“We philosophers are never more delighted than when we are taken for artists.” ~F. Nietzsche
“Painting from Nature is not copying the object: it is realizing one’s sensations.” ~P. Cézanne
“The living is merely a type of what is dead, and a very rare type.” ~F. Nietzsche
Chapter 1. La Recontre
Pämierlieutenant Friedrich Nietzsche walked down the gangway into the bright Mediterranean sun, a battered valise in hand. The year was 1869. Scanning the busy dockside, he saw a sign over the customs house door announcing, ‘Marseille,’ along with a fingerpost directing travelers ‘ à droite’ for public transport to his next destination, L’Estaque. Conscription into the Prussian army two years earlier meant a brief return to active service as international tensions mounted, with a duty station assignment in Lucerne. But in spite of his military responsibilities and ongoing squabbles among diplomats far removed to the north, Nietzsche intended to use his short military leave to seek the warmth and intellectual stimulation of this azure-drenched, palm-fringed coastal retreat.
Above: Friedrich Nietzsche as a Prussian military officer (1868-69).
As the crowded carriage threaded its way through the narrow streets of this bustling port city, he sat gazing out the window, picturing in his mind’s eye the crowded Provençal cafés and boulangeries of Port L’Estaque, just a few kilometers north, where he might encounter a cadre of Paris intellectuals; those who regularly retreated from the grime of the city to rest and reconnoiter in this far-flung resort town, caressed by perpetual Mediterranean breezes.
Left: Marseille Waterfront (circ. 1880).
Determinedly clutching his bag, filled with more notebooks and reading materials than clothes, the conveyance pulled into the village square, disgorging heaps of luggage and passengers, who quickly dispersed in every direction. Gaining his bearings, Nietzsche walked to the nearest boarding house and in halting, but acceptable French, secured a room for the week. His latest writing project loomed large in his mind and he was anxious to get to work, free from the petty distractions of military service. He meticulously spread his papers out on a small table by a second floor window overlooking a lush, tropical garden. Across the street, a cluster of brightly-painted stucco houses, bordered by neat fences rose up on a hillside. Next, he decided to set out in search of a good cup of coffee and a small repast at the restaurant nearby, before getting down to work.
The bistro offered small tables near the street, a warm sea breeze, and nearby profusions of brightly-colored flowers, marking this particular spot an inviting one. As he settled in, with coffee and the ubiquitous sheaf of paper and pencil always at the ready, he noticed a small-framed, intelligent man sitting at the next table, sketch pad in hand, busily rendering the rooftops and façades of the buildings nearby. “Do you mind if I watch you work?” Nietzsche asked. “No, not at all,” said the artist, “I’m here frequently and people often watch what I do.” As the image emerged on the page, the curious observer noted that its form was distinctively disjointed and interpretive—not at all the scene plainly visible to both sets of eyes.
Left: The Bay at L’Estaque (1882-85).
“May I ask about your approach to this subject?” Nietzsche said, moving his chair closer and introducing himself as ‘Friedrich.’ “But, of course, I am often asked about my approach to a motif. Je m’appelle Paul Cézanne,” he said smiling, extending his hand in greeting at the same time. “I assume from your accent that we should be sworn enemies right now, but I have no stomach for conflict and believe this town might offer me and my family refuge from hardship that may surely arise between our two nations in the near future. Accueil vers le Côte d’Azure.”
Nietzsche’s French hinted at his Germanic roots, as he said, “J’accepte, monsieur. La guerre, cette grande convulsion de l’âme… comme vous le savez peut-être.” [War offers a grand convulsion of the soul…as you may know]
Nieztsche, disbelieving and emboldened by his good fortune at meeting someone of similar mind, added, “All that bellicosity at home caused me to choose a stateless existence for myself, right now. But let’s not be concerned with politics, at this moment; I was attracted by your energy as you sketched. I’m a writer, but I consider myself an artist above all and want to be judged in that way by history.”
Right: Friedrich Nietzsche (1869).
Leaning precariously forward to the very edge of his café chair to emphasize his point, he urged, “If there is to be art, if there is to be any aesthetic doing and seeing, one physiological condition is indispensable: frenzy. Frenzy must first have enhanced the excitability of the whole machine; else there is no art. Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder. Man is the source and cause of beauty. Man mirrors himself on the world and reflects the beauty that resides within him upon the world. In the beautiful, Man praises and glorifies himself.” He excitedly added, “Nothing is beautiful, except for man alone: all aesthetics rests upon this naïveté and nothing is ugly, except the degenerating man. I recently wrote about those very feelings of power, courage and pride: all fall with the ugly and rise with the beautiful. Only as an aesthetic product can the world find justification for all eternity.”
Left: Paul Cezanne, Self-portrait (1887).
Intrigued by this young philosopher’s ebullience, Cézanne, flipping the pages of his sketchbook said, “Let me show you a working drawing for a still life painting currently underway, back in my Paris studio. I call it La Pendule au Marbre Noire. My eye sees beauty to be revealed in these mundane objects. The medium is heavily applied, in the style of the French masters. Like most of my works until recently, there is a solidified, almost architectural style to my painting. I call this my couillard manner—perhaps like the Spanish Baroque—with all its muddy paint, and palette knife sculpting with thick black pigment. I believe the English might translate that as, ‘ballsy,’” he said jokingly. “The marble clock is, itself, a metaphor for the classical traditions of French painting, with its moral sobriety and pre-occupation with Neo-Classicism, like a touchstone against which values and behavior is judged. But, if you look carefully, you’ll see that the scene is a radical re-envisioning of the traditional nature morte.”
Right: edited version for this article of “La Pendule au Marbre Noire” (1869-70).
Resting the tablet on the table, Cézanne points to the detailed drawing on the page. “The hands of the clock are missing, rendering it impotent in its most important function. Even the black clock, the very title of the work, occupies a secondary position in the composition. The draped cloth in the foreground dominates the scene, but its heavy, repeated folds seem more architectural than the soft, flowing cloth supposedly represented. Its shadows are over-wrought—looming, rather than subtly suggestive. Here I am defying the classicists, with their careful attention to the nature of objects, depicting a well-known trope in outlandishly crude terms. The glass vase stands empty in the center of the composition, belying its traditional function in a painting such as this. Two other vases are cut off by the upper edge; and like the untitled books stacked at the right side of the painting, they serve as meaningless vestiges of the past in the overall messaging of the painting. A single, heavily-worked lemon lies partially hidden by the cloth; a coffee cup and saucer sit perilously close to the edge of an ill-defined table top. Another, ambiguously-rendered object juts from the right side of the cloth drape, seemingly floating in the dark space that makes up nearly a fourth of the composition. Incongruously, a massive seashell sits grinning back at the voyeur, a crassly-outsized symbol for the ossified traditions of classical painting and perhaps, a whimsical metonym for the Academies’ preoccupation with nude female genitalia.”
But, radical as it is, I have been directing too much of my excessive morbidity and suffering into dark works like this. Now that I’m here in L’Estaque, I find new life in painting the bold colors of nature. The very shapes of things seem to fragment before my eyes in this radiant light. Besides,” he confesses to this almost perfect stranger, “I am nearly 30, in love, and getting married soon, so life seems brighter. I’m turning my attention to landscapes.” He proudly announced, “I’m calling this my ‘constructive’ period and I’m going to start painting in a new, lighter style I have seen others using…similar to the drawing you see me doing here. I see few if any straight lines in nature.”
Right: Cliffs, North of L’Estaque (1869)
“I take your point,” said Nietzsche, “and agree wholeheartedly; just as there are no straight lines in the formless nature of our sensations. We impose order on the world because of our need to find order in chaos. I, myself, am about to publish a work and, in many ways, my views run parallel to yours.” Sipping his coffee, he pushed his plate to the side and traced the outline of two circles on a napkin with his outstretched finger. “My esthetical view borrows from the ancient Greeks, consisting of the Dionysiac—here in this circle and the Apollonian in the other, pointing to the imagined diagram. Dionysus is the god of intoxication, orgies, the forces of nature and music; Apollo is the god of individuation, illusion, form, order and the plastic arts. It is through a dialectical interplay of these two opposing—and at the same time, complementary esthetical elements—that art owes its continuous evolution.” Cupping his two hands in a gesture, as though to push the two imaginary circles toward one another, he adds, “I see— in the unification of these two elements, the genesis of the highest expression of art in history: the Greek tragedy. But it is in the Dionysiac element where the highest esthetical symbolism can be found. Thus, the Dionysiac element, rather than the Apollonian, proves itself to where the eternal and original power of art can be found.”
“You, my friend,” said Nietzsche excitedly, “by virtue of connecting with the Dionysiac element through your art, can begin to transcend the limits of individual existence and establish communion with your own human and the natural world. Not only does the bond between man and man come to be forged once more by the magic of the Dionysiac rite, but nature itself, long alienated or subjugated, rises again to celebrate the reconciliation with her prodigal son, man. Through art, Man transcends the confines of his own ego securing oneness with the universe. Clearly, it is established: the role of art as means of self-transcendence.” Then he added laughingly, as though to mock his own seriousness, “And you can quote me on that!”
Cézanne sat speechless, staring first at his sketch of the village square—a jumble of cross-hatched squares and triangles, scant angular strokes to suggest scudding clouds above—then incredulously at Nietzsche. He felt suddenly energized, but inexplicably so. Perhaps he was poised at the cusp of an historic moment; or perhaps this young man, who had momentarily wandered into the café—and his life—was giving voice to his very own future. For whatever reason, he now believed, more than ever, that his new direction as a painter of light and pure form was right for him, and he would diligently set about applying himself to the task.
“I see that you’re deep in contemplation, so I won’t keep you from your labors any longer,” said Nietzsche “Just one more thought, if I may so bold, because I recall your telling me that you had been experiencing a dark period in your work. My view is that art sustains life. Art is what makes life endurable, and thus possible. Art is what makes life worth living. Speaking metaphorically, I see artistic buoyancy and creative joy as a luminous cloud shape, reflecting on the dark surface of a lake of sorrow. For you as an artist, this may offer metaphysical solace. Remember when I mentioned the essential role of Greek tragedy? The metaphysical solace that all true tragedy sends our way reaffirms the message that life—at bottom—is indestructibly joyful and powerful.”
“Therefore, the function of art is one of support, maintenance, affirmation, and enhancement of life,” he continued. “It is a stimulant to life and an expression of the will to power. A stimulant is what propels and advances, that which lifts a thing beyond itself; it is a catalyst to the increase of power. Art, then, may be understood as a transfigurer of existence: as an expression of the will to power in its full plenitude. The Dionysiac aspect of art is the direct copy of the will itself, therefore representing the metaphysical.”
Nietzsche then stood abruptly, saying , “My apologies, Monsieur Cézanne, I have taken too much of your precious time. Please call on me if you are ever in Basel. I am indebted to you for our lively exchange of ideas and I wish you well in your new endeavors.”
“Merci, beaucoup, Friedrich, and please accept this sketch of one of my favorite subjects as a token of my gratitude,” he said, tearing a page from his tablet, affixing his signature and handing it to his new-found companion. “But I still don’t know your full name. Please be so kind as to tell me your family name.”
The young Prussian faced Cézanne to accept the gift of the drawing, bowing slightly at the waist. He replied, “Nietzsche, mon frere, Friedrich Nietzsche; who, upon completion of my military service, will return to a modest university post as an instructor of philology. I am pleased to make your acquaintance and thank you for this souvenir of our time together.” And with that, he then turned and walked away hurriedly.
Chapter 2. La Recherché (26 years later)
le 12 novembre, 1895
Cher Monsieur Cezanne:
Je m’appelle Elisabeth. Je suis la soeur de Friedrich Nietzsche qui est très malade en ce moment et incapable de travailler. Je m’occupe de rassembler ses oeuvres, ses écritures et journaux, afin d’apprendre ce que je peux au sujet de ses théories et de les promouvoir le plus possible. Il parlait souvent de votre rencontre fortuit il y a de nombreuses années et de la philosophie du monde que vous sembliez partager. J’aimerais beaucoup vous rencontrer et vous mettre à jour sur ses théories et en savoir plus sur votre peinture pendant ces années depuis votre dernière réunion.
Vous avez tous les deux trouvé la renommée et la notoriété. Vos vues partagées sur la perception, la vie et la mort et beaucoup d’autres sujets mériteraient une discussion –surtout à l’égard de la postérité.
Vous conviendrait-il que je vous rende visite dans votre studio dans un avenir proche pour vous parler de son oeuvre ?
Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche **
**[November 12, 1895
Dear Mister Cezanne:
My name is Elisabeth. I am the sister of Friedrich Nietzsche, who is now very ill and unable to work. I have taken up the task of compiling his writings and journals, learning what I can about his theories and promoting them when and wherever I can. He often spoke fondly of his chance meeting with you many years ago, and how you shared a common philosophy of the world. I would very much like to meet with you and update you on his theories and learn more about your painting in the years since you last met. You have both gained fame and notoriety in the intervening years. Your shared views on perception, life and death and many other matters might be well worth discussing at this time—especially for posterity’s sake.
May I please plan a trip to your studio in the near future to share his work with you.
“Thank you for meeting with me,” said Elisabeth, extending her gloved hand to greet Cézanne in front of his comfortable Aix-en-Provence home. “My brother always remembered his conversation with you in the café that day many years ago. The sketch you gave him occupies a place of honor in his study to this day. Sadly, after a number of incidents of failing health, he was eventually committed to an institution. Then, it fell to me to me to organize his papers. As I studied your sketch, I found myself pondering how your conversation could have impacted him so completely—and yet in such a brief period of time. When I then heard of your latest successes in Paris and Aix-en-Provence, I knew at last how and where to contact you.”
Right: Hans Olde, An ailing Nietzsche, late in life (1899).
“No one is more amazed than I,” marveled Cézanne. “I’m sorry to hear that your brother is not well. I too, have been laboring under a diagnosis of diabetes, and I confess, my work and mental state are the worse for it. I don’t have much contact with the public, but in this case, I wanted to open my home to you and learn more about your famous brother. Controversy follows him, much as it does me. True to my word back then, my style of painting has changed. I progressed very slowly at first, for nature reveals herself to me in very complex forms; and the progress necessary is incessant. Friedrich first approached me with the notion of ‘frenzy’ as an essential component to the creative act. At first I was dumbfounded; but later, I discovered that under this fine rain called ‘inspiration’, I breathe in the innocence of the world. I feel colored by the nuances of nature all around me. At that moment I am one with my pictures. Together, we are chaotic, but glowing.
“You know,” Elisabeth explained, “my brother changed his mind many times about the original premises in his youthful work, The Birth of Tragedy, which was published just about the time you met. I want to hear more about your encounter with him in `69.”
“We’ll have enough of that later, Madame Nietzsche. Let’s move into my studio where it will be more comfortable and I can share with you some of my work and memories of that day.” He led her into a crowded studio, filled with innumerable miscellaneous artifacts, easels tipped at every imaginable angle, paint-smeared tables and canvases stacked ten-deep against the walls. She noted later, though, that there were not many works in progress. “Come,” Cezanne said, “let me show you one of my latest paintings—a still life. It is a bit out of my usual realm.”
Left: Still Life with Cherub (1895)
From among Cézanne’s nature morte, the one he chose to display on an easel for Elisabeth, was remarkable for its inclusion of three other works of art—a cast of Puget’s Cupid, a fragment of a painting of an écorché, a plaster-cast, flayed figure popularly used to teach anatomy in art schools, as well as the corner of yet another Cézanne painting, Still Life with Peppermint Bottle. Several sketches of both castings, accomplished over the years, were evident in his studio notebooks, strewn about the space.
This painting was revealing in many ways—a self-reflexive glimpse into the man, himself. Drawn mainly from works of baroque motifs, the richly-painted contours and powerful contrast of these two figurative images, presented in the same painting, embody themes of passion and struggle. “To place such figures in a context of apples and onions is strange; what other painter would do this,” she thought? “The marriage of the heroic-passionate or idyllic to the commonplace-domestic surely must correspond to Cézanne’s complexity as a man. “
The vertiginous perspective of the work, dizzying in its tilted lines and planes, creates the sensation that the objects might soon tumble right out into the viewer’s space. A distinctive angular line appears to slice its way through the composition, from upper right—along the lower plane of the écorché canvas, to the two draped fruits pictured on the canvas’s left side, then across the foreground to the onions in the lower right. A single green apple anchors the back field, while an abundance of circular forms (live fruit and vegetables, constituting a first order of existence) fill the lower right-third of the piece. Here there is a sense of formal contrast between the apples and the statuette: a second order of existence found in the indistinction between the living, the once-living and the inanimate, being difficult to discern. The body of Cupid, rich in convexities and turns, is white, armless and appears oblivious of the verdant life surrounding it. The thematic anomalies of life and death, love and abandonment are united, or at least bridged, through the inclusion of these two figurative representations. The painting of the flayed figure only serves to confirm the reification of the Cupid, which, as a plaster cast, belongs to a third order of existence—a base copy of a copy among real fruit, yet no less tangible than those. The painting, itself, is a fourth step away from nature, assuming—by virtue of its severely truncated perspective—an atmosphere of emotional guardedness and restricted compositional perspective assumed by the artist.
^ ^ ^
As the train sped through the night to Paris, past the ancient towns of Arles and Lyon, belching steam and glowing cinders over the endless wheat fields and rolling hills of Bourges and Troyes, Elisabeth sat curled up against the darkened window of her compartment, making the latest entry into her journal:
“Ahh! What became of that young artist who so impressed my brother that many years ago on a sunny plaza? Has life taken an early toll on him, just as it has on Friedrich? Fits of neurasthenia and melancholy seem to have befallen both. My brother questioned the nature of tragedy. Does it glorify? Does it give metaphysical solace? Is it a means to self-transcendence? Is it a stimulus to life? Analyzing the function of tragedy as art, he once wrote, ‘Courage and freedom of feeling before a powerful enemy, before a sublime calamity, before a problem that arouses dread—this triumphant state is what the tragic artist chooses, what he glorifies. Art,’ he said, ‘may well be the bridge between Man and the superhuman or “over-human,” the übermench—the bridge to perfection and eternity. All nihilism in his philosophical system was sublimated to art as the highest metaphysical activity in Man, bestowing life with sublime meaning.”’
“In his later writings, specifically The Gay Science, my brother re-evaluated his stance on the power in which one ‘escapes becoming by transforming oneself, by becoming oneself, the eternal joy of becoming. Dionysian man, in other words, identifies himself with the whole eternal process of becoming and, as such, achieves immunity to the penalties of being part of that flux.’ What would Friedrich have to say to Cezanne in his later years, had they met by chance in a seaside café? He was certainly a changed man, and the scope of his philosophy was in a constant state of flux.”
“Cézanne, also a changed man, can be found in that painting he showed me,” Elisabeth wrote. “The compositional brilliance and use of color that he once described to my brother is clearly realized in this work. But, what of its emotional content? In his later years, Friedrich moved from a metaphysical to a psychological understanding of human behavior. He understood that art was a tool with which the individual could ward off the horror of nihilism. Starting with his oft-quoted position in, The Birth of Tragedy that, ‘It is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified,’ requires a set of absolutes that stand outside of that which is being justified.
As he struggled with his view of ‘existence and the world,’ he seemed to imply a metaphysical distinction between reality and existence. So, from a position of ‘eternal justification,’ he migrated to a view that ‘As an aesthetic phenomenon, existence is still bearable for us.’ Eternal justification requires, at the very least, that what does the justifying be true, and in Birth of Tragedy, he thought he had a candidate in the form of absolute truth. But, by the time he wrote The Gay Science (1882), he realized that truth was precisely the problem. So when art, so often enlisted as the ultimate truth-teller, proves to falsify or evade truth, it can, at best, offer to make life merely bearable.“
Left: The infirmed Nietzsche and his sister, Elizabeth (1899).
“So truth proved to be an elusive concept for my brother—and so too, for Cézanne. This artist continues looking for truth in Nature and in his own sensory awareness of the world around him. For Cézanne, truth is found in the colors and forms, planes and syntax of things. The organized dialectic of his paintings caused him to remark to me, ‘Painting from Nature is not copying the object, it is realizing one’s sensations.’ His goal is presence, not illusion, and the gravity and apartness of things—so weighted with apparent thought—appears to give them an existence independent from our own realm of experience. Therein lays Cezanne’s answer to Friedrich’s dilemma about where truth is found! For my brother, truth resides somewhere out there in the sphere of classicism or the human dimensions of tragedy. In Gay Science, he claimed, in effect, that art is seen as the intentional development of a contradiction of nature.
Reality, in fact, must be contradicted for humans to survive. ‘We have art,’ he said, ‘so that we will not die from the truth.’ For Cezanne, the search for truth is a positive journey. It can only be discovered a priori, in a careful examination of the world immediately around him. Friedrich urges an abandonment of Socratic rationality because of its repressive effects on human creativity. Cézanne, on the other hand, wants to see and sense the objects he is painting, rather than think about them. Ultimately, he wants to assimilate his senses— a synasthetic experience, as it were—where ‘sight’ is also experienced as ‘touch.’”
“It was soon time to leave this sad and lonely man, seemingly weighed down by concerns of his health, lacking friends and the support of a family, now estranged. He rarely paints now, though his work is very much in demand. I now can reflect briefly on the objects in Monsieur Cezanne’s painting: the figure of Cupid, a symbol of love, yet seemingly staid and lifeless; a fragment of the écorché, its outer layers stripped, so the heart and vital organs lay bare; the fruit, pictured in various stages of reality within the synthetic domain of the canvas; all tied together by a brilliant, but topsy-turvy, world of planar surfaces, rendering nearly impossible a firm footing in this conflicted world of emotion. Cézanne, too, inhabits these dual worlds of the natural and artificial. And through his art, they are transposed into a narrative of sensuality and suffering. On closer examination, I encourage future viewers to consider Cezanne’s Cupid as a metaphor for his life and his technique. The essential colorlessness of this simple studio prop—a non-human object—takes on the breath and breadth of life and hope as he endows it with a delicate range of warm and cool tints, and the attenuations of color in space—a small, but hopeful sign of a man who appears to have nearly given up hope.”
Right: Apples (1878-79).
I recall now, that I had one more question before I left for the train station. “Tell me, Monsieur Cézanne, what do you believe to be the secret to your success?”
He turned to me, and with a wry smile, simply said, ‘With an apple I can astonish Paris.’”
Chapter 3. Vanitas (eleven years more has passed)
October 16, 1906
My Dear Son, Paul,
Son, it has been raining all day here in Aix. A brisk autumn wind is being delivered to us, courtesy of the Swiss, but the gardens along the Chemin des Lauves require tending and I must see to them today. People tell me that my studio is now a point of curiosity for a cadre of tourists that regularly pass through our town, and I don’t want to disappoint. It may chill me to the bone, but the weeds threaten to soon overtake my modest cottage.
I have been working increasingly in watercolor, of late. With the medium, the demands of time and effort on my tired frame are fewer, and the results, of late, are even more satisfying than oil. For the petty bourgeoisie of Aix, my paintings apparently remain a challenge. I am still affected by a critical review of my work in `03 by Henri Rochefort in L’Intransigeant, entitled ‘Love for the Ugly.’ Rochefort described how spectators had supposedly experienced laughing fits, when seeing the paintings of ‘an ultra-impressionist named Cézanne.’ In love and politics, emotions often become muddled, and I am, even at this late stage in life, not immune to such ridicule. I seek solace in the belief that, for informed collectors and Parisian gallerists, my unique approach to color and form over the last forty years has been worthwhile.
Left: Bridge at the Three Rivers (1906).
Although, in these recent years, I must tell you that as a painter I have become more clear-sighted before nature, but with me, the realization of my sensations is always painful. I cannot attain the intensity that is unfolding before my senses. I no longer have the magnificent richness of coloring that animates Nature. Here on the bank of the river the motifs multiply. I have feelings of exaltation and inadequacy before the infinite shapes and relationships that even the simplest view by that river set before me. The same subject, seen from a different angle gives a motif such high interest that I think I could be occupied for months, just tipping my head one way or the other. Each line I make is the result of a process of seeing—and the decision to commit on canvas or paper in the midst of a welter of doubt. My work is, after all, about the art of seeing.
The philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, now dead some six years, after a troubled life and protracted death, once wrote in his Twilight of the Idols: “In art man enjoys himself as perfection.” Art is then the supreme delight of existence; art has certainly been the fountain and source of joy in the world for me. And, although the reality of the world requires that any aesthetic pursuit be defensible in a hostile or unaccepting world, joy for Nietzsche did not require justification, because, “joy justifies itself; joy, too, justifies existence: through joy, life is affirmed,” he claimed. Thus, we reach another basic role of art, as the supreme source of joy.
For me, Nietzsche’s ‘joy of creation’ has been a sustaining feature in my life. But joy does not extend our lives indefinitely. At my age, death can come at any time, and most unexpectedly. You know that I am devoted to the Church and to my faith. While I don’t often express it openly, I allow my painting to act as my barometer. When I judge art, I take my painting and put it next to a God-given object like a tree or flower. If it clashes, it is not art. That simple test has stood me in good stead over the years. And I take comfort, too, in something Nietzsche wrote years after we briefly met. He said, “It gives me a melancholy happiness to live in the midst of this confusion of streets, of necessities, of voices: how much enjoyment, impatience and desire, how much thirsty life and drunkenness of life comes to light here every moment […] How strange that this sole thing that is certain and common to all, exercises almost no influence on men, and that they are the furthest from regarding themselves as the brotherhood of death!”
Right: Pyramid of Skulls (1901).
As I sit writing to you, I am gazing across the room at an `01 painting, Pyramide des Crânes. Or rather, should I say, it is looking inquisitively back at me! This is a subject I had painted many times before, and since (as recently as this year, in watercolor). The motif is a familiar one to artists of my era and for countless generations, reaching back to the 16th century. For Renaissance painters, overtly morbid associations with death were mollified, as nature morte became popular—with various arrangements of fruit, books, ephemera and skulls— as this popular motif found its way into homes. Paintings executed in the vanitas style were meant as gentle reminders to viewers of the transience of life, the futility of pleasure, and the certainty of death.
My treatment of the subject, in this case, varied from the classical versions, and was different, in fact, than any other ‘skull’ painting I have done. The subjects—four skulls, one heaped atop the other three—rest on a swatch of cloth closer to the viewer than any other nature morte subject that I have rendered. The strong lighting is oblique, accentuating the hollowed-out eye sockets and nasal apertures. The spherical forms are stacked in a manner evoking the ancient catacombs of Rome; and the amorphous background—rock-like in its texture—reinforces the archaic atmosphere of the composition. Shades of warm umbers, reds and ochre dominated the rendering of three of the skulls, while the fourth, the dominant figurative element, is principally in cool shades of blue, green and gray-white. I mixed the paint directly on the canvas—a time-honored technique for me—but here, it reinforces the primal nature of the scene.
These bony visages, cascading obtrusively into the viewer’s lap, are starker than any of my other vanitas pieces, and only serve to further accentuate my preoccupation with death, of late. But my interests are not entirely rooted in the contemplation of death. Like my beloved fruits and vases, the skull’s volumetric shape appeals to me…How beautiful a skull is to paint! Its rendering resembles the task of painting a portrait in so many ways, especially in its attention to the round pate and eye sockets. And don’t forget, too, that human skulls have long been prominent in the homes of devout Catholics and common accessories in artists’ studios. Indeed, I have had to remind those concerned about my frame-of-mind that I, in fact, keep three skulls, and an ivory Christ on an ebony cross near one another on my mantelpiece.
Left: Self-portrait (1896).
But let me not deceive myself, or you, my son, for me, life has begun to be deathly monotonous. I’m old and won’t have the time I need to express myself. Sometimes I feel I might as well be dead. It seems possible that ever since your grandmother’s death in `97—she was such a protective and supportive influence for me—my meditations on mortality have accelerated. In fact, just this morning, I received a visit from my friend Joachim Gasquet, and I recited a favorite poem of mine for him. It is by Verlaine, and is one that has often repeated in my thoughts of late:
For in this lethargic world
Perpetually prey to old remorse
The only laughter to still make sense
Is that of death’s heads.
This may come as a surprise to you, but I have directed my attorney to bequeath all of my possessions to you, my devoted and loyal Paul, and I trust and believe you will treat this legacy as evidence of your father’s conviction that the sensations of Nature, as perceived by Man, are the primary path to meaningful art. Decades ago, that philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche—then still a young, brilliant man—taught me the power of passion in the act of creation.
Right: Edouard Munch, Portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche (1906).
He spoke of ‘frenzy’ as an indispensable physiological condition for aesthetics. This link between the physical, sensory and emotional elements of creation has been a lesson I carried with me throughout my life. Nietzsche reminded me that “art is the highest form of human activity. It is, at the same time, the most sublime and metaphysical: The world is a work of art that gives birth to itself.” I can only pray that the ‘frenzy’ he excitedly spoke of on the plaza that day has influenced my work, as the ‘highest form of human activity,” and that his new-born world will take note, however fleetingly.
With Love, I remain your loving,
* Author’s Note: Cezanne contracted pneumonia soon after working in his garden on that cold, rainy day. Six days later, he died.
By Richard Friswell. Managing Editor
** Addendum: Thanks to Leslie Casanova, French teacher at Branford, CT High School, for assistance with the translation of the Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche letter.