Cézzane: the mystery of the real

Post 22 Cézanne

Jonah Lehrer is himself a neuroscientist so he brings a special level of awareness to Cézanne’s painting techniques.  Not only did Cézanne paint in the most extraordinary way.  Lehrer tells us in Proust Was a Neuro-scientist that his method of painting follows the way the brain works.  Just as the brain turns the messages it receives from the senses into an apparently meaningless chaos of codes, so Cezanne didn’t directly copy the object he saw in front of him, as all painters had previously done, but put down an apparently meaningless wasteland of scrawls and daubs and smudges.  Yet when you stand back they resolve themselves into a scene that you can immediately understand.  I was so excited when I read this I rushed down to the Courtauld to look at the Cézannes. Yes, when you stood up close it was indeed all blurs and patches and smudges. But when you stood back there they were. Mont St Victoire with Large Pinethe Card Players, Apples and a Bottle.  It was a miracle.  Yes, there they were.  How did he do it? He would stand for an hour sometimes before putting down a smudge or a patch in just the place he wanted it.  He painted Mont St Victoire a hundred and eighty times and still wasn’t satisfied he had got it right.  As he went on he painted less and less of it.  Fewer and fewer scratchy lines and daubs. More and more empty space, conjuring up more and more of the mountain and ever smaller details of the landscape between him and it.   What was he trying to do?

Before Turner and then the Impressionists painting had always been about copying forms.  Think of this painting of a vase of flowers by the Dutch master Jan Bruegel.  How perfect it is.  How exactly it catches the perfection of the flowers and the shape of the vase.  But that is its problem.  It is too perfect.  It’s nothing like real flowers, constantly changing in different lights, only arranged so beautifully because a human being has imposed the order of the vase on the disorder of nature, ignoring transient light and hastening time, always trembling  on the edge of your consciousness that they will soon degenerate  into the slimy relicts you will throw into the trash can.


Vase of flowers by Jan van Brueghel courtesy of Kunsthisorische Museum

It was this eternally unchanging perfection, van Dyke’s imperious Charles the 1st for ever on his charging horse (he was actually a scrappy little man,  Raphael’s for ever tranquil madonnas, no nappies on display here) that the Impressionists rebelled against.  They wanted to paint not kings and queen and lovely bowls of fruit, but absinthe drinkers, a railway engine puffing steam, ballet dancers in the moment they were practising, the freshness of the passing instant, the transience of the perishing moment, the glimpsed, the blur at the corner of the eye, the shining glory of the ever-changing light.  But brilliant as these paintings were, Cézanne wasn’t satisfied.  To catch the fleeting light they had sacrificed form.  Their paintings had as little caught the real world of both unchanging forms and transient light as had the Dutch still life masters. Cézanne wanted both.  ‘Doing Poussin over again from nature’ he said.  But how to do it? 


The Card Players by Cézanne courtesy of Bridgeman Images

Cézanne must have stumbled across his technique by trial and error, but it echoes the secret geometry of the visual cortex.  It as if he deconstructed the scenes before him and then reconstructed them just as the brain does.  According to Lehrer the brain sees everything twice, via both a fast and a slow path.  The fast path, that coming from V1, sends only a rough sketch of what it sees to the further parts of the brain, abstract lines and patches and blurs just as Cézanne’s paintings do.  Dr Sachs, in his celebrated book The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat recounts how one of his patients would reach out to the hat stand for his hat and might take hold of his wife’s head.  He was stuck in V1.  Objects were seen to be there in a crude and basic sense but had no meaning. The slow path arrives at the prefrontal cortex fifty milliseconds after the fast one, but meantime it has imposed meaning on all those lines and blurs by making it up in accordance with our expectations.  This is why in G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown detective story the witnesses all swore blind (literally one might think) that they had all seen a postman.  When Captain Cook visited the Sandwich Islands the natives could not see his ships for they had never seen sailing ships before, only a blur of lines and white patches.  This is how Cézanne painted, he gave the brain just enough to feed off and it is why he had to be so patient and slow.  If he put a patch or scrawl in the wrong place the wrong code would be sent.  He had learnt that we see reality by imagining it. 


Apples by Cezanne Courtesy of The Art Story. Cézanne can’t have known why his method worked but then the neuroscientists don’t yet know all there is to know as to how the brain constructs reality either.  It isn’t just that when you stand back Cézanne’s blurs and dabs, les taches et les touches, resolve themselves into meaningful scenes.  Those peasants are there in a way the Dutch still lives never are.  The seventeenth century still-lives stay on the canvas.  But here you’re in the inn with the card-playing peasants and you stand with Cézanne under the pine tree gazing at the mountain. You can see the play of light on the jackets and bodies of those solidly present peasants. You can almost feel what they are thinking. How can we resolve this paradox that the brain allows us to see what is there by making it up.  There is only one way I can think of in which this could happen but I’ll talk about that in a further post.  It is Cézanne’s paintings more than anything that make me think It is Aristotle and not Locke who may have been right about substantial form.  The material things we see about us are not just Dr Johnson’s solid material congregations of atoms.   They are also immaterial wholes that the brain, which knows no mechanical screws and joints between different parts, has instantaneously imagined.  As Virginia Woolf saw, the real world emerges from the way the brain sees it just as Cézanne’s pictures emerge from his daubs and dabs.  I find myself moving further away from Locke’s view of what makes things the things they are, substance as the philosophers call it, and further towards Aristotle’s view that things are both solidly in the world because they are material but are what they are because immaterial forms emerge from their material substructures, each part of the other.  That seems to me to fit much better with what quantum physics and brain science are telling us now. 


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