Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The gray backdrop

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In the most recent issue of The Paris Review, the photographer Joel Meyerowitz contributes a visual essay on the studio of Paul Cézanne in Aix-en-Provence, the subject of his new book Cézanne’s Objects. Meyerowitz says that a visit there resulted in “a flash of insight” that has influenced his own work ever since:

Cézanne painted his studio walls a dark gray with a hint of green. Every object in the studio, illuminated by a vast north window, seemed to be absorbed into the gray of this background. There were no telltale reflections around the edges of the objects to separate them from the background itself, as there would have been had the wall been painted white. Therefore, I could see how Cézanne, making his small, patch-like brush marks, might have moved his gaze from object to background, and back again to the objects, without the familiar intervention of the illusion of space. Cézanne’s was the first voice of “flatness,” the first statement of the modern idea that a painting was simply paint on a flat canvas, nothing more, and the environment he made served this idea. The play of light on this particular tone of gray was a precisely keyed background hum that allowed a new exchange between, say, the red of an apple and the equal value of the gray background. It was a proposal of tonal nearness that welcomed the idea of flatness.

He continues with a rhapsody on the effects of gray: “As I walked around Cézanne’s studio, I noticed that light bouncing up from the warm wooden flooring tinted the gray nearest it with rose and that under the shelves the light caromed back and forth between wall and shelf, carrying the subtle tones of whatever was nearby.”

After reading this, I went looking for contemporary descriptions of the studio, and I found several in the collection Conversations with Cézanne. One visitor, Jules Borély, recalls: “At my request we went up to the studio. I saw a high, wide room with empty, inanimate walls and a bay window that opened onto an olive grove.” The poet and critic Joachim Gasquet leaves us a more detailed account: “Cézanne was finishing his portrait of my father. I had sat in on the sessions. The studio was almost empty. The easel, the little taboret, the chair where my father was sitting, and the stove were its only furnishings. Cézanne stood as he worked. Canvases were piled up against the wall, in a corner. The soft, even light gave a blue tinge to the walls.” And Alex Danchev writes in Cézanne: A Life:

Most of the upper floor was taken up by the studio itself, a large, airy room eight meters by seven…and over seven meters from floor to cornice. Its walls were painted pale gray; it had a plain pine floor. Two south-facing windows looked out over the lower garden, and beyond. The north-facing studio window was a great glass wall, three meters high and five meters wide…The terracing of the hillside brought the olive grove in the upper garden to the level of the windowsill; Cézanne complained of the green reflections. “You can no longer get anyone to do anything right. I had this built here at my expense and the architect would never do what I wanted. I’m a shy person, a bohemian. They mock me. I haven’t got the strength to resist. Isolation, that’s all I’m fit for. At least that way no one would get his hooks into me.”

Yet it isn’t quite correct to say that the walls were bare. The descriptions of Cézanne’s studio make it clear that there was always something casually tacked up on every surface, along with the canvases in progress. In Conversations with Cézanne, Emile Bernard remembers:

The next day I arrived in Aix by the earliest tram and went to surprise Cézanne in his studio outside of town…I was tremendously pleased to see, hanging on his studio wall, the landscape study I had made the previous year. It represented the beautiful view of Aix from the lower studio. The painting of the skulls was tacked to the wall, abandoned.

Francis Jourdain records that Cézanne “talked exuberantly about a Daumier lithograph pinned to the wall,” while in Émile Zola’s novel L’Oeuvre, which is a thinly disguised portrait of his old friend, we read: “Just now the studio walls happened to be covered with a series of sketches Claude had made on a recent visit to the haunts of their boyhood.” Even today, in the version of the studio that has been turned into a museum, there are pictures hanging on the walls, but it has the air of a moment preserved in amber, and it’s very different from what it must have been in the artist’s lifetime—a working surface, in a constant state of transition, where he could impulsively hang anything that he wanted to keep handy. And when Cézanne “moved his gaze from object to background,” as Meyerowitz puts it, his eye would have been just as likely to have been caught by a sketch pinned up for future reference as by the flat, absorbent surface of the wall itself.

Meyerowitz’s insights are profound, but it would be all too easy to come away thinking that the gray walls were what counted. In fact, it’s the interaction between the flatness of the backdrop and the fertile confusion of the foreground that seems to be the matrix where truly creative work takes place. Conversations with Cézanne includes a description by the critics R.P. Rivière and Jacques Schnerb of the artist’s two studios in Aix—he had another workspace in an apartment in town—that captures a quality that I miss from Meyerowitz’s cool, hermetic reading:

His studios, the one on the rue Bourgeon and the one on the road to Aubasane in the country, were in great disorder, chaotic disorder. The walls were bare and the light harsh. Half-empty tubes, brushes with long-dried paint, and lunch leftovers that had served as subjects for still lifes littered the tables. In one corner [of the studio on the rue Bourgeon] lay a whole collection of parasols, whose rough frames must have come from a vendor in town, the iron lance made by the neighboring blacksmith. Near them lay game-bags used to carry food to the countryside.

It’s in those parasols, not to mention the “lunch leftovers,” that we seem to get a glimpse of the real Cézanne, who chose his gray walls as a corrective to the clutter that fills any creative life. Gray alone would have been stifling, while the chaos on its own would have been overwhelming, and Cézanne, instinctively or otherwise, knew that he needed both.

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