Friday, November 10, 2006

Cezanne 2: Multiple viewpoints and tablecloth

In Cézanne’s famous Still lIfe with Apples and Oranges, it has been claimed that the table is being shown from two viewpoints, and in fact the lower left part of the picture is very confusing. One oft-quoted theory is that the leg of the table is resting on a sofa. What is going on?

Specific, answerable questions arise:

1) The table itself, is it parallel to the viewer (horizontal) or is it at an angle going into the picture, or both?

2) That round yellowish thing in the lower left quadrant, is it a drawer knob? Probably not, because it’s too big. So what could it be?

After much pondering, I began to wonder if the lower left part of the painting could be explained by an additional tablecloth with a border and a big pattern. This would mean there are three different fabrics in the painting in addition to the white tablecloth: two in the background, a red and green one on the left, and a beige and green one on the right, and then, underneath the white cloth, another tablecloth with a big pattern and a border, placed on the table at an angle so that you’re seeing the border as a diagonal in the lower left of the painting.

Seen in this way, the table could be straight on to the viewer, with the proposed new tablecloth draping over the corner of the table at far right. A Google image search shows that in the majority of Cézanne’s still lifes the table is in fact horizontal ; and the renowned critic Meyer Schapiro has said that the mass of the the objects in this still life is more or less horizontal across the picture plane. But these two things alone don't prove anything. More convincing evidence could come from another quarter: As a painter of still life myself, I’m conscious of how studio props may be used by painters over and over again in different combinations, so much so that you can sometimes identify the painter by the props. So, to find supporting evidence for my hypothesis, I set out in search of another Cézanne still life with the proposed new tablecloth in it. This was the mission: to find a still life by Cézanne containing a fabric with a large pattern and a border.

To my amazement, I actually did find one, obscure as it may be, on the website of the National Gallery of Wales. It's called Still Life with Teapot (1902-06, left), and the big pattern and border of the fabric are consistent with the proposed new cloth. The bordered edge is even draped diagonally over the table edge. The colours are not identical, but this is not significant, because the purpose of still life painting is not necessarily to copy the objects.

And as if that was not enough, earlier this year I had further confirmation that the hypothetical tablecloth really did exist in Cézanne’s studio. I came upon it, amazing as it may seem, in the Museum of Modern Art in New York: another Cézanne still life with the hypothetical cloth, called Still Life with Ginger Jar, Sugar Bowl and Oranges, 1902-06.

(Above: My blurred photo of the Moma still life)

So now I am reasonably sure that this is a valid explanation of this particular aspect of Apples and Oranges, or rather its lower left quadrant. It was a fun project, a little like detective work, and I was thrilled to come up with a plausible alternative to existing theories. But it has left me feeling sceptical about academic readings of paintings and still unconvinced about the role of multiple viewpoints in Cézanne's art; which in turn makes Cézanne's role in Cubism less clear.

(See also Cezanne 1: Multiple viewpoints and Cubism)

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