Rachel Cohen

Cézanne Still and Blue

Frederick Project: To Resolve

Ceacutezanne Still and Blue

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.

Lenses

Lenses

Cézanne, Study of Trees, c.1904, Fogg Museum, iphone detail


Today I got new lenses for my glasses.  After more than a month of squinting and blearing and pretending, my eyes knew themselves at last understood and the world came through with that almost bulging astonishing hyper-detail.  Learn the task again.  A half an hour, every few years, of seeing everything in the world at once.

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I was running errands and had not planned to go to the Fogg, but, feeling my sudden seeing, I turned left.  With which painting should I use this beautiful straining and adjusting sight?  I thought of a Beckmann triptych that has eluded me for months, and then of a Cézanne I have struggled with for four years, an unfinished painting from 1904.

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It was a wintry day in Cambridge, cold.  A little snow had materialized as I walked to the optometrist, and then was held in abeyance as I walked away again, and back again, and to the museum.  I saw the day first with the impeding old glasses, then with the odd freedom and powerful myopia of no glasses, and then, every branch and twig in dark lines before the gray sky, with the new glasses.

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It’s on the ground floor.  Past the main room of the Impressionists, through a doorway and on the right.  Often when I get to see a painting well, I have the experience that it seems bigger than I remembered.  Before I was even looking, there was the sense of spaciousness.

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With each of the different degrees of seeing I had today, I was aware of the strange effect of the snow clouds.  Sometimes the gray sky is leaden, and at other times is in wondrous motion.  When it actually particularizes as snow, the eyes draw a hundred relations at once.

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My eyes leaped for it.  And went directly to its depths.  It had always seemed very flat to me, an array of touches on the surface of a gray canvas, but now unmistakeable were the curved road and arching branches.  

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All those touches of paint with their several directions clustered together were like little flags indicating the motion of air and light.  

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In the painting, it was summertime, some summer moment in which, by virtue of everything being a little strange, a little distorted, all the relations between things were suddenly clear.

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When I walked on the street again I saw that I and the other people walking seemed made solitary by the gray snow sky.  But we also seemed held up and surrounded by the palpable space.        

Degas Portrait Trio

Degas Portrait Trio

Three portraits by Degas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

At the MFA right now, a trio of Degas portraits are not to be missed.  They can be stumbled upon in a narrow blue-green corridor on the second floor, next to the sealed off construction zone that is normally Impressionism.  It is as if three of the finest musicians – one at the beginning of his career, one at the end – happened to all be passing through a town on the same night and to have the idea of playing some chamber music – and you happened to be staying at the hotel and to walk by the room they’d found for their rehearsal.    

One of the portraits actually is of musicians – of a guitarist and of Degas’ father, listening.  

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Then in the middle hangs the famous double portrait of Degas’ sister and her to my mind supercilious husband.  

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On the right, the formidable Duchessa di Montejasi and her two wavery daughters.  

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Of course they are famous pictures, but hung together in this order the experience is extraordinary.  


Things noticeable: a significant progression in Degas’ style – from the middle couple painted in 1865,

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to the portrait of his father and Lawrence Pagans dated 1869-72, through to the later piece in 1876.  

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Then there are the family relationships – the father, a little weary but firmly engaged with the music, seems almost to see his outward-gazing daughter as he looks toward the middle portrait – the mother and her two daughters on the right suggest a different balance between the generations.  

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The heights of the paintings, the textures, and palettes, go beautifully together. And then formal resonances: from far apart, the musician and the pair of daughters face each other, while the Duchessa and the married couple have the prominence of facing the viewer squarely, even demandingly.  

And who would have thought the cramped hallway, 253, with its poor lighting and difficult bluish-green paint would make such an astonishing space for them. You have just enough room, by dint of backing and turning, to see all three at once and it is good to look from the long angles the hallway affords and to be brought into such direct confrontation with the pictures.

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Degas’ beautiful-ugly palette is perfect against the wall color, which flattens out most paintings, but seems to make these only more astringent and demanding.  

It is all the strictest happenstance – because the museum is renovating its main Impressionist gallery, where two of these portraits often hang, but in no clear relation to one another; because the renovation has been made the occasion of the “Boston Loves Impressionism” show; because when offered the choice of fifty great Impressionist works the public voting online chose thirty pictures and not one of these Degas portraits; because the curators, possibly a bit frustrated with the limits of curating by public taste saw an opportunity; because the cramped and difficult space is actually better for seeing these paintings then the larger halls in which they more often hang, because of all of this, a rare chance…

Do go.  A little further along the hallway, you will also get to see what is possibly Cézanne’s last self-portrait, hung immediately next to his wonderful “Woman in a Red Armchair,” (moved since I last wrote about it here).  This, too, is a powerful juxtaposition, strong in the tight hallway, not before displayed in like fashion.  The shadow show, the Impressionism Boston does not love, is as revelatory a sequence of paintings as the seven works in the Frick’s Piero show were last year.    

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Close Observation

Close Observation

Paul Cézanne, Woman in a Red Armchair, about 1877, MFA, Boston


A woman, long blue shirt carefully tied over striped skirt, sits in a red chair.  She leans a little to her right, our left, elbow on the arm of chair.  Her hands are folded.

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Cézanne’s way of painting faces means that you can look at them or not.  Everything has surfaces and depths.  Much of the meaning of the figure is not in the face.  The folded hands are important and beautiful.

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Between the forefingers and thumbs are a green that relates them to the skirt below, a blue consonant with the blue shirt above.  Shapes of laced fingers echo shape of dark what seems to be locket or pendant about neck.

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Somewhere Roger Fry writes about the courage of Cézanne’s face-on verticality.  The painting ought to be static, there is so little motion in the way the figure and face are arranged.  All the motion has to come from the paint itself.

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The red armchair.  Faces, designs, flowers in it.  Begins to have an unusual kind of softness around her.

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The model is Hortense Fiquet, for many years his mistress and eventually his wife.  He painted her almost thirty times.

The skirt.

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Another place of conjunction.  Red tassel over yellow wall with blue wainscoting, edge of blue shirt over skirt.  All this is beautiful, orderly, loved, observed, and yet paint.

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The Large Bathers

The Large Bathers

Cézanne, Large Bathers, 1898-1905

Since my father’s death I’ve been twice to look at the Cézanne Large Bathers that our museum has borrowed from the one in Philadelphia.  I might have gone more often but with the baby there hasn’t been so much time.  It’s a vast painting – eight feet high and nine long.  The wall text says its vault of tree trunks makes a cathedral and this is right, not merely architecturally.  These tree trunks, along with a general impression of blue, and the gathered naked bathers, are the things you’re aware of before you know you’re looking, and the trees – four major lines on the left, two which join on the right – organize the space and direct your view.  The groups of people are at ease because they are gathered under and near the trees; the relationship of the figures – to the ochre ground, blue of water with swimmer, huge blue leafy cloudy sky – makes sense because of the curved, triangular view through the trees.  

One of the things your eye is drawn to, small in the distance, is a church with an oblong blue roof over the main building, and a little higher, a triangular blue over its steeple tower.  When I first saw this pair of roofs I thought they were one very beautiful shade of perhaps a cobalt blue.  After I had been looking at the painting for some time I realized that the roofs incorporated many shades of blue.  This was so obvious that I was quite surprised by how definite my early impression of a singular shade had been.  I already knew that the relationships among colors take time to see in paintings, but I hadn’t realized before how dramatically an impression of an individual color can change.  In studying the painting, I had been acquiring subtleties of comparison and distinction, a general blue was becoming various enough to give me back figures, water, distance, sky.  It was all there from the first, but I didn’t have enough experience to see it.  
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The Large Bathers II

The Large Bathers II
After I had been looking at the Large Bathers for a while, I noticed the swimmer.  Clearly a figure: head, hair, flesh tones, mostly submerged, but swimming through the water.  I saw that the painter had been careful to frame this figure, not only by the water's blue, but in the way that it is seen through the arms of the seated figures of the painting's center.  One detailed hand is angled out right over the swimmer, almost pointing to it.  Why was this degree of emphasis used?  From the swimmer the eye goes back to the man and the white beast of burden standing on the far shore and from these two to the steeple and roof of the church.  Leisure, labor, Sunday.  Also, a beautiful backward-directed, slight curve for the eye to trace.  If you were seeing it with someone else you'd have the urge to describe the curve with your hand, and your hand would make a gesture quite like the one the figure in the painting is making, the one that draws the eye to the swimmer.

But I didn't bring my eye forward from the swimmer until weeks later when I went back to look at the picture.  Then I saw that the swimmer is a kind of fulcrum that joins the lines of the painting.  On this second visit, it seemed the whole painting was about whatever it is, that white soft consideration, that the three crouching women hold between them in the foreground.  A cloth?  A sacrament?  Are they folding it, is it to be held among them, does it go into the sand as if buried or are they raising it up?