December 3rd– Aix-en-Provence
Header Photo: The famous Les Deux Garçons café on Cours Mirabeau. Hemingway liked this spot and Cézanne and Emile Zola, boyhood friends, sat here many times. Zola would seek his fame and fortune in Paris, and he tried to help his friend Cezanne make it in the art world there, unsuccessfully. Cézanne would return to Aix to paint in isolation, and, after Zola wrote The Masterpiece, a novel about a failed modernist painter whom Cézanne believed was based upon himself, their friendship ended. Alice and I stopped for coffee here, and spent a pleasant day wandering the streets, circling back for a late afternoon déjeuner of fresh omelets at one of the fine eateries back on Cours Mirabeau.
Okay, let’s get this out of the way right off the bat: What kind of cockamamie name is “Aix-en-Provence“, anyway? First of all, it’s pronounced “ex”. Nothing fancy or hard about that. And if you’re thinking that it’s just like four hundred gazillion other things in Europe– that is, that it goes back, somehow, to the Romans, you would be right. As we know, when it came to starting towns, the Romans had a thing for hot springs. When they found one, somebody inevitably said, “Hey, this would be a good place to make a town, because we can use the hot spring to make a spa, or, as we like to call it, a “bath”. That, for example, is why Bath in England is called, well, Bath.”
Aix” is actually a shortening and bastardization of the Latin “Aquas“, meaning “waters”, which is what hot springs are, which is why they become spas and were used by the Romans as “baths”. This one happened to be in a place called Provence. Hence, “Aix-en-Provence“. But you knew that…
All that happened, or, at least, began, in 123 BC. These days, Aix has a population of about 125,000, Aixois, as the natives are called, and, just like in Boston, everyone is either a teacher, a student or a Red Sock. Okay, forget the Red Sock, but make no mistake: Aix-En-Provence is a college town at heart and, as such, has all the hipness and vibrancy, activity and panache as would Georgetown or Madison, Wisconsin… or Cambridge, Mass, which it sort of reminds you of, only better, because you don’t have Harvard, or, more accurately, you don’t have people who go to Harvard. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that…)
So, yes, in some respects, mostly having to do with the people and the dress and the attitude, it really does feel very 21st century. On the other hand, it’s 2,000 years old, and even the newer parts are 500 years old, and the very newest, 200. No, Dorothy, you’re not in Kansas anymore…
The main boulevard, Cours de Mirabeau, is wide and majestic and lined with cafés and restaurants, while the interior streets, winding and ancient and beautiful, reveal one shop after another, small boutiques with local specialties to big-name designer emporiums — we found a wonderful faux fur blanket, warm and heavy and elegant, for 120 Euros that we’re bringing home with us to Florida– and then open up to sprawling, bustling markets of produce or flowers in the squares, with lovely fountains—something Aix is known for—everywhere you turn.
The Cours Mirabeau splits the town geographically, between the older section (actually, ancient), on the left as you move away from the main square, and the newer, more commercial section on the right. As if each side wanted to assert its proclivities loudly and unmistakably, the left side is lined with cafés and brasseries, while across the way, standing sternly and slightly aloof—are banks.
If you sit in one of these cafés, the softly lit drawing rooms you will be seeing, the tinkling of cups and glasses on trays and silverware being set on tables for the next customers that you will be hearing, and the rich coffee aromas you will be smelling– are the same, just the same, even now, that Cezanne saw and heard and smelled, and Emile Zola, Albert Camus and even Hemmingway. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…
As Alice and I strolled along the Cours Mirabeau, wrapping our scarves just a little more snugly against the brisk– but not so stern as to be unpleasant– December chill, I began to wonder about the name of this street, this “Cours Mirabeau”, why it was so named and who, in fact, might this Mirabeau have been? I had come across the name before, a lot, in all kinds of places, including a street in Paris. At some point somebody liked this fellow, and, clearly, he got around. I pondered this business of naming streets. If you read my prior post on the American Cemetery at Draguignan, you might remember that the road that ran along one of its sides was “John F. Kennedy Boulevard”, adding yet another Kennedy street or avenue or park or building to the hundreds that already exist. In many cases, we don’t have to wonder who the luminaries were that now have a street or a square named after them. Countless towns have “Place Charles de Gaulle”, or “Rue de Napoleon”. Okay, we know these guys. And for us Americans, Washington Square Park or Lincoln Center or even Jackie Robinson Boulevard have easy to understand antecedents. Fine.
But how many New Yorkers, as they stroll through Carl Schurz Park, perhaps looking at Gracie Mansion as they do, have any idea who Carl Schurz was, or why anyone would name a park after him? In New York? He doesn’t even sound like he was from New York. In fact, he was born in Germany, but came to the US and did all kinds of amazing things, was a Civil War General of note and ability, and, among other accomplishments, coined the phrase “My Country Right or Wrong”– and, at that point, when he referred to “my country”, he meant the U.S. Oh, and by the way, his wife was instrumental in establishing the kindergarten system in the U.S. All fine, but, still, like I say, ask a casual visitor to Carl Schurz Park who he was and the chances are they aren’t going to know. They’ll probably tell you, “Hey, I’m just here to see Gracie Mansion.”
“Okay, then, who was Archibald Gracie and why did they name the house the Mayor of New York lives in after him?”
They’re not going to know the answer to that one, either. For the record, Gracie was a big-deal shipping magnate and business guy in the early 1800’s and Gracie Mansion was the home he built for himself and his family. Not that, I realize, you particularly care—and that’s my point. I mean, here we are on Cours Mirabeau, and I would say that anybody you can think of would like to have a street as beautiful as this (I mean, it’s 132 feet wide) named after him, in the middle of a city that for many centuries was an incredibly important (and quite wealthy, I might add) part of the European landscape. I mean, this street should be named King this or that street, or Queen this or that boulevard, or at least named after somebody really, really famous and maybe, if you don’t mind, somebody one might have actually heard of.
Mirabeau? Are you kidding me? This guy spent more time in the slammer than just about anyplace else, and not for some noble political cause or admirable stand against oppression or anything we can put a nice coat of paint on. No, this guy was basically a bounder, quite a magnificent one, as it happens.
He led a long, complicated, Fellini-movie-like life. He was a degenerate womanizer, a degenerate gambler, considered, essentially, a pornographer (he rivaled the Marquis de Sade, although they detested each other), pompous, deceitful, bombastic and, for all that, brilliant. He became quite famous during the French Revolution as an eloquent and seemingly effective proponent of sense and moderation, two things which, as we know, played absolutely no significan role at all in that bloody, grotesque epidsode.
Nevertheless, he had the ear of the Monarchy and the respect of the people, and that’s saying something in those times, a balancing act that could probably only be accomplished by someone with the complete lack of scruples and honed ability to hide ones inauthenticity that Mirabeau had perfected over a lifetime of mendacity. When he died, either of heart failure or, more likely, poisoning by one of the countless people he had cheated, offended, insulted or ruined, his public relations agility had secured for him a fine reputation and he was buried with honors in Paris. That’s when they started naming streets after him. Shortly thereafter, however, and rather unfortunately for a lot of city planners, it was discovered that Mirabeau, far from being the idealistic, self-sacrificing go-between that he presented himself to be, was, in fact, simply a mercenary, paid handsomely by the King (and others) for his efforts. Whatever feigned nobility of intent that he was able to project was thusly unmasked. His body was dug up and ignominiously deposited in an anonymous grave that has never been found.
Now, the short synopsis of the life of Mirabeau that I have presented here certainly does not do him justice. He was much more than I have described, even if he was somewhat less than the people of the French Revolution had believed him to be. But what’s interesting is that if you see a street name and it isn’t “Elm” or “Pine” or “Main” or “North” street, if, instead, it’s named after someone, and you don’t recognize who that someone is, there’s probably a story there, and supporting that story is a life, an actual life, of a person who lived and spent that lifetime filled with emotions and yearnings and passions just as you and I are doing, and I’m thinking that they would like it, they would like it a lot, if every once in a while someone stopped for a second and thought about it, thoght about that name associated howeverly dimly-seen with that life, and decided to find out who they were and why their name is on this street. Maybe that’s all we can hope for.
Cézanne is easy to like but hard to understand.
His work is easy to like because it’s so beautiful and pleasing and balanced and, well, just really, really nice to look at.
And, it would seem, not that particularly difficult to decipher if, indeed, you have a mind to decipher it rather than look at it and enjoy it.
If you do decide to try and decipher it, that puts you in the same camp as an absolutely astonishing number of analysts, critics, philosophers, curators, self-proclaimed art connoisseurs, and that’s just to start.
You, see, Cézanne is considered an artists’ artist, one of the most influential who ever lived, with everything coming before him being one thing and everything coming after him considered to be something else.
Now, bear in mind that the “after” part, years-wise, is much shorter than the before part, centuries-wise, since he lived from 1839 to 1906, but still…
Artists who came after him, most notably Picasso, admit that, to a great or lesser degree, they are “standing on the shoulders” of Cézanne, taking advantage of his insights and the increased possibilities those insights birthed, a world of visual rendition unknown before he not only conceived of them, intellectually, but began the process of demonstrating them artistically.
Understanding that about Cézanne, intellectually, is one thing. Seeing it in his paintings is another. Everyone talks about it; everyone has a theory. Everyone imputes ideas to Cézanne that happen to support whatever their own personal philosophy is– and I don’t just mean their philosophy about art, I mean their philosophy in general.
Cézanne gets talked about an awful lot, and nothing I’ve ever seen written about him, whether expounding endlessly and abstrusely about his brushstrokes or imputing to him (also endlessly and abstrusely) a kind of artistic visual mathematics, none of it characterizes him as anything less than a towering figure in Art, a true genius.
But when you try and get at why he’s a towering figure, what, exactly, he did, well, that’s when it gets dicey, contradictory and almost always buried under a gigantic pile of impenetrable rhetoric; rhetoric so tortured, rhetoric that has to reach so hard to grab hold of some actual meaning, that you begin to wonder if it’s explicable at all.
Bear in mind that you don’t wonder if it’s true or not—that he was so monumentally influential on those who came after him. No, there’s just too much universal certainty that he was indeed that influential. Rather, you wonder if anybody can actually put their finger, really, on why—and I’m referring here to those, especially, who set forth their ideas on Cézanne with a surety that is as unencumbered by self-doubt as it is unblemished by comprehensibility.
Here it is, sort of, in a nutshell, and there are people who will disagree with everything I say here, just as there are people who would disagree if I said exactly the opposite. But I’ll give it a shot:
Cézanne was the bridge, they say, between the old Masters and what would become– passing through various interim stages along the way, like Cubism—Modern Art. He was the guy who liberated painters from feeling like they had to show things as they really are— in favor of trying to show things as they really are. Huh?
There have been many volumes written trying to explain what I mean by that sentence, but here’s a start: You’ll notice in the still-life, above, there are certain things that are “off”, most notably the “perspective”. The rim of the bowl indicates one vantage point, the plate a different one. You do get a sense of the “roundness” of the fruit, but they aren’t “photographically” rendered. The deep shadows that would have made it more photographically realistic are absent, allowing for color more vibrant than it would be if meticulous attention had been paid to that “modeling” created by shadows. Even the stem of the fruit stand is off-center, or, perhaps the plate-part of it is distorted and “unrealistically” depicted.
What’s going on here?
For one thing, what’s going on is an abandonment of the stuff the Renaissance painters killed themselves to achieve. When Filippo Bruneslleschi “invented” linear perspective in the 1400′s, that became the holy grail: Getting things “right” in terms of depth and contour, even though done on the flat surface of the canvas. If Brunelleschi didn’t figure out perspective, you gotta wonder if we would have Florence. (And that, my friends, makes one wonder about the truth or falshood of the “Great Man Theory” of history. If Hitler had never lived, would we have had Nazi Germany? If Brunelleschi had never lived to invent linear perspective, would someone else have done it, or would we still be living in the Dark Ages. But I digress…)
Cézanne wasn’t purposely abandoning these things– these little things that had given rise to the Renaissance and made it stupendous and which pretty much made art everything it was up until that point–he was sacrificing them on the alter of other things that he deemed more important, like color and, well, “truth” of the object or scene, “truth” (my word in this context, not his) being much more important than “reality”, or, more accurately, reality only being released by liberation from convention.
Yikes. Let’s try again:
Put a bowl of fruit on the table and look at it with one eye.
Now, without moving your head, close that eye and open the other. Go back and forth a few times.
You’re seeing two different things. Which one is “reality”? If the painter were going to paint the scene “as it really is”, which scene should he paint, the one you’re seeing with your right eye, or the one you see with the left? Or, rather, should he paint the scene he sees with both eyes open, like most of the painters who ever lived up until that point?
If he does do that, is he really painting “reality”? Is he really capturing the full reality of that bowl of fruit?
Cézanne believed not. He believed that at an absolute minimum there are at least two realities there, and, when you think of it, why should the “reality” of that bowl of fruit be defined as being limited to that which he can perceive with one, the other, or both of his eyes? The truth is that the reality of that bowl of fruit exists and can be expressed—or should be expressed, if such a thing could be done—inherently, emanating from itself, not limited to the painter’s one particular perception of it. (See how we’re getting lost in the funhouse already?)
In order to try and make this infinitesimally clearer, let’s jump ahead for just a second to Duchamp’s Nude Descending the Staircase, considered to be the ground zero of Cubism and the gateway to Modern Art. The attempt there is to take a lot of different angles on the subject, as if it were being looked at by a bunch of different people all at the same time, and capture all of their “realities” in one picture. The fancy term the critics use for this is “simultaneous viewpoints”. Cézanne had been the first guy to conceive of this concept and to try and figure out a way to do it, and if you do a little critical reading on Cezanne, be prepared for an avalanche of very highbrow, thoroughly professorial exegeses on Cézanne’s obsession with shapes, because those shapes– cones, spheres, triangles—are inherent in the subject, not requiring our perception for their existence, and that, too, was something Cézanne was struggling—mightily—to try and figure out a way to capture in his work.
Accordingly, you can find whole books that take every Cézanne painting and superimpose triangles on the images; big triangles, little triangles, right-side-up triangles, upside-down triangles, triangles within triangles—all showing how Cézanne was obsessed with a kind of visual mathematics, part geometry, part something else.
And we’ve only touched on his thoughts on “modeling”—that’s the play of increasing shadow on an object that gives it “depth”. On the one hand, this imitates what happens to the sunlight on an object, in “real life”. On the other hand, and this is what rankled Cézanne, if you attempt to be true to the modeling effect of the light, what you lose in the process is the truth of the color of the object, because you’re trying to have the color do something that, after all, who says it has to do, which is mimic what you see, from your one particular vantage point, rather than having that color be rendered in it’s essential, well, color-ness.
Whoops, here we are deeper in the funhouse.
Cézanne himself didn’t help matters much, because he was given to saying things like this:
“Objects influence each other through and through… They spread their influence imperceptibly about, by means of their auras, as we do by means of looks and words… the minute particles that surround things.”
I will guarantee you that the guy who wrote the book about Cézanne and the triangles thinks he knows what Cézanne meant by that.
But I don’t think he does. I don’t think even Cézanne knew what he meant by it.
And that’s why, as I began looking into this, I thought about Melville. Hermann Melville. You know: Moby Dick and all that. More specifically, I thought about the moment, many years ago, that I understood that everything people had been telling me—actually, teaching me—about Moby Dick was not only irrelevant and beside-the-point, it was malicious. I don’t mean that their telling me all these things was done out of malicious motivation—no, their motivation was simply to convince themselves and me that, erroneously, they knew what they were talking about. I mean it was malicious in the sense that it not only failed to aide understanding, it obstructed it, while, at the same time, exsanguinating the work itself.
I came to understand that all the hours we had spent trying to “deconstruct” the text of Moby Dick, to understand what the white whale “stood for”, for example, or Ahab’s wooden leg, or Ishmael’s name, all that time trying to parse exactly how Melville calmly and intelligently employed well-named techniques (well-named by others, others not unlike the professors who were teaching all this stuff) like “foreshadowing” and “irony”—all those hours and all that effort conspired to create a picture of Melville and what he was doing and what he was trying to do that had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the book, the man or anything, ultimately, either important or helpful.
The professors wanted to believe that Melville was just like them: Professorial and cerebral, calmly and deliberately marshaling his genius to go about the business of creating a masterpiece, of putting the “puzzle” together just so, and disgorging a work that is something of a crossword puzzle for us, an intellectual challenge to see if we can keep up with him, to see if we can “solve the puzzle” and “see” what he did and how he did it.
But Melville wasn’t professorial at all. He was an insane, crazed maniac who spent his life reaching down his own throat trying to grab the sharp-toothed beast that was gnawing at his soul and yank it out so he could look at it and understand it and most of all so he could get rid of it, and the only way he could think of to maybe do that was to sit down and write, and after a long, agonizing period of gruesome effort, of trying to let happen a lot of things that he couldn’t help trying to make happen, after all that– there was Moby Dick sitting there, and, probably, the sharp-tooth beast was still in his gut waiting for another feckless effort to pull him out in the endless, hopeless, agonizing process of human beings who are driven to create stuff that the rest of us are inclined to characterize as art, and, on many unfortunate occasions to attempt to reduce to a thesis, antithesis and conclusion, all of which the perpetrator of this “art” would despise.
Cézanne’s canvasses might have a lot of triangles that you can find in them, and maybe Cézanne did all that knowingly, and maybe his thought processes were mathematical and calculating, but I don’t know if that’s true, I just don’t. I don’t think his purpose was to create painting-puzzless that future professorial types could amuse themselves by deciphering, his purpose was to wrestle with the sharp-toothed beast, and that was the only way he could figure out to go about it.
He wasn’t considered talented enough to be admitted to Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and going to Law school like his banker father wanted him to do didn’t work out either, because I believe Cézanne knew full well that law school wasn’t going to do a thing to help him with the sharp-toothed beast, so he hunkered down in Aix-en-Provence and spent his life isolated and lonely, trying to find that visual voice that would help him get at “it”, and the voice he found probably didn’t do the trick for him, totally, but in his searching and his grappling and his obsessiveness he did find a voice that would alter the course of art on the entire planet and probably forever because his particular duel with his particular sharp-toothed beast caused him to do things in a way that others began to understand even better, maybe, than he did, and to take those things and use them to ride into the future in new ways.
And I don’t have any doubt that these art critics and philosophers who write about Cézanne know a lot more than I do, and they’re a lot smarter than I am, and they probably were born with a much keener ability to see and interpret the visual world than I was—after all, they’re art critics; that’s what they do—but I’m not convinced that when the bar closes for the night and the street lights dim and the last taxi has taken the last unsatisfied seeker home, I’m not sure any of them can say any more about Cézanne than that, and if they forget about the sharp-toothed beast, then they don’t know Cézanne at all…
Some more pictures of our day in Aix-En-Provence
Above: There are street decorations everywhere in this very pleasant, ancient city.
Above: Aix is often referred to as The City of a Thousand Fountains. It is winter now, so many of them don’t have the water flowing, but they are beautiful nonetheless.
When was the last time the cops nabbed a perpetuator?
Never, that’s when. Because what they do is they nab a perpetrator. Which is a shame, on all counts, because “perpetrator” is a stinky word, a crappy noun made from an even crappier verb: perpetrate. Why is it so lousy? Because it’s one of those rare words that adds letters and length without adding nuance or improving meaning. The “perpetrator” is the guy who did it: The criminal. The suspect. Whatever: Okay, the “perp“, and that shortening, in and of itself, indicates what a crumb-bum the full word is. Who needs it? Why do you have to “perpetrate” something? Why can’t you just “do” it?
Making matters worse– far worse– is the fact that so many people reaching for what is a lousy word to begin with, perpetrate, get lost on the journey, and grab for one of two similar-sounding words: Either “perpetuate” or “promulgate“.
Perpetuate isn’t a bad word when it’s used for what it means, but it sinks to the level of really awful when it’s incorrectly used to stand-in for a different word, one that shouldn’t have been reached for at all, like perpetrate or promulgate. That’s why it’s so annoying that people who should know better so often say “perpetuate” when what they mean is “promulgate“, or they say “promulgate“ when they mean “perpetrate“, or, well, you get the idea: These three words get tossed into sentences willy-nilly, as if they had the same meaning, or as if any one of them will do (as if they were fungible– another crappy word) since, after all, you can probably “get it”, get the intended meaning, from the sentence, even if the wrong one of the three words was plucked out of the hat. Phooey.
Here are some sentences you’ve probably heard or read:
“He was making it up– perpetuating a lie.”
“He was bullying him every day, promulgating his long-term reputation as a weenie.”
“It simply wasn’t fair; he was perpetuating and injustice”.
“They were all running in different directions, promulgating confusion all around.”
None of the above sentences make any sense, even if you really reach for comprehensibility by stretching the underlying meaning of the words. In fact, if you so loosen your interpretation of what the author intended, giving him, as it were, the benefit of the doubt, you realize that if the reasl meaning of the word that was chosen was actually intended– the sentence (the whole sentence) would have been crafted differently from the very outset: It’s either the wrong word or a very awkward sentence, and the chances are it’s the former, Occam’s razor and all that…
No, the perpetrators of these sentences are promulgating erroneous usage and perpetuating that selfsame incorrect usage that started God-knows when. So let’s get this straight once and for all:
To perpetrate is to “do” or “commit”. You perpetrate a fraud or a crime. You can also perpetrate a practical joke. Essentially, if you perpetrate something, you are responsible for its occurrence.
To perpetuate is to cause something to continue on, pehaps indefinitely. If you fail to repair a traffic light, you are perpetuating an unsafe condition, causing it to continue into the future, rather than fixing it. You might also be perpetrating a negligence on the community, by perpetuating the unsafe condition.
To promulgate is to make something known or “public” by open declaration. Paul Revere was promulgating the belief in the community that the British were coming. If I publish an untruth about you in the local newspaper, I might be perpetrating an injustice on you by promulgating an untruth about you, while thereby perpetuating your unpopularity in the community. But if I say a lie about you, and no one has ever said it before, I’m not perpetuating a lie– I’m either perpetrating one (meaning I’m committing the lie) or I’m promulgating one (meaning I’m taking the lie and giving it a wider audience) but, unlike what you hear a million TV political analysts say, or reporters who should know better, I’m not, NOT, “perpetuating” a lie– unless I take the lie and do all kinds of things to make sure no one ever forgets it. In that case, yes, I’m perpetuating the lie…
Granted, sometimes the author’s meaning can be a little ambiguous: Maybe the author actually does mean, about, say, a lie, that you are “causing it to continue on” (perpetuating it) rather than merely “spreading it around” (promulgating it). Fine. But is it too much to ask that care is taken to use the word that is freighted with the actual meaning that is intended? As it is, this seemingly random injection of any one of these three words for an all-purpose meaning is as annoying as people saying “Nucular” instead of “Nuclear”. I mean, REALLY ANNOYING.Okay, I’m glad I got that off my chest…
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N E X T : Leaving (snow)