My knack for the French language only goes as far as three years of high school drear smoothed over by a very passable accent. It’s something I can do with conviction. But that’s as far as it goes. I’m pretty limited with the language itself, the accent getting me further than I deserve. I can order food, count, generally ask for things I need but mostly, I’m a novice with a convincing accent. And I’m showing off a bit for my wife whose esteem I am longing for. We are at that stage of marriage where flaunting any prowess at anything is required. That we got on the plane for this healing trip was more than miraculous. So, I ask directions to Cézanne’s studio in Aix en Provence. I’m told with rapid-fire presumption it’s this and this and then that and this. No clue. I’m lost. I am in a tiny red M&M of a rental car driving ’round & ‘round the famous wedding cake fountain of Aix, ’round the three goddesses of Aix, around Art, Agriculture and Justice standing in their goddess wear in white marble, high on the top tier, looking out in three directions above a basin of water. Under them fish spew jets of water in forced parabolas in twelve directions misting into a lion-guarded pool. Finally, clam shells make mini-waterfalls into a third pool. Aix is famous for it’s hundreds of fountains, this one a focal point. I’m in a stall mode, going ’round, I’m getting my bearings in the furious French traffic. The fountain is the axle for the spokes of streets radiating out to the town. “I know, I know,” I say, “I’m trying to get to the Mirabeau.”
The Mirabeau, the anchor of the old walled town begins right at the fountain and it’s the direction I want to go, but it’s pedestrian only. I know when I asked directions, I heard “Mirabeau, Mirabeau.” On the street itself a high arc of sycamores, just leafed out persist in a hot yellow-green in the spring light. These sycamores are seldom trimmed and are allowed to grow up into a leafy cathedral, their trunks piebald pillars of buff and olive, restorative and cool. The promenade of the Mirabeau is lined with relaxed cafés, lots of al fresco-ing here and, with no motor traffic is a great calm stroll. But that’s not good for me so I try to parallel the Mirabeau off to the right. I’m getting somewhere but it’s time to ask again for direction. This is no time in the marriage to play the manly fool, lost and stubborn.
There’s a group of college-age kids in high spirits, maybe twenty of them. This is a famous university town with a well-regarded law school. I stop to ask; I’ll try the French but I’m betting there’s an English speaker eager to show off for friends. I roll down the window and before I can open my mouth, PAFF, right in the face, a handful of flour, then another and another, bigger PAFF PAFF, and they run off joyous and triumphant, leaving me spluttering and raging at the empty street. In one breath, I’ve become a ghost. As we were driving to Aix my wife had been reading to me about these high jinks in MFK Fisher’s Two Towns in Provence. After finishing their exams, the students run around making an insolent havoc. The Aixennes know better and steer clear. But I was a greenhorn. I was prime meat. Fisher had written with charm and a tickle of delight about the student release of good fun but, in an instant, I was in a tumbling rapid of temper; I was in a rage, at the kids, at myself for having donned the fool’s cap in my hubris to speak French, and then helpless, standing in the yawning hole when life changes in a blink. But, for the long-term effect, it could have been a gunshot or a car wreck or any of those modern insults that slam reality from one state to another. A hole in the fabric of the expected flow; it’s how these vicissitudes are handled that makes for a life well lived. I’m not handling it well. I want to hunt these miscreants down and beat righteous wrath on them. I want to crawl into a ditch and pull the leaves over my white dusted head. Maybe my mind is doing its usual flip into the later rounds of suspicious intent, but I could swear my wife is taking sides with the students, adding diminishment. This is not funny, oh yea it is, it’s funny, it’s funny.
I drive on in a fume finding a public toilette to clean up and cool off, sly smiles abound. Poor me, the butt of the joke and out on the street for everyone’s mirth. On top of it, in front of a wife who on a hair trigger impulse, is ready to be judge and jury. I ask a woman, in the simplest French not showing off my accent, “Me want where, where the Atelier Cézanne rests?” The answer is, “Ici, regardez-vous,” pointing to the street sign. I’d just crossed to where the street changes name to Atelier Cézanne. Like lots of European streets, this one changes its name to honor a hero of the Republic. I am one block from the studio.
We are now inside and the only visitors. Two caretakers, just on the verge of elderly and very proprietary, govern this domain; a kind of nunnery. It smells of apples of all things. I’m still in a spooked state of mind after the flour bombs and the spiky etched web of the dense garden fruit trees, still not leafed out in early May, add to my ghostly feelings. The women in charge, taking the entrance fees fuss and dust, moving in a studied dawdle, never letting you out of their sight. “Combien de temps a Cézanne travaillé ici?” How long did Cézanne work here? (I think I’m asking.) “Chaque jour jusq’au le maitre est mort.” (Everyday until he died.) “Non, combien des anns?” “Ah, cinq ans. Vous êtes Americain?” “Oui.” “Marilyn Monroe a fait une visite ici en 1955.” She shows me the entry in the visitors book. “A wonderful visit….” the dream girl wrote after crossing out “boo boo pe doop.” I try to imagine her here, blond, perfume and red lips, in this austere monk’s room, with the solid north wall of window light and the neutral gray west wall. Ghosts are everywhere. How did Marilyn get to this place? She married Joe DiMaggio in January ’54 and divorced him that same year. I can’t imagine Joltin’ Joe, the slugger, brought her here, but I can imagine Arthur Miller wooing her with this place, “I’m gonna open the big world for you, baby.” I can imagine him telling her about the guy who built this room to pursue his dream of an art that would capture so much with just the bits of paint and canvas. The whole world as a single painting. I can imagine Miller feeling a professional camaraderie, for if anybody tried so hard for so much it’d be Cézanne. And, for so long. An artist who tried to get time, to get the gaze of time as it flowed over objects, staring hard and all the time having a body present in time moving both in space and in the imagination.
They call him the first proto-Cubist and I’d pretty much agree, breaking shapes apart. He’d paint and paint the same subjects over and over, not just in the different light as Monet was fond of doing, that yes, but more. He could paint the parallax of motion as the head moved, as the eye moved. That he was little recognized and kept on doing it, died doing it, catching the bad lung while outside painting in the rain became part of the mythos of the authentic artist. There are a lot of ghosts here.
There is not much to see in the studio really: the framed guest books on the walls, his tools, easels, none of his work. Cézannes sell for tens of millions, moving from the realm of artistic experiment to the signifier of true wealth. They’d feel like an ostentation here in the high-ceilinged cell. The caretakers move and speak in a dreamy torpor as though the room were set in aspic. When they speak of him they call him The Maestro, not M. Cézanne. It seems they set a new still-life often enough to have fresh apples with the bowls and vases used in the most famous paintings. A single high shelf the length of the west wall has all the iconic props from his still lives: the skull, the little cupid, bottles, pots. On the windowsill are rows and rows of apples, shrinking and wrinkling as they dry out. There’s the source of the apple smell wafting in on spring breezes through the open window. The ghosts are alive here; paint smell, apple smell. It’s as though the shock of the flour to the face was my psychic entrance fee to this dream house. My initiation to the monastic cell, the model for what would become the archetype of the modern artist: purity of vision—a place where the individual of courage could stand alone undaunted by the buffeting winds of the ever-growing mediocrity of the bourgeoisie. There was Cézanne who in spite of, or because of, an authoritarian father did what pleased him giving his life the added energy of compulsion every artist needs. We moved through the place like ghosts ourselves, joining the art nuns in the thickened ambience and finally snapped out of the low lying hydrogen hum of our marital discontent. Our earliest romance had been set by enraptured, languorous rambles in museums.
Most other artists saw Cezanne’s work at his paint and canvas supplier, Tanguey, the color man, who was an avid collector of the early moderns, who did not know they were modern but could see they were essential. He would trot out his collection at a whim and loved to talk about the art. Where better a place to be instructed by Paul Cézanne’s work. than at the shop you bought paints to go out and make pictures for yourself. Young artists saw his work this way. Renoir and Monet bought his work. His first one-man show was in Paris when Cézanne was in his late fifties. Although he painted in many locations, he built this studio in 1901 in his hometown. For most of a quarter century he lived in disrespect and outright derision. The taunts he suffered as he walked the streets crushed him into a tightly wound recluse. The mad artist archetype was born vividly alive in this very studio.
The record of his mood and mind come from his letters to friends and family and he does come across as a genius crank of a primary order. His honesty over all and his will to make a structure and a scaffold for thinking about his art shine through all of his worries, worries about his father, and imaginary love affairs that existed only in an averted glance. He was his own worst critic; plagued with doubt everyday that he would never succeed in realizing his vision. Every painting was an experiment, an attempt to realize in the limits of a flat plane, the ringing dimensions of shapes told in time itself.
We see way too many Cézannes for my taste, a lot of what he tried for never happens. He was the first artist to leave his process as a record, uninterested in finishing some of his experiments: they are only of substantive worth to academics and art-world trophy hunters. He leaves the bones around to reconstruct his thinking. But there are some really great masterpieces. I went to art school in Washington, DC where I spent hours at the National Gallery. There you can see a painting he called The Water’s Edge, and while there are four other Cezanne’s in the room, you look and then do a double take. The Water’s Edge is the one really coming alive, as if you could see the molecules themselves, moving, jittery restless—trees, houses, water, doesn’t matter. One moving wheel of the cosmic dynamo. So much has been written about how he “flattened the picture plane, how his strokes broke the surface of his objects, blah, blah and more blah.” In this room you can see it was his pure transcendental brand of existentialism taking hold. He saw every object in the world including his own person as an equal part in the harmony of things. In his letters he writes how the mountain, the apple, the cup and bowl are all one thing: he, the eye and hand trying to say just that with colors.
Aix was a redneck town at the turn of the nineteenth century, and like the provinces every where, conservative, refractory, suspicious, Luddite, and that anti-modern thrust is responsible for the charm I found on the Cours Mirabeau. It’s a quiet and timeless space; a result of resisting the industrial refitting Paris was getting at the time. It makes the Mirabeau a fine place to sit and digest, drinking a panaché, a mix of cool beer and lemonade, in heat a little too fierce so early in the year. It’s moist under these trees, cool evaporation coming up from the hosed down pavement.
Why pain and discomfort with the spice of fear is so crucial to initiation was answered for me once again. It’s why secret societies keep their secrets, so initiates will encounter the unexpected, to be knocked out of the quotidian sashay of life. “Épater le bourgeoisie”, Manet’s famous aphorism. Shock the bourgeoisie, wake them up. I was shocked and smacked in the face and now, sitting after the flour and the Atelier Cézanne feeling initiated, having really been thrown out of my flow, and into a kind of fire of furor, dander up, and forced to encounter my self not as a tourist trying out some French, but as part of all this whole scene. I was not a separate thing in the usual alienation of the tourist seeing this and that, but I felt like a pilgrim visiting the shrine of Brother Cézanne who was used to waking himself up every day of his life. Not simply waking up, but waking into a life of real connection to everything his eye saw. As I sit reflecting on a shared drink, a moment with a woman, in a graceful peace for a bit, reveling in our shared love for the artist’s mind, looking up into the flickering light of the Mirabeau, summer coming on.