Saturday, December 14, 2013

D.H. Lawrence on Cezanne

Paul Cezanne, "Still Life with Apples"
I have a book called Poets on Painters which contains essays long and short by many well-known twentieth century writers about artists. Here is the English novelist D. H. Lawrence talking about some of Cezanne's paintings:

Cezanne wanted something that was neither optical nor mechanical nor intellectual. And to introduce into our world of vision something which is neither optical nor mechanical nor intellectual-psychological requires a real revolution. It was a revolution Cezanne began, but which nobody, apparently, has been able to carry on.
He wanted to touch the world of substance once more with the intuitive touch, to be aware of it with the intuitive awareness, and to express it in intuitive terms. That is, he wished to displace our present mode of mental-visual consciousness, the consciousness of mental concepts, and substitute a mode of consciousness that was predominantly intuitive, the awareness of touch. In the past the primitives painted intuitively, but in the direction of out present mental-visual, conceptual form of consciousness. They were working away from their own intuition. Mankind has never been able to trust the intuitive consciousness, and the decision to accept that trust marks a very great revolution in the course of human development...When he said to his models: "Be an apple! Be an apple!" he was uttering the foreword to the fall not only of the Jesuits and the Christian idealists altogether, but to the collapse of our whole way of consciousness, and the substitution of another way.  If the human being is going to be primarily an apple, as for Cezanne it was, then you are going to have a new world of men: a world which has very little to say, men that can sit still and just be physically there, and be truly non-moral. That was what Cezanne meant with his: "Be an apple!" (1929)
In much of this, Lawrence is writing about himself rather than Cezanne, I think. For us, it's a settled fact of art history that Cezanne was the founder of a more scientific way of looking at nature, and of analysing reality. Lawrence sees the break from the traditions of realist painting in Cezanne's art, but he claims Cezanne for the very Lawrentian cause of living your life by following your most essential human desires and urges. Lawrence grew up, like me, in a mining town, and came to despise what he saw as the effects of industrialism on modern lives, not merely in terms of poverty and physical degradation, but the way he thought it led to a whole world of mechanised human beings who were fucked up on the inside, by suppressing their natural animal instincts. A lot of that "he felt the desire in his blood" stuff makes us laugh, nowadays, and rightly so. But there's a lot of stuff here to agree with -- particularly that idea of the muteness of the object that Cezanne tried to capture ("Be an apple!")

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