarity, re-enter them. The works let me strain alongside them, strain to an utmost, and that is memorable. Intermittently, they also give me a sense of rest. The sense that they are unfinished because their maker fought as hard as possible creates around them a special atmosphere – quiet, rigor, charity – that resists even something of the stealth of museumization. The work lets me feel not just that I am forgetting the price it fetched at some auction in a world I have no access to, or the women with expensive educations and scarves writing smooth copy to be posted nearby (I might be such a woman, I sometimes am,) or the gift shop hovering in the background that sells the scarves – lets me not forget these things, but somehow go on thinking without being debased, lets me think instead, here is something, I am thinking about it.

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[A detail of Lord’s painted face as posted by someone on the internet.]



Lord talks about a similar kind of alternation between strain and rest – rest is the sense of having contributed – in the experiences of posing for Giacometti. Because Lord is a little bit sneaky, a little bit facile, he also brings this to the tale. Lord is always plotting how to steal a little bit of the experience – he is taking photographs of every stage of the work, he is slipping out to make notes about it and then lying to Giacometti about what he is doing, when Giacometti throws out and destroys some drawings, Lord fishes a few out of the trash, on the final day, he is secretly trying to get Giacometti to stop the cycle of painting on an upswing, toward clarity, which will make the portrait, which Giacometti has told him he will give him, more beautiful to Lord, and more valuable. Giacometti must have known all this. He apparently used to say that he wasn’t interested in portraying the inner life, it was hard enough just to get the outward aspect, but people, including Lord, thought he was a good judge of character. I think it was a relief to Lord, and perhaps this allows me to recognize part of the relief I feel myself in the vicinity of the works, that Giacometti was not concerned about thieves.

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[A version of the portrait in progress as James Lord photographed it.]

Joan Mitchell: Cities in Winter

Joan Mitchell Cities in Winter

Joan Mitchell, City Landscape, 1955, Chicago Institute of Art


Two weeks ago, I went to the Art Institute to spend some time in the new modern wing and my attention was caught by a Joan Mitchell from 1955 called City Landscape.


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Since the election I have been thinking about cities, and living in them, the ways that a city’s life may be dealt a blow.


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It is December in Chicago, and cold, and I saw the heart of the city, what the wall text calls “nerves and arteries” in the colors, so many, too many to look at all at once, that drip together into brown, that, at least in my pictures, resembles the collecting trunk and lower limbs of trees, and I saw the grays and whites above and below as the bleak surrounding sky.


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What a painting this is. Difficult to know, as a real city is, but also, I’m pretty sure, although I haven’t yet had time to find out, it is a painting possible to know, as a real city is.


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Cities, one of the largest things people make together that are still, more or less, on a human scale, can be walked across in a day, can be, with effort and diligence, comprehended by a studying person.


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A moment later, I came to one of the museum’s edges, where it looks out over Millennium Park. Everything was gray, but clustered at the center was the vitality of roads, traffic, the living though not visibly inhabited city, and above there were the rectilinear outlines, the gray buildings fogged at the gray sky.


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In this room, there are Giacomettis, studying and participating in the city.


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They were made in 1947, 1948, 1949, 1960. After the war, before and after the Joan Mitchell. All of their cities have struggled.


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The gray around, the extreme density of the interior. In the new year, we will learn more.


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Giacometti at the New Fogg

Giacometti at the New Fogg

Giacometti, Portrait of David Sylvester, 1960, detail, Fogg Museum


Giacometti made this portrait of the British art critic David Sylvester in 1960:

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I think a restful thing about Giacometti is the way different permutations of the same lines and shadings -- the same darkly scratched lines and the same shadings of gray, white, and black -- constitute both the figure and the ground.  

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A person is a coalescence.  

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And derives substantiality from the abstract.  

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The longer you look, the more humane this seems.  

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Feeling the Air, II

Feeling the Air II

Constable, Hampstead Heath with Bathers, 1821-22, iphone detail

In New York in the fall, making my way through the reorganized back rooms of 19th century European art at the Metropolitan Museum, I was pleased by two landscape recoveries.  Wonderful oil sketches by Constable that used to hang scattered in obscurity, somewhere past the Corots, have been hung together, with prominence.  And three Daubignys, for many years unviewable, now hang in a row, constituting a quiet assertion, long missing at the museum, that this is a painter worth contemplating.
    Constable and Daubigny are tied together in various ways.  An important exhibition of Constable’s oil paintings at the Salon de Paris in 1824 had an impact on the French landscape painters who were to become the Barbizon School, of which Daubigny was a part. Daubigny himself would have been seven years old at the time of this exhibition, but other contact with the work of the great British landscape painters was of significance for him at several key moments in his development.

Intersections are not only biographical.  A nice passage comparing the two painters turns up in a 1903 monograph on Constable by Robert George Windsor-Clive, earl of Plymouth.  Daubigny, writes Windsor-Clive, loved “the quiet tones of early morning and evening effects on the French rivers from a barge on the Oise or the Seine; translucent skies and clear reflections.  He seemed generally to prefer the bright though tender colours of spring and early summer, to the heavier and more sombre tones of August.”  Not so Constable, who chose “the sharper contrasts of midday light, the angry storm-clouds broken by bright flashes of sunlight, and the heavy greens of midsummer.” Nevertheless, the two had something significant in common: “both artists approach Nature with the same honest intention of painting her, so far as they are able, as they see her.” [itals mine]  This was to be accomplished “not with the warm brown foundation and limited colour-scheme of the old school, but with the full perception and enjoyment of local colour both in shadow and in sunlight.”
    The phrase “as they see her,” could be put into the present continuous to bring out something of the painters’ particular quality – as they are in the act of seeing her.  These two, I think, have an unusual genius for making the viewer feel the air. Two of the works I studied at the Met may help me to try to say what I mean.

John Constable’s oil sketch “Hampstead Heath with Bathers,” was one of about a hundred such sketches that he made in that rural location in 1821 and 1822.

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The project was to suggest particular effects of atmosphere.  The text at the Met notes a beautiful fact, that Constable “called this practice ‘skying.’”

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The museum text also points out that Constable “often included a strip of land to contribute a sense of scale and depth.”  This sounds technical, even mechanical, as if it describes a scientific manual that overlays diagrams with little black stripes of measurement. But here, actually, is no mere strip of land, but a protected cove for bathers who are to be seen standing waist-deep in the water.

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The feeling of the sketch (it is a small one, slightly less than ten inches by a little more than fifteen) is that one is oneself wading in the water while the vast sky rushes overhead.  

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The sensation comes partly from the white brushstrokes over the blue of the sky, partly from the way the water gathers and reflects the other colors of the scene, partly from some elusive but definite feeling that the painter molded the paint to reflect the day he was in. The wind was in his eyes.  He wrote on the back of the picture, “July—noon—Hampstead Heath—looking north—wind south east.”

The Daubigny, as the Earl of Plymouth might say, eschews these sharp contrasts of noon and midsummer.  Here is a first sighting.  Distracted by the frame, the shadow cast by the museum’s overhead lights, the photo has the not-knowing-where-to-look quality of the first encounter:

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[Although my iphone pictures have their awkwardnesses, I still prefer them to the Met's online reproductions of these two works, which are curiously bleached of color.  The Constable is lacking the reds and purples that give the heat and excitement of the day, while the Daubigny is missing the cool, dark greens that settle the eyes for darkness.]

In the Daubigny, as in the Constable, figures come to water.  But in the Daubigny our imagination makes us not bathers, but someone who watches the cows returning to the village in the evening.

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The water feels entirely different in the two pictures – one all salt and wind, the other mild and still, for slaking thirst and for repose.  Nevertheless, the presence of water is of great help to both these painters, wishing, as they do, to paint the sky and its movements.  Reflections give a second view, and the looker-on, measuring the sky and its image together, may find it easier to guess and enter the feeling of the day.  One of the great beauties of the Daubigny painting is the way all its gentle forces meet and are reflected back to one another in this central convergence:  

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The light has a luminous yellow arriving from the sky.  Effects of light are entirely different depending on where you look in the picture. A lovely passage of sunset is here:

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I think it is this variety of atmospheric effects within the work that eventually gave me an experience I associate with Daubigny. After looking slowly and with consideration, the painting seemed to show a later time, and to have become more tranquil.  As I became accustomed to it, it had the very effect on me that one sometimes observes in oneself in the evening.  Standing still, looking at the sky, or, especially, the sky and the water together, one feels that the world has, before one’s eyes, grown a shade darker, and that one is oneself aware of the world and a small part of it.  When I photographed what felt like my last understanding of the painting, it came to this:

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