Shooting Apples in the Skye…

David Manley Avatar

A decade or so back T.J. Clark suggested that ‘Cézanne cannot be written about anymore’ so it’s perhaps surprising that my companion reading book on our trip to Skye is his recently published If These Apples Should Fall Cezanne And The Present.  Of course someone as smart as he (and he’s very smart indeed) tackles this head on at the beginning of Chapter Two.  Chapter One is a tour around the subject of Pissarro & Cézanne, parts of which are rewrites of, or notes towards, a very excellent piece on the former that Clark published in the LRB a few years back.  I haven’t looked back but I suspect other elements come from LRB pieces (he’s written at least two others on the man that I can recall in the same journal.

It’s a terrific read, I’m tempted to say a must read if you care about and want to understand modern painting – especially if you are a painter.  Not least as, like me, you might find yourself at several points at odds with aspects of the theses presented.  And nor is it that T.J. is ever entirely at peace with himself and even comes in his conclusion to argue with himself (as well as throughout!).  But the volume presents some deep and affecting insights into a number of Cézanne’s works and ranges across his subjects, Chapter Two the still lives, Three the landscapes and Four “peasants’.  Perhaps surprisingly (though it’s Clark so…) Chapter Five goes off piste with a disposition on (to me at least) a lesser know Matisse – The Garden At Issy (The Studio In Clamart) – and draws in Giotto, Stepanova, Rembrandt, Monet, Van Ruysdael and Immendorf along the way (with incidentally Thames & Hudson doing a fine job with the illustrations).  Trust this writer to draw on deep affinities with Matisse in relation in Cézanne rather than the obvious debt of Pablo & Georges to the great man!

In this final chapter (there is of course Introduction & Conclusion as well) I was frustrated by my unfamiliarity with the works at the heart of the arguments presented.  I’ve been lucky through the years to have stood face to face with many of the pictures referenced through the book (or if not the actual pictures, others within the genres discussed) but the key to Chapter Five sits in the Beyeler in Basle.  My luck too to have passed through Basel several times and seen some great paintings there (as a young teenager I witnessed Sam Francis’s marvellous triptych at the Kunsthalle) but I’ve never made it to the Beyeler, an omission I’m all the more encouraged to put right if I can.  And as for the Giotto frescos in the Arena Chapel well never managed to get to Padua either despite even more trips to Italy.  No complaints of course but I’d feel more able to follow the ideas (and appreciate the forensic looking) if I knew these works mano a mano.

Giotto di Bondone, Dream Of Joachim

In a lifetime of painting the realities of the practice suggest that things often have very mundane and/or haphazard origins…or maybe its just my practice?  I doubt it.  Of course if you have a clearly defined, relatively stable, approach to picture making, almost all forms of figuration or a fairly static notion of what a non-representation work might be (a lifetime of stripes or hazy blocks of colour etc.) then the choice of structures and materials, the honing of the forms, touches, techniques perhaps come more readily bidden but still I’d suggest the rude stubborn world of incidents and accidents come into play. And it’s these that T.J.Clark often seems to rule out of his observations, inciteful and delightful as they are throughout this text.  Cézanne of course was a genius, no doubt about that, and a canny painter (in all senses of that word) but I’m less sure of all the attributions of the sure-footedness in every drawn form, painterly touch or deft flick of colour than Timothy.  I reckon Paul was a painter better than the rest of us for sure but a fellow traveller none the less.  There are many such moments throughout this marvellous book where the practitioner in me was a doubting thomas to Clark’s undoubtedly strongly intuited analyses of particular pictures and detailed observations and deductions from the same but I’d thank him nonetheless for prodding and poking my own feelings about this artist.  I will take many of his ideas around my upcoming visit to Tate Modern!

In the meantime I shall look back on this all too short visit to Skye looking at the fabulous Trotternish ridge and surroundings including the utterly spellbinding Hortus Conclusus garden that our hosts have created around the property we are renting.  The snowdrops are just going over but the daffodils are only this moment (as sadly we have to leave) about to burst forth…

the garden has many clumps but only this one daring to show one of its faces…

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