Friday, January 27, 2006

Millstone in the Park of Château Noir

John Rewald (1912–1994) was the author of the classic study Cézanne: A Biography (1986), a book that had its origins fifty years earlier in research for his prize-winning thesis Cézanne et Zola (1936). Rewald’s efforts were not appreciated by his Sorbonne professor, who ‘felt that Cézanne was not yet “ripe”’, but he received support from various people who had known the artist and when it came to the public defence of Rewald’s thesis, Zola’s daughter and son-in law sat in the front row of the amphitheatre. One of the pleasures of the subsequent book is the inclusion of photographs taken at the site’s of Cézanne’s landscapes (often labelled “c1935”, as Rewald presumably took no precise record of the dates in his wonderings round Provence). These are obviously a valuable historical record of places that have changed, but they have their own beauty. Although the photographs are composed as precisely framed documents, they distil a powerful sense of nostalgia, both for the artist and his times and now, more generally, for that lost idyllic pre-War rural France. Like Cézanne’s paintings, they seem to reflect both the transience of Impressionism and the timeless forms of rocks, trees, mountain. They are also moving mementos of a time when it was still possible for a young researcher to visit Provence and learn about Cézanne by talking to his son Paul and elderly artists like Signac and Denis.

The photographs are now owned by the National Gallery of Art in Washington (which is holding a centenary exhibition of ‘Cézanne in Provence’). A few small images can be seen here, for example Mont Sainte Victoire seen from Les Lauves, which was the subject of a painting of 1904-6. However, the ideal way to look at these photographs is in the context of Rewald’s book. I have just been looking at it again and became lost in thought over the Millstone in the Park of Château Noir, a photograph that catches the original painting’s slanting summer light and shows the millstone just as it lies in Cézanne’s landscape, an abandoned object returning to nature.

Paul Cézanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire Seen from Les Lauves, 1904-6
Source Wikimedia Commons

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