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.

Hiroshige's Views of Kyoto

Frederick Project: Reconstruction


Hiroshige, Kiyomizu Temple (Kiyomizu), from the series Famous Views of Kyoto (Kyoto meisho no uchi), ca. 1834. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, photos Rachel Cohen.

In December of 2019, I went to New York for a few days and various reasons, and I went twice to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was covering their show Kyoto: Capital of Artistic Imagination, for which they had reinstalled their Japanese galleries with works from their permanent collection that partake in the long Kyoto tradition. Kyoto was for many centuries the capital of Japan – this capital was eventually shifted to Edo, which is now called Tokyo. The two cities were connected by a famously beautiful road, the Tokaido Road, and many artists traveled along this road, making some of the fifty-five stops along it and recording the views of temples and natural wonders.

This morning, I thought I would like to write about a set of four abstract Joan Mitchell paintings called “La Vie en Rose,” painted in 1979, which I had looked at while at the Met. But when I went to look at my pictures I couldn’t bear the tones – pale rose, white, lavender, black. Some other day they will be wonderful again, but not today.

Most of the other pictures were from the Kyoto exhibition, and I idled around in them for a while. Then I came upon three that I loved.

This was the tonality of this morning. It was gray out, there was a dull feeling of undertaking the routine again. I loved this brown, the way in one area it was blue-infused, and in the others combined with the under-green, like something from a pine woods. I loved the buff-colored space that had been left open in areas, the pieces of olive-gray that formed and scattered.

I was pretty sure these fourth and fifth photos were of the same print, because of the open spaces, the way the branches lifted across them, the palette of gray, and this yellow that made sense.

They were from a woodblock print that had been on the left-hand wall of one of the last galleries, among several, all by Hiroshige, each one under glass, with a glare, and quite hard to photograph. I had taken a few hurried shots on the first visit, and when I returned had forced myself to slow down and try to get better photographs, slightly from the side. I always photograph the wall text at the same time, so I know what my images are from, but hadn’t, on the second visit. So I spent a precious forty minutes combing through the 745 Hiroshiges that belong to the Met. Who knew they had so many. In the small thumbnails, blues were most apparent. I was skipping blue, though, looking for gray-brown with some under green, some yellow in the sky. Finally it occurred to me to search for Hiroshige and Kyoto, and I found it. From the Metropolitan Museum of Art:

It would have been easy to have looked most at the veranda and the larger figures, but I had loved the distant view, which is in the work's title. Kiyomizu Temple (Kiyomizu), from the series Famous Views of Kyoto (Kyoto meisho no uchi), ca. 1834. The reproduction from the Met is clear, and if you go to their website you can zoom in and get details and it’s quite nice. But, it does not have the warm tonality I love in my own pictures, which I believe really are closer to the original.

Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858), who lived in Edo, went several times to Kyoto. He made the trip along the Tokaido Road in 1832, and made several sets of prints about Kyoto.

The people on this veranda are looking across to the distant temple. They point, and, looking again, I can make out small ink lines of figures in the open space of the temple. These other lines of figure seem involved in their own observance, but perhaps a few are looking in turn at the figures we stand close to.

I realized that I couldn’t locate this detail, the one that had first caught my eye, whose blue seemed the necessary counterpart to the pine green of the others.

It must be in the print, the foliage so similar. But a little bit of writing lifted in the sky above couldn’t be made to fit. Another print then. More searching. Ah, the one that had been next to it. The Great Bridge at Sanjo, ca. 1847-52. From the Metropolitan Museum:

That was the end of the Tokaido Road. I had also taken this detail, of two working women carrying firewood.

When looking back through, I had amalgamated the buildings near the edge of the hill into the other print.

Fifteen years separate the two prints. In the Met’s reproductions there is not even a hint of brown in this later one, all is a slatey gray. But, because of a few accidents of juxtaposition and elision in my own records, I felt the details from the two prints were united. I can see how the artist might have thought of that earlier view across to the temple as he and his printers worked at this plate.

Out my own window, the tonality has changed entirely, sky now blue-white and branches lit from the sides with April sun. It was a frustrating little bit of morning, but I learned something about brown and its relationship to green, to buff, to olive. The yellow and blue in the sky matter, even though I could only see the tonalities I wanted when they had been set aside.

Abstraction and Eyes

One of the unusual aspects of Beauford Delaney’s work as an abstract painter was that even late in his career, when he lived in Paris and had moved very fully into abstraction, he also painted very specific and characterful portraits.  These two kinds of paintings were shown together during his lifetime – at, for example, the Galerie Lambert on the Île St. Louis in 1964 – and have been shown so since his death – in particular at the Levis Gallery in Chelsea last year, an exhibition, that, regrettably, I was not in New York to see. [Here are Dr. Ahmed Bioud, 1968, and an untitled work from ca. 1958-9.]

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From accounts I’ve read, this alternating display of persons and abstractions asks something very particular of the viewer.  I caught a suggestion of the experience from watching a video of the opening at the Levis Gallery – it might interest the reader to look at it here:


One thing that clearly holds the two approaches together is something essential about the paint itself, its handling.  Responding to the 1964 show, the French art critic Jean Guichard-Meili felt that, in the end, the two kinds of works “do not differ… Background, clothing, hands, faces, are the pretext for autonomous harmonies.”  Guichard-Meili describes the paint itself as having “movements of internal convection,” and says that the one experiences “the vibrations of underlying design.”  [This account appeared in the journal Arts and is quoted in David Leeming’s wonderfully gentle biography of Delaney, Amazing Grace, p165.]

A similar idea – that the patterning and movement of the paint is common to both the portraits and the abstractions – is to be found in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts catalog of its Delaney retrospective of 2004-2005.  Here is Delaney’s The Sage Black (James Baldwin) of 1967.  [Photo courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery.]

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The catalog says that, “Delaney superimposed a calligraphic outline on the abstract composition of reds, greens, yellows and blues.  Filled with all the colors of a flame, this incendiary, combustible background peers through Baldwin’s form…” This language seems to me to greatly simplify what I can tell even from reproductions of the work, which is that the colors shift dramatically between the ground and the figure, that the background does not merely “peer through,” but is transformed, condensed, reconstituted in and by the person.  I find it hard to understand the eyes in this painting.

                                                       *  *  *

In Paris, Monique Y. Wells maintains a wonderful website called Les Amis du Beauford Delaney, an important resource, and she has two entries on Delaney’s portraits of his friend James Baldwin.  This was one of the most significant friendships of either man’s life.  On the site, the art historian Catherine St. John offered comments on another portrait of Baldwin, this one backed in Delaney’s signature yellow.

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St. John writes two things that seem to me exactly to the point.  The first is her description of how to consider Delaney’s yellow: “His tactile surfaces of brilliant colors are prime carriers of light and space and it is in his use of yellow - ochre, cadmium, lemon - that we discover the substance of light in relation to spirit.”  She goes on to suggest a way of thinking about this relationship, of light to spirit, in terms of the figure.  “The isolated, self-contained image of Baldwin is the special intersection of the world of light and the subjective consciousness that Beauford Delaney brought to his portraits. It is a supremely expressive portrait in which the eyes, the most intimate and powerful feature of the face, act like magnets.”

This is a deeper understanding of the relation between abstraction and the figure in Delaney’s work and near to something Delaney himself said in trying to explain the single project that lay behind what seemed two divergent methods.  David Leeming says that “Beauford explained to friends that both approaches were studies in light revealed—the light that gave meaning to the individuals depicted in the large volumes of color in the portraits and the light considered directly as contained in the juxtaposition of minute and closely packed bits of blue, red, and especially yellow in the abstract paintings.” [Leeming, p164.]

There is much to be said, and much has been said, on the metaphysics of inward light in Delaney (and in Baldwin) but here I want to confine myself to one observation, which is that the eyes, in some important way, do not have it.  They seem in their dark opacity, or even in their dark brilliance, to reflect on light rather than to be lit.  Like magnets, they also have darkness, and draw us by an absorbing force that pulls inward.  And this seems very precisely understood.  For the eyes would have to be the very site of inversion, the very place where the abstract meets the formed person, the lens across which the inner and outer worlds interpret one another.