Saturday, October 1, 2016



“‘He sat there . . . like a dog, just
looking, without any nervousness,
without any ulterior motive.’”
—Mathilde Vollmoeller, on 
  Cézanne, quoted by Rilke
  in Letters on Cézanne.

An old geezer, indeed, in a pasture somewhere, who 
had never started a painting 
with a wash but expanded outward and outward,
from one disparate element to another,
fusing them,
as if forcing two stones to copulate,
slashing his intemperate strokes
across the canvas while marveling at the chipped 
planes of a lava mass.

He molested himself so brutally, nobody wanted to know 
about it but 
merely to glance at his quivering apples—
produce from a local market, 
propped up stoically on Madam Brémond’s bedspread
(she’d eventually miss them) 
next to a pitcher or any inert object an arm’s length 
while, like an orphan, asking her politely 
for slightly better food.

The house with the ominous cracked walls he observed 
outside Aix that rattled him like a charred body and that 
he rendered with such passionate lucidity
(not in line but conviction),
one knew immediately his intent was not prophetic,
only confessional—

as was his pot of primroses, 
or Madam Cézanne (Hortense Fiquet),
who, it has been written, he treated harshly
and who in his portraits of her sits stiffly, obediently, 
centrally, often tilted to an impossible angle like a leaning 
but stable poplar, with no relevant background, no 
relevant foreground,
merely reiterated, like the slabs of Mont Sainte-Victoire.

It was not subject he was pursuing but surface,
assuming he was aware of pursuing anything,

which most likely he was not, 
simply pummeling the canvas in order to compose 

An ordinary man who had taken on 
a ridiculous task that produced no millinery, 
that no one actually was concerned with until he had 
accomplished it
(and even then it had to be tallied, sold, and written 
about), with neither
ambition nor forethought but merely encumbrance, 
and he couldn’t recall having been asked 
to do anything but sell hats,

although as a child some irascible pedagogue must have 
chosen him out of a class of retards and said, 
let us see what you see—share it with us— because when
look at you, I observe a maggot, a disgusting grub, and 
it nauseates me thoroughly.”

There is something to be learned about living—that living 
itself is a kind of ruin out of which premises can emerge, 
that a painting can ultimately destroy you because one 
realizes  “‘. . . there are no contours but only 

oscillating transitions,’” 
and Cézanne, recognizing himself, shoots up at the table 
and “‘voiceless with agitation’” points his finger repeatedly 
at himself and grieves.

A dangerous man, “angry, mistrustful, ridiculed and 
mocked each time he went to his studio,” said Rilke,
and gather round me, ye children, and throw stones at the 
old man, like a stray dog,
let’s injure him or ignore him to death, how dare he be shabby,
how dare he be Cézanne.

To have labored maniacally over a single shadow that 
may not have been a shadow but a new light others 
had failed to recognize because their understanding was 
so limited, their horror so endless . . .

“Surely all art is the result of one’s having been in danger, 
of having gone through an experience all the way to the
end, to where no one can go any further,”

and Cézanne in his badly lit studio “ran back and forth . . . 
with green apples scattered about
or went out into his garden in despair and sat.”

It was never the morning, it was never the night, it was 
always the irritant, the balm . . . comical, grotesque . . . 
sur le motif he called it, 

la réalisation, as if his marrow were a horse that refused 
to stand still long enough to be harnessed.

Sur le motif, like a wolf on a goat, and Cézanne and I 
stroll through the woods 
and listen to the cockatoos
and the trees breathing, and he looks at me and says,
“This is not the point,” 
and strays off to a precipice where he stands silently
staring over a village. 

“One lives so badly, because one always
comes into the present unfinished, unable, distracted.”

Dissolution is everywhere, and I have no competence to 
account for it, nor Rilke: “. . . the animals
already know by instinct we’re not comfortably 
at home in our translated world.”

Art has its own dominion.
Not reproduction or escorting your grandmother
across the mall,
but rather a corked bottle, a compendium of one’s 
recesses, of one’s luminescence,
one’s penumbras, a central absurdity if you present it as 
an image on a canvas in a thunderstorm blue, 
an offshoot of a color yet to be named, “an eighteenth-
century blue which Chardin stripped of its pretension 
and which now, in Cézanne, no longer carries any 
secondary significance,” said Rilke—

a riddle, a cognition of an individual who looks into 
himself on a surrounding cornfield 
and sees the bottle next to a cornstalk and faithfully 
depicts it, so those who are inclined can wonder at its
austerity, not as a mutation but as an object that has always 
been there and is indestructible, unusable, like a 
horse chestnut, 
something no more than itself,
no less,
and whether the canvas survives means nothing as long 
as one person has viewed it, 
has absorbed it.

“‘Somehow I, too,  
must find a way of making things,’” muttered Cézanne— 
“‘not plastic, written things, but realities that 
arise from the craft itself. Somehow I, too, must discover 
the smallest 
constituent element, the 
cell of my art, the tangible immaterial means of expressing 
everything . . . ,’” 
forms that evaporate and are no more than dreams, 
a sketch on a forgotten canvas that comes slowly 
to the artist, 
who completes it through memory.

And Cézanne gesticulated wildly, not noticing
the old woman passing him bent over from osteoporosis
how sad, how painful,
and we should all help each other, not be a parasite or 
a mood-bearing dilemma who 
diseases others—but a gardenia is a gardenia, 
and it isn’t a truth merely because it’s been duplicated on 
Whatman by an old lady in Missouri.

The authentic is a migraine, it cannot be cured with a herb, 
cannot be hidden under a blanket—
but it can make one aggressively irritable, so even a peach 
surged in him with alarm, 
until he’d run off with his paints, tearing aside angles,
searching under the rocks not for the slugs themselves 
but for how the slugs could be depicted, 
the entire heap of mortality nested in front of him 
like an ostrich cackling, as if it were mocking him.

Absorbed, contained, settled at the bend in the road
at Montgeroult, flat streaks of green-black that guide one
through the bend and into the village,
the orange comearound
so that when finished for the day he folded up his easel and his 
body and strode over that same cobblestone satiated,
for the moment—
inexplicable, as is his art, although one could see process,
that nothing was hidden, nothing disguised.

The craft itself, the discernible, the almost
calculable hairs of the brush, so here was no failure, no 
success, no vocabulary of critique, merely the manner, the 
contusion, when you arise out of yourself, 
incomprehensibly, like a silkworm, like Cézanne, and not 
offering a hand, not acknowledging another,
walked obstinately ahead without intention, without victory, 
without loss, and it was nobody’s business to dispute him

His function was to function, to come next, if possible,
around the deceptive corner that was 
continually curving, that should have been curving, that he forced 
to be beautiful, reflective, if only for an instant because 
it was the path he was  traversing, and we have no right to 
despise it.

Notes: “Cézanne” relies on Letters on Cezanne, by Rainer Maria Rilke,
edited by Clara Rilke and translated by Joel Agee, Fromm 
International Publishing Corporation, 1985. Rilke quote 
“ . . . the animals . . . .” from the first Duino elegy, translated 
by A. Poulin, Jr., Houghton Mifflin Company, 1977. Whatman: 
a brand of watercolor paper.