27 Jan 2011

Doubting Genius: Merleau-Ponty's 'Cézanne's Doubt,' Summary of paragraphs 1-19

by Corry Shores
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Doubting Genius:
Merleau-Ponty’s ‘Cézanne’s Doubt,’
Summary of paragraphs 1-19

Cézanne: Gustave Geoffrey
[Cézanne: Gustave Geoffrey. Thanks en.easyart.com]

[The following is material from an older entry that was never posted. It is presented here for the benefit of a forthcoming post.]

§1 The Doubts of a Genius

Cézanne lived and breathed painting. Nonetheless, even late into his life, he held his doubts:
As he grew old, he wondered whether the novelty of his painting might not come from trouble with his eyes, whether his whole life had not been based upon an accident of his body. (273b)
Even some critics suggested such things. Yet he was widely known and appreciated. So why did he hold these uncertainties about himself?

§2 A Genius Gone Wrong

Cézanne had been friends with Émile Zola since childhood. The writer called him a 'genius gone wrong', on account of his observations of Cézanne's character.

§3 The Anxiety of Being an Influence

Even as a student, Cézanne's fits of temper and depression worried his friends. Then later after deciding to become an artist, he doubted his own talents.

He was persistently anxious. Throughout the rest of his life, he continued to be emotionally unstable and oversensitive. As a result, Cézanne often refused people the chance to enter his life.

§4 Morbid Insanity

We might assess from these symptoms that Cézanne had a morbid constitution if not schizophrenia.

Cézanne also 'painted from nature'. He focused on how things appear to us. As a result, he might even paint a face as though it were like an object, giving his paintings an inhuman feel. Hence his painting from nature could also be seen as a symptom of his flight from humanity.

§5 The Strength of his Weakness

If we only focus on his problems, we will miss what he accomplished. Merleau-Ponty writes, "It is quite possible that, on the basis of his nervous weaknesses, Cézanne conceived a form of art which is valid for everyone. Left to himself, he could look at nature as only a human being can."

§6 The Irrelevance of Influence

We will not understand this point further by examining Cézanne's influences.

§7 Bizarre Beginnings

Cézanne's early works paint fantasies with a moral dimension, for example,
The Murder and The Abduction.

Cézanne: The Murder (1868)
Cézanne: The Murder (1868)
(Thanks bblogs.princeton.edu)

Cézanne: The Abduction (1867)
Cézanne: The Abduction (1867)
(Thanks blogs.princeton.edu)

Cézanne learned from such Impressionists as Pissarro that he should no longer project his inner imagination onto the painting. Rather, painting should be "the exact study of appearances: less a work of the studio than a working from nature" (275b).

Pissarro: Landscape at Pontoise (1874)
Pissarro: Landscape at Pontoise (1874)
(Thanks en.wikipedia.org)

Pissarro: Landscape at Pontoise (1874)
Pissarro: Landscape at Pontoise (1874)
(Thanks theartwolf.com)

§8 Objective Impressions

Cézanne did not remain under the influence of Impressionism. Paintings of this style try to capture "the very way in which objects strike our eyes and attack our senses. Objects are depicted as they appear to instantaneous perception, without fixed contours, bound together by light and air" (275bc, emphasis mine). But capturing light in this way also meant excluding certain colors, especially those not found among the seven colors of the light spectrum.

Also, if the painter just paints the colors one sees, than she cannot paint an object as if it were isolated from the rest. She cannot paint its "local colors" (275c).

[And consider when we stare for a while at some bright red object. Then we look at a white wall, and see a green figure.] Impressionist painters also had to paint the color's complementary: "To achieve sunlit colors in a picture which will be seen in the dim light of apartments, not only must there be a green - if you are painting grass - but also the complementary red which will make it vibrate" (275cd, emphasis mine).

The painter can mix different colors of wet paint in order to produce a new color. She can also juxtapose those colors on the canvass, and in a way our minds mix them in a similar way. But because the Impressionist painter uses the purer colors, her paintings tend to be more vibrant.

By using these techniques, Impressionist painters reproduce the impression one has when seeing the painted scene. "The result of these procedures is that the canvas - which no longer corresponds point by point to nature - affords a generally true impression through the action of the separate parts upon one another" (275d).

But by breaking up the tones coloring an object, it loses its 'weight' (275d). So Cézanne uses 18 colors beyond the seven of the spectrum. He uses warm colors and black. This allows him to bring out the object from the atmosphere. And rather than break the colors apart, he modulates them: "he does not break up the tone; rather, he replaces this technique with graduated colors, a progression of chromatic nuances across the object, a modulation of colors which stays close to the object's form and to the light it receives" (276a, emphasis mine).

In Impressionist works, the object becomes lost in the atmosphere and to other objects. But Cézanne illuminates the object from within, giving it solidity and material substance. "Moreover, Cézanne does not give up making the warm colors vibrate but achieves this chromatic sensation through the use of blue" (276b).

§9 Natural Distortions

Hence, "Cézanne wished to return to the object without abandoning the Impressionist aesthetic which takes nature as its model" (276b).

Once Emile Bernard noted to Cézanne that in classical art, paintings need outlines, composition, and distributions of light.

Bernard: Cliffs at Le Pouldu
Bernard: Cliffs at Le Pouldu
(Thanks blogs.princeton.edu)

Bernard: Pardon at Pont-Aven, Bernard (1888)
Bernard: Pardon at Pont-Aven, Bernard (1888)
(Thanks blogs.cotemaison.fr)

Cézanne's reply was, "They created pictures; we are attempting a piece of nature." The old masters, he explains "replaced reality by imagination and by the abstraction which accompanies it." Nature is a perfect work of art. The painter must conform to her. "Everything comes to us from nature; we exist through it; nothing else is worth remembering." (276bc).

On the one hand, Cézanne pursued reality while holding on to its "sensuous surface," making use of his immediate impressions. Yet he rejected outlines to enclose the color, and he refused perspectival or pictorial arrangements. [He wanted to paint what was visible, but without the painted components that normally make this possible]. This is the paradox of Cézanne's painting, and what Bernard called Cézanne's suicide. He aimed for reality while denying himself the means to attain it. Between 1870 and 1890, Cézanne struggled with these limitations. As a result,
we find distortions in his painting
. Notice for example how the circular cups do not seem properly elliptical but rather a bit deformed.

Cézanne: Still Life with Apples (1890-94)
Cézanne: Still Life with Apples (1890-94)
(Thanks dl.ket.org)

Or consider Cézanne's portrait of Gustave Geoffrey. We see that his table defies the laws of perspective by stretching to the bottom of the painting. "In giving up the outline Cézanne was abandoning himself to the chaos of sensations, which would upset the objects and constantly suggest illusions" (276d).

Cézanne: Gustave Geoffrey
Cézanne: Gustave Geoffrey
Cézanne: Gustave Geoffrey detail
(Thanks en.easyart.com)

§10 The Natural Origin of the Natural Sciences

Cézanne wanted to make nature and art the same thing. He says, "Art is a personal apperception, which I embody in sensations and which I ask the understanding to organize into a painting" (277b). Yet Cézanne did not like to reduce painting to such concepts as understanding and sensation. He merely wanted to paint. He did not seek the true meaning of painting in philosophical dichotomies from a long tradition of debate.
Cézanne did not think he had to choose between feeling and thought, between order and chaos. He did not want to separate the stable things which we see and the shifting way in which they appear; he wanted to depict matter as it takes on form, the birth of order through spontaneous organization. (277c, emphasis mine)
Things in nature and our perception organize spontaneously. In contrast, there is a human organization that we find in ideas and the sciences. Cézanne wanted instead to paint the 'primordial world;' "his pictures therefore seem to show nature pure, while photographs of the same landscapes suggest man's works, conveniences, and imminent presence" (277c). But this does not mean Cézanne wanted to paint like a wild savage; rather, he "wanted to put intelligence, ideas, sciences, perspective, and tradition back in touch with the world of nature which they must comprehend" (277d).

§11 At the Limits of Perception

We saw how Cézanne did not paint perspective with geometrical precision. In fact, even science has come to suggest that our 'lived perspective' is neither geometrical nor photographic. When we see a train coming, it will increase in size as it approaches. But when we see a train approaching in a moving, it gets unnaturally large as it comes closer to us. This is because we perceive things nearer to us as smaller than they would show on a photograph.

So when we see circles at an angle, like a cup saucer, we do not perceive the shape that geometry would suggest. Rather "we see a form which oscillates around the ellipse without being an ellipse" (278a).

Merleau-Ponty sees this also in a portrait of Mme Cézanne, where the wall-paper strips from each wall do not meet at a straight line. It could perhaps be this work:

Cézanne: Portrait of a Woman in Green Hat (Mme Cézanne) (1894-95)
Cézanne: Portrait of a Woman in Green Hat (Mme Cézanne) (1894-95)
Cézanne: Portrait of a Woman in Green Hat (Mme Cézanne) (1894-95) detail
(Thanks www.dl.ket.org)

Merleau-Ponty also explains that the table in the Gustave Geoffrey recreates the way we would see it: "when our eye runs over a large surface, the images it successively receives are taken from different points of view, and the whole surface is warped" (278). Merleau-Ponty continues:
it is Cézanne's genius that when the over-all composition of the picture is seen globally, perspectival distortions are no longer visible in their own right but rather contribute, as they do in natural vision, to the impression of an emerging order, of an object in the act of appearing, organizing itself before our eyes. In the same way, the contour of an object conceived as a line encircling the object belongs not to the visible world but to geometry. If one outlines the shape of an apple with a continuous line, one makes an object of the shape, whereas the contour is rather the ideal limit toward which the sides of the apple recede in depth. (278cd)

§12 Painting the Cosmos in a Still Life

So if the painter wanted to give objects in the world their true density, she would need to make the outline a result of color. "For the world is a mass without gaps, a system of colors across which the receding perspective, the outlines, angles, and curves are inscribed like lines of force; the spatial structure vibrates as it is formed" (279).

Yet this means that the painter must try to express the world as an indivisible whole. And hence she needs each stroke to work for this purpose, to be thoroughly integrated with everything else; "each brushstroke must satisfy an infinity of conditions" (279). Cézanne often pondered for hours before making a certain stroke.

§13 The Shape of Color

Cézanne did not ignore the physical forms of faces and objects. He merely wanted the color to be the way they are expressed.

§14 The Alien World Around Us

As we noted, Cézanne wanted to paint what is is at the base of the inhuman nature around us. Hence his human figures may seem like some other species of animal. And his landscapes lack motions, which would normally suggest our "animal communions" (280bc). "It is an unfamiliar world in which one is uncomfortable and which forbids all human effusiveness" (280c).

§15 The Painter is the Consciousness of the Painted Object

So Cézanne created a new way to look at the world. Yet, he was not ignorant of tradition, science, anatomy, or geometry. But the painter cannot paint solely on the basis of this knowledge.

When painting the landscape, first he examines its geological features. Then he stopped and saw the landscape with "widened eyes." "The task before him was, first to forget all he had ever learned from science and, second through these sciences to recapture the structure of the landscape as an emerging organism" (281b). As he explains, "The landscape thinks itself in me [...] I am its consciousness" (281c).

Merleau-Ponty writes, "The painter recaptures and converts into visible objects what would, without him, remain walled up on the separate life of each consciousness: the vibration of appearances which is the cradle of things. Only one emotion is possible for this painter - the feeling of strangeness - and only one lyricism - that of the continual rebirth of existence" (281-282).

§16 The Painter Makes Us Begin to See

Balzac "wanted to understand what interior force holds the world together and causes the proliferation of visible forms" (282c). Merleau-Ponty continues: "The artist is the one who arrests the spectacle in which most men take part without really seeing it and who make it visible to the most 'human' among them" (282d).

§17 Art is Raw

Culture is often the novel repetition of conventional ideas and forms. Art for Cézanne cannot be like this. "Cézanne's or Balzac's artist is not satisfied to be a cultured animal but assimilates the culture down to its very foundations and gives it a new structure: he speaks as the first man spoke and points as if no one had ever painted before" (282d). The painter's expression is raw and pre-processed by the mind. "Because he returns to the source of silent and solitary experience on which culture and the exchange of ideas have been built in order to know it, the artist launches his work just as a man once launched he first word, not knowing whether it will be anything more than a shout, whether it can detach itself from the flow of individual life in which it originates and give the independent existence of an identifiable meaning either to the future of that same individual life or to the monads coexisting with it or to the open community of future monads" (283a).

§18 Being Touched by the World

Although his approach to the world was raw, Cézanne pursued an 'infinite Logos' (283c).

Cézanne was uncertain about himself, and he secluded himself from society. But this is not the result of his temperament; rather, it is produced by the purpose of his work. "He considered himself powerless because he was not omnipotent, because he was not God and wanted nevertheless to portray the world. to change it completely into a spectacle, to make visible how the world touches us" (283c). A physicist can use math to prove his theories. However, it "is not enough for a painter like Cézanne, an artist, or a philosopher, to create and express an idea; they must also awaken the experiences which will make their idea take root in the consciousness of others" (283d). The viewer must struggle through the work and learn how to engage with it. "A successful work has the strange power to teach its own lesson. The reader or spectator who follows the clues of the book or painting, by setting up stepping stones and rebounding from side to side guided by the obscure clarity of a particular style, will end by discovering what the artist wanted to communicate" (283-245).

§19 Living in Painting

If Cézanne's works seem to reflect his life, that is only because we see his works first, then interpret his life according to them. Never in Cézanne's life did his artist project determine how he was to live, it merely told him what he had to live.


So a creator's life does not explain his work. However, the two are still connected. "The truth is that this work to be done called for this life" (284c). Merleau-Ponty writes, "There is a rapport between Cézanne's schizoid temperament and his work because the work reveals a metaphysical sense of the disease: a way of seeing the world reduced tot the totality of frozen appearances, with all expressive values suspended. Thus the illness ceases to be an absurd fact and a fate and becomes a general possibility of human existence. It becomes so when this existence bravely faces one of its paradoxes, the phenomenon of expression." (284-285). ...

Note: page numbers correspond to a different edition than what is cited below:
Merleau-Ponty. "Cézanne's Doubt." Transl. Hubert L. Dryfus & Patricia Allen Dreyfus. In Sense and Non-Sense. Chicago: Illinois University Press, 1964.

Cézanne: Portrait of a Woman in Green Hat (Mme Cézanne) (1894-95)

Cézanne: The Murder (1868)

Cézanne: The Abduction (1867)

Pissarro: Landscape at Pontoise (1874)

Pissarro: Landscape at Pontoise (1874)

Bernard: Cliffs at Le Pouldu

Bernard: Pardon at Pont-Aven, Bernard (1888)

Cézanne: Still Life with Apples (1890-94)

Cézanne: Gustave Geoffrey

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