Monday, April 17, 2006

Mountains and clouds, reflected

Charles Tomlinson, a poet who has always drawn inspiration from landscapes and landscape painting, once wrote a review (Modern Painters Spring 1989) in which he described his discovery of Cézanne through books. This intellectual journey began during the war, when it was not possible to view any actual paintings, with a tiny black and white illustration of a view of Gardanne in Eric Newton’s European Painting and Sculpture. However, the first significant book was Adrian Stokes’ Cézanne, which Tomlinson read in 1948. Stokes likened Cézanne’s treatment of form to ‘trees reflected by slightly undulating water’, a metaphor that Tomlinson links to these lines of Wordsworth (The Prelude Book IV) that, like the paintings, focus our attention on the process of perception itself:

As one who hangs down-bending from the side
Of a slow-moving boat, upon the breast
Of a still water, solacing himself
With such discoveries as his eye can make
Beneath him in the bottom of the deep,
Sees many beauteous sights--weeds, fishes, flowers,
Grots, pebbles, roots of trees, and fancies more,
Yet often is perplexed, and cannot part
The shadow from the substance, rocks and sky,
Mountains and clouds, reflected in the depth
Of the clear flood, from things which there abide
In their true dwelling…

Who else did Tomlinson go on to read? Merleau-Ponty’s 1948 essay Le Doute de Cézanne is described quite rightly as a ‘wonderful fifteen pages’. Tomlinson was also stimulated by the discussion of Cézanne’s painting The Abandoned House in André Breton’s L’Amour Fou. Then there were the writings of William Rubin (‘Cézanne and the beginnings of Cubism’, 1977), Theodore Reff (‘Painting and Theory in the Final Decade’, 1978) and Meyer Shapiro (various books). However, Tomlinson ends the review recommending the ‘necessary’ book, Cézanne: A Biography by John Rewald.

A postscript to this list was a letter Tomlinson wrote in the next issue explaining that he regretted having had to exclude Kurt Badt’s ‘remarkable’ The Art of Cézanne (1965), as well as D.H. Lawrence’s ‘Introduction to these Paintings’ (1929), Rilke’s letters on Cézanne and Charles Biederman’s The New Cézanne (1958)… So, to summarise, here were Tomlinson’s favourite Cézanne writers, 17 years ago: Stokes, Merleau-Ponty, Breton, Rubin, Reff, Shapiro, Rewald, Badt, Lawrence, Rilke and Biederman.

Tomlinson mentions the Modern Painters piece on Cézanne in a 1991 interview with David Morley in The North. For more on Tomlinson see The Charles Tomlinson Resource Centre. His new book Cracks in the Universe appears next month.

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