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Rachel Cohen

Cézanne and Ponge: Wooden Table

Frederick Project: Tableau

Ceacutezanne, still life

Paul Cézanne, Still Life with Commode, 1887-88, Harvard Art Museums, detail photos Rachel Cohen

The painting is called Still Life with Commode. It’s from 1887-88, a strong period of Cézanne’s work. He was fighting hard with his canvases, and able to do some of what mattered to him.

He made two very similar versions of this painting, which was unusual for him; there is only one other still life pair where he worked through the same arrangement twice. So, the elements and their arrangement here were of unusual interest to him.

The back of the picture is the commode.

Which is very wooden. The brown is so rich with this green.

Illuminated with the jar and its underlaid white, the yellow and rose.


Yesterday, my friend Massimo Warglien sent me a note that was partly about Cézanne, about Merleau-Ponty and ideas of space and time. Massimo also mentioned the poet Francis Ponge, and a line from one of Ponge's poems that he thought went together with the Cézanne of Merleau-Ponty.

"I recently read a series of radio conversations by Merleau-Ponty (translated in English as “The world of perception”). Discussing the work of Cézanne, he claims it captures “a world in which regions of space are separated by the time it takes to move our gaze from one to the other, a world in which being is not given but rather emerges over time.” I like to connect it, as a kind of non-human mirror, to Francis Ponge: “Le temps des végétaux se résoult à leur espace” - again, resolving, a word I found in your notes on Cézanne."

I might translate that line of poetry: The time of growing plants resolves itself in their space. Ponge, the poet of things – of soap, shells, asparagus – trailing back and forth across the border we usually make between the animate and the inanimate. I love Ponge's poems, and I have thought of the work of Ponge as part of thinking about still life, but I don't think I have ever thought of Ponge and Cézanne together.


I woke early this morning. By my bed, a tiny book that has been there for months, a new translation of Ponge’s book The Table. Translated by Colombina Zamponi and published by Wakefield Press. It is in the form of a notebook. Meditations on the table, written and written again in 1968 and 1970.

In the second entry, Ponge remarks on the etymological relationship between la table and the French word for a painting or picture, le tableau. A painting is directly derived from a table, a rectangular area of consideration. I thought of the Cézanne I had set myself to think about this last few days.

The planes of wood are so evident. And the others almost hidden away.

I feel sure Cézanne noticed the resonance between his table and his tableau.


Ponge writes over and over about writing and tables, how he cannot write without a table, or a tablet, how the horizontal plane is an absolutely necessity. He says the wall on which the first paintings were made has come down to be the table. The second part of an entry from 23 Oct. 70 reads:

The Table is (also) the reversal from back to front (from behind man to his front) of the wall, its position no longer vertical but horizontal. (oblique, in fact: the way Braque's billiard table is broken from horizontal to an oblique vertical.)

In La Table, Ponge mentions two painters: Braque and Picasso. How Braque’s billiard table "is broken from hoizontal to an oblique vertical.” Braque studied Cézanne very closely, and the spatial inventions of Cézanne are always described as the foundation of Cubism. In Cézanne, it is almost as if the painted objects stutter around their edges and this lets them be true and independent without losing touch with one another. [A student of mine used the word stutter about a visual work last fall, though I can no longer remember which student, and I think that student in turn picked it up from an essay by Valeria Luiselli called "Stuttering Cities."]

Ponge’s writing in La Table is especially, deliberately, broken. It also stutters, rephrasing, underscoring, giving different possible iterations, going back the next day to extend or work through again.


It was still almost dark this morning when I woke, and I turned on the bedside lamp to read. Still lying down, I opened the little book at random, and Ponge wrote:

The Table

If not a table (—considering I'm writing this in bed, (and many other texts have been written in the underwoods or on the riverbank)—a tablet at the least is {necessary / indispensable (for this very piece of writing)} (notepad with a cardboard backing, rigid notebook, or, as I have been in the habit of using, a clipboard)}:

A tablet, therefore still a table.

I turned to the first page, to read through in order. I was moved that for Ponge, too, to begin was this time of day. Early in the dark morning. A time that it seems all my friends are in, very gray, where we are putting one foot in front of another, very uncertain.

In the first entry, Ponge writes of the emergence of color in things:

It is daylight, light to read (enough to read) and write (writing comes a bit earlier) about an hour before the sun (that can be seen out here, over the summits of the Roquefort or the Rouret) rises. (which is to say, at 8 a.m. on the dot)

No star left visible, not even the brightest.

Only Venus (and the Moon) still shine, but (as we know) with a light only lent to them.

The colors start to come through more or less around the same time

(first the reds

then the golds, the yellows

then the greens and finally the blues

(8 or 10 minutes

later) Venus is still shining

Broad daylight at 7:15 a.m.


Now I am sitting at my desk, which is a long piece of wood, an old door that Matt turned horizontal. On it, is my computer, the screen at an oblique vertical. Here is my notebook, showing writing and pictures, table and tableau at once.