Expansive Poetics – (Cezanne’s Methodology)

Paul Cezanne  (1839-1906) – Self Portrait (1879-80) –  oil on canvas, 33.7 x 24.7 cms via Oskar Reinhart Art Collection, Winterthur, Switzerland

AG: (So) (Guillaume) Apollonaire’s “Zone” – We have three different translations here and I have a couple others with me. The first one which is probably good as a working one is (by) Roger Shattuck. There’s one by Anne Hyde Greet. And I xeroxed one by Ron Padgett– and there’s also one by Samuel Beckett, so you can see how solid a poem it is – so many intelligent people have worked on it. Samuel Beckett, certainly, and Ron Padgett, excellent poet. Roger Shattuck, brilliant scholar, who’s wortk The Banquet Years about Apollinaire and Picasso and the great turn-of-the-century French art movement is something worth looking up. If you want to know more about that high-class golden bohemia, Roger Shattuck’s The Banquet Years covers the personal gossip and literary and artistic and musical history of an era, with Erik Satie introducing a new kind of economy (and humor) into music, Picasso and Braque taking off from the original optical experiments of Cezanne to invent and develop Cubism out of Cezanne‘s painting technique, (Sergei) Diaghilev from the ballet coming in (Vaslav) Nijinsky era, a little later). But all concentrated in Paris – a collection of real zany wits and brilliant poets. Apollinaire himself lived only up to the end of the War, and died on Armistice Day, World War I, so you could say, (a) “pre-War” explosion, that affected everything that came in the century afterwards

Paul Cezanne – The Bather (1885), oil on canvas, 127 x 96.8 cms, via The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Do you folks know about Cezanne’s method of painting?  Because that, actually, in a sense, is the key to the whole twentieth-century relativistic aesthetics that you’ll find in painting, poetry and music. (Does) anyone here know what I’m talking about? Cezanne as the precursor of Cubism?

AG: Is anybody familiar with that?

Student: No

AG: Ok.

Student: Tell us about it

AG: Okay. I don’t have any Cezanne. I should have brought something here, but Cezanne’s theory was that, following the researches of the Impressionists who were interested in optics itself (so you have Pointillism, where you could compose what looked like a three-dimensional picture by means of points – little points of pure color). And then you put ared next to a blue, put a green next to a yellow and it would, in a certain area.. and you might have that register optically as blue. Put a green dot of paint rom the tip of the brush next to a yellow dot (with the tip of the brush), it might register as blue to the eyeball if you got a certain distance from the canvas.
So the Impressionists went out to paint the external phenomena as seen by the eyeball, as distinct from previous centuries which painted more idealistically, or painted what they could see in front of them in the studio, trying to get the right definition of the line. The Impressionists began exploring the phenomena of the eyeball and the surface of the eye and what was the relation between perception and the external world. And so that led to Impressionism, or making experiments with what things appeared to be like looking through your eye – looking from behind your brain, through your eye, to the outside, I guess.  It was sort of relativism. Actually, they were painting the eyeball rather than the external world. They were painting the impression on the eyeball, rather than assuming that the external world was out there for real to paint. They began looking directly at the measuring-instrument, just like (Albert) Einstein, who says the measuring-instrument determines the shape of the universe, or the appearance of the universe, so they began examining the measuring-instrument.

George Wald nobel.jpg

George Wald (1906-1997)

There are a lot of books and theories of optics at that time, which developed ino theories, which developed into the Nobel Prize for George Wald, who’s study of the function of sight led him to the conclusion that if you look at the door, which is orange, and then, if you shift your gaze to the wall, which is white, there is a readjustment of the retina, and that the retina cannot focus on two colors at the same time. Now did everybody know that?

Student (CC): Yeah

AG: You can check that out. But the retina cannot focus on two colors simultaneously. It can only focus on one color and has to refocus to hit the other color. This is something that painters understood during the Impressionist era (though not proved scientifically until George Wald) and what they began realizing was that hot colors advanced (bright red, like the crimson out there, and the bright red of O (sic)’s dress and her purse, or the Pepsi, or the door) bright colors tend to advance in the eyeball, optically, like in 3-D, and jut forward in the apparent space of the eyeball, and that cool, or cold, colors tend to recede spatially. A cool or cold color would be a dull brown or a dullish blue, or this.. To take the example of that door, that door would appear, if you just suspended your eyeball and let the external space hang, (it) would appear to jut out more close to you than the neutral wall. Does that make sense? That is, if you got high on acid, say, to hypersensitize the eye, the bright color would appear to jump out in 3-D. People have had that experience. Now, the corollary is that a cold color will tend to recede compared to the hot color.

So Cezannne attempted to “reconstitute my little sensation of space” (to reconstitute his petite sensation of space) by painting a canvas without use of perspective lines, as the ancients had used, (that is, without narrowing the railroad tracks to the center in order to indicate distance, without using that kind of perspective lines), he tried to give you the appearance of space by cross-hatching a lot, advancing color and putting next to it a cold receding color, and putting next to that a hot advancing color, and then a cold receding color till his whole canvas was a cross-hatch of deliberately designed cubes, triangles, squares and spheres that optically would appear to recede in space. In other words, to create the space of the canvas, not by perspective lines but by the use of hot colors advancing and cold colors receding. And to create an inter-relating network of forms that would lead the eye optically inward in a canvas and give you the appearance of space.

Does that fit your experience of looking at Cezanne at all?  I don’t know if you can.. we don’t have anything (here) to visualize. but I’d say, take a look at Cezanne and you’ll find that that’s the method – at least in his letters, and he’s famous for that.
Well, in other words, you might have a long patch of dullish green foliage on the fields and on the miles on the way to his famous theme – Mount Sainte Victoire, then you might have a more bright Mediterranean brick orange roof sticking out, giving the appearance of something sticking out in 3-D space, then another long passage of green or blue or a dull-blue-like lake and then another bright color or piece of red on a cart or chimney, so that you’d have the appearance of an enormous distance between the tile roof and the chimney way back, except they would, apparently, both seem to jump out but be separated by a huge distance of dull, receding color hatches. In other words, something like what you get when you see it through 3-D glasses. And that’s why, sometimes, when you look at a Cezanne painting, the whole thing jumps, like (when) you reverse a Venetian blind – there’s a certain optical shudder which is caused by the fact that you can only focus on one color at a time on the canvas, so that when you shift your eye to the dull, receding colors, you suddenly get this space jump – you literally do get a jump. And Cezanne emphasized that further by  making a darkish outline, say, between the curve of a jug and the drapery behind it (the jug might be orange and the drapery behind it might be blue), he’d make a darkish outline so (that) the eye, passing over it, would have to focus three times, the eye, sweeping, scanning, would have to focus three different times and it would cause a sensation of space.

Paul Cezanne – Jug and Fruit On The Table (1893-4), oil on board and paper – 41.5 x 72.3 cms

It’s similar to the fact that you focus on here and then you focus on there, you have to refocus – right? Dig? You’ve got to refocus. So if you focus on an object in the middle of the room and then focus over there, you’ve got to refocus to see the wall. So you get exactly the same sensation in refocusing for the different planes of color, and it gives you the appearance, the sensation, of space. And Cezanne said, “I am trying to reconstitute mon petite sensation – my little sensation of space, which is none other than Pater Omnipotens Aeterna Deus” (Father Omnipotent Eternal God). So he was defining God as space, or defining the ultimate –Pater Omnipotent.  (Father Omnipotent Eternal God) as space, and saying that he could stand up on a road and look at Mount SaintVictoire and turn his head slightly to the left or an inch to the right and the composition of the entire optical field and the composition of the canvas would change. His senses had become so subtle and refined – “not coarsened like some other old man  I know”, he wrote in a letter to Emile Bernard, because he didn’t smoke or drink or fuck or anything but he was just pure attention to optic space and every day looking at Mount Sainte Victoire.

Paul Cezanne – Mount Sainte Victoire – (La Montagne Sainte-Victoire), 1892–1895. Oil on canvas, 73 x 92 cm. (from the Barnes Collection, Philadelphia)

You know the paintings of Mount Sainte Victoire at all? Those are a recurrent theme at the end of his life. The vast solidarity of this mountain, outside Aix-en-Provence, where he lived, which gave the appearance of a great hanging solidarity in eternal space. So he’s trying to paint that eternal space. Or reconstitute the “little sensation” of space.

Cezanne's "The Bay"

Paul Cezanne –The Bay of Marseilles, Seen From L”Estaque (c. 1885), oil on canvas, 73 cmd x 100.3 cms, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

So in “Zone”, or in Cubist poetry, Apollinaire and other later writers are trying to reconstitute a certain specific sense, a little petit sensation that they have, again, by juxtaposing different objects together in a non-linear way, in a mixed-media way, so to speak, to give them the appearance of distant space time eternity, of some vast expansion of mind by being able to see things from different angles simultaneously and yet the mind having to move back and forth and fill in the gaps. So it may be that the mind, filling in the gaps between images, creates an eternal space, just as the eyeball filling in the gap, jumping between bright red and dull blue experiences a sensation of space. Yeah?

Student: (Kind of like in advanced) meditations  where you see the body both within and without at the same time?

AG: Yeah

Student: You know, from all different angles

AG: Yes. And the most advanced Tantric meditation practice is an examination of thoughts rising, flowering, diminishing, a gap between them, and then the next thought, knowing that thought is discontinuous also.

So there was some super-modern psychology among the Dadaists and Surrealists and Cubists and they realized that consciousness is discontinuous, and therefore it’s alright to put down the discontinuities, to express the discontinuities, juxtapose the discontinuities, and let the mind fill in as it does in reality.

[Audio for the above can be heard here, starting at approximately thirteen-and-a-half minutes in and continuing to approximately twenty-eight minutes in]  

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