Tag Archives: Cezanne

Art in John Fowles’s The Collector

25 Jul

“I’m so far from everything. From normality. From light. From what I want to be.”

(John Fowles, The Collector)

Berthe Morisot, Child With A Red Apron, 1886

John Fowles’ debut novel “The Collector” is one of the most fascinating novels I’ve read recently and it will probably become one of my all time favourites as well because the theme is so fascinating. It’s about a lonely, alienated individual called Frederick who collects butterflies and one day “collects” a girl called Miranda, a pretty twenty year old art student that he had spent weeks admiring from afar. I wrote a book review of it here, but today I would like to focus on the theme of art in the novel because it’s not so often that art gets mentioned in fiction. Art is bound to come up in the conversation with Frederick because Miranda is an art student in the dawn of the sixties so it’s specially interesting to hear her thoughts on the then contemporary art world. After Frederick kidnaps her, he keeps her in his basement and they spend time together and start to get to know each other. On one of such occasions, Miranda draws a portrait of him:

One day about then she did a picture of me, like returned the compliment. I had to sit in a chair and look at the corner of the room. After half an hour she tore up the drawing before I could stop her. (She often tore up. Artistic temperament, I suppose.) I’d have liked it, I said. But she didn’t even reply to that, she just said, don’t move. From time to time she talked. Mostly personal remarks. “You’re very difficult to get. You’re so featureless. Everything’s nondescript. I’m thinking of you as an object, not as a person.” Later she said, “You’re not ugly, but your face has all sorts of ugly habits. Your underlip is worst. It betrays you.” I looked in the mirror upstairs, but I couldn’t see what she meant.

Paul Cezanne, Four Apples, 1881

Another time, Miranda made still life studies of fruits in a bowl. I think this scene shows Miranda’s artistic temperament and how Frederick never has a clue about anything, he is so inferior to her in every sense that Miranda cannot help but laugh. For example, he thinks the best painting is the one that is most accurate, most realistic, he doesn’t understand why someone paints something in a free-spirited, colourful way:

Another day she drew a bowl of fruit. She drew them about ten times, and then she pinned them all up on the screen and asked me to pick the best. I said they were all beautiful but she insisted so I plumped for one. “That’s the worst,” she said. “That’s a clever little art student’s picture.” She said, “One of them is good. I know it is good. It is worth all the rest a hundred times over. If you can pick it in three guesses you can have it for nothing when I go. If I go. If you don’t, you must give me ten guineas for it.” Well, ignoring her dig I had three guesses, they were all wrong. The one that was so good only looked half-finished to me, you could hardly tell what the fruit were and it was all lop-sided. “There I’m just on the threshold of saying something about the fruit. I don’t actually say it, but you get the idea that I might. Do you feel that?” I said I didn’t actually. She went and got a book of pictures by Cezanne. “There,” she said, pointing to a coloured one of a plate of apples. “He’s not only saying everything there is about the apples, but everything about all apples and all form and colour.” I take your word for it, I said. All your pictures are nice, I said. She just looked at me. “Ferdinand,” she said. “They should have called you Caliban.

Syd Barrett with his painting, spring 1964

And I chose this last quote because it shows Miranda’s view on art at the time, her disdain for the avant-garde approach to art. This picture of Syd Barrett above may seem out of place because the post is not about him or the Pink Floyd, but the reason I decided to include it is because he was an art student in the early sixties. When I read The Collector and thought about Miranda, I also thought about the real people and the real art scene from that time. Miranda the book character was probably a few years older, but they could have crossed paths in London. Syd’s generation praise imagination and had a child-like vision of things and I love that approach to art; experimental and fun, not stuffy and rigid and full of rules. I also love how Miranda points out that the bottom line is that either you can paint or you can’t, and I agree:

I felt our whole age was a hoax, a sham. The way people talk and talk about tachism and cubism and this ism and that ism and all the long words they use — great smeary clots of words and phrases. All to hide the fact that either you can paint or you can’t. I want to paint like Berthe Morisot, I don’t mean with her colours or forms or anything physical, but with her simplicity and light. I don’t want to be clever or great or “significant” or given all that clumsy masculine analysis. I want to paint sunlight on children’s faces, or flowers in a hedge or a street after April rain. The essences. Not the things themselves. Swimmings of light on the smallest things. Or am I being sentimental? Depressed. I’m so far from everything. From normality. From light. From what I want to be.

Paul Cézanne and Katherine Mansfield: I, myself, am changing into an apple, too

19 Jan

Paul Cézanne was one of those painters who are here to show us that sometimes what is painted is less important than how something is painted. Cézanne is our birthday boy today, he was born on this day in 1839.

Paul Cezanne, Four Apples, 1881

The simple, yet striking composition you see above with four apples, ripe and idle, gracing the table, is typical for Cézanne. Unlike some Dutch Baroque master who wanted to show his skill in painting with perfect accuracy or displaying wealth symbolised by flowers and fruit, Cézanne’s motifs were of an entirely different nature. He used every motif to explore colours and shapes. Here we see four apples in different sizes and colours, we see the brushstrokes that created them but we can also feel how real and touchable they are, their red and green colours oozing life. They are placed on a grey surface, the edges of which are left unfinished, exposing the canvas and the thick brushstrokes of grey paint, leaving visible this pulsating line which visually divides the painting or “the illusion” and the bare canvas or “the reality”.

And now a small digression, since the motif of apples is present here, I will use the opportunity to share with you a very interesting fragment from a letter by Katherine Mansfield to her painter-friend Dorothy Brett.

What can one do, faced with this wonderful tumble of round bright fruits, but gather them and play with them—and become them, as it were. When I pass the apple stalls I cannot help stopping and staring until I feel that I, myself, am changing into an apple, too—and that at any moment I may produce an apple, miraculously, out of my own being like the conjurer produces the egg. When you paint apples do you feel that your breasts and your knees become apples, too? Or do you think this is the greatest nonsense. I don’t. I am sure it is not. When I write about ducks I swear that I am a white duck with a round eye, floating in a pond fringed with yellow blobs and taking an occasional dart at the other duck with the round eye, which floats upside down beneath me. (…) There follows the moment when you are more duck, more apple or more Natasha than any of these objects could ever possibly be, and so you create them anew.

What a beautiful, delightful and psychedelic idea; to imagine yourself turning into an apple, becoming the apple that you see in front of you!? But let’s get back to Cézanne. What he wanted to achieve was the illusion of depth without sacrificing the luminosity of colours. In a way, his ambivalence towards the art of proper drawing opened a gateway for many artists who followed. His brushstrokes, palette of colours and relentless interest in portraying similar scenes make Cézanne’s paintings highly recognisable. He was often repetitive in the choice of subjects and he was mainly concentrated on still lives and numerous landscapes with Mount Sainte-Victorie, but he also painted many interesting portraits of his family and imaginary figures. Unlike his contemporaries, the young bohemian artists who arrived to Paris to struggle and thrive in creating their art, Cézanne was from a well-off family and later even inherited a little fortune which allowed him to entirely devote his life to art, without any sacrifices, and to really explore his artistic visions without worrying about pleasing the possible buyers or earning for bread.