Robert Vas Dias
Paul Cézanne, 1839-1906, Still Life with Apples, 1877-78,
oil on canvas. Cambridge, The Fitzwilliam.
Cézanne said he’d conquer Paris with an apple; this picture has seven apples, so perhaps Cézanne thought he’d increase his chances of conquering Paris seven-fold, or perhaps not; perhaps he first thought the picture was finished with six apples, but he was restless: no, he thought, I can’t rest with six, so he added a seventh slightly off to one side and overlapping the next apple; I’ll rest here, he may have thought. The significance of seven apples rather than six, or five, or even four should not be ignored although as far as I know, it has been, but then in my view art historians sometimes overlook the obvious because, I assume, they are reluctant to offer an opinion about a question like this since there can never be a definitive or satisfactory answer; one is faced with a decision to paint some apples, the number depending on how you set them up, a decision that art historians are not necessarily competent to address, perhaps no-one is competent to address such a question, there can only be speculation, because the evidence for a decision about how many apples to paint is not there, it resides with the artist, speculation can only involve a subjective assessment of, for example, the meaning or symbolism of seven apples, or seven of anything, which may or may not have been on Cézanne’s mind when he decided to add a seventh apple, and therefore such an investigation might be entirely irrelevant depending, of course, on what we know of Cézanne’s intentions at the time. There are things we will never know about all painters but there are more things we don’t know about Cézanne than about many other painters. Let us admit that it is difficult to know what a given painter’s intentions are in any case. One of the things we do know about Cézanne, in the words of Thadée Natanson, is that, “given the love with which he paints them and imbues them with all his gifts, he is and remains a painter of apples”, an opinion with which we would hardly disagree; D.H. Lawrence maintained, “Cézanne’s apple rolled the stone from the mouth of the tomb”, but we will never know who or what rolled away the stone, only that it was rolled away by a person or persons unknown, or known only to God, or maybe not by a person or persons unknown but, in other words, not by human agency but by a “miracle” which, getting back to Lawrence, implies an inexplicable or supernatural agency at work on the painting of the apple which, for Lawrence, is understandable since he wasn’t such a great painter himself, although he had plenty of opinions about painting, and about many other things; I suppose, comparing his efforts to those of Cézanne, he must indeed have felt that there was something God-given that guided Cézanne’s hand that he, Lawrence, lacked, although, well, this is speculation. Degas knew a thing or two about painting and bought this picture of seven apples from Cézanne’s dealer Ambroise Vollard for 200, or 100 francs, depending on which source you consult, though most sources say 200; on Degas’s death the contents of his studio were auctioned, and John Maynard Keynes bought this painting, about which there is a story.
“The Curious Tale of the Economist and the Cézanne in the Hedge”.
The auction took place in Paris in 1918 during the First World War. Keynes’s Bloomsbury friend, the art critic Roger Fry, told him about a sale of impressionist works from the collection of the artist Edgar Degas, who had recently died. Fry believed that painters like Cézanne, Manet and Gauguin were geniuses whose work was unrecognised by the British. He thought they should be on show at the National Gallery and that the forthcoming wartime auction would allow them to be bought cheaply....Keynes and the director of The National Gallery, Sir Charles Holmes, caught a boat train to Boulogne and travelled by train to Paris with £20,000 in French banknotes....As the auction began, Paris was rocked by the sound of shells from a German super-gun, firing from a railway line 80 miles away. Some bidders fled, prices tumbled, and Holmes and Keynes were able to secure some real bargains. Sir Charles Holmes's enthusiasm for modern art did not stretch as far as Cézanne. He refused to buy the beautiful Pommes, an exquisite portrait of seven apples in a fruit bowl. Keynes was so horrified by this decision that he bid for it himself and secured it for £500....At the end of the auction, the intrepid art collectors were joined by the diplomat Austen Chamberlain, who offered Keynes a lift from Folkestone to the village of Charleston in Sussex, where Virginia Woolf's sister Vanessa Bell shared a farmhouse with Clive Bell and Keynes's lover Duncan Grant. The track from the main road was too muddy for Chamberlain's "government motor" and Keynes couldn't carry all his luggage. So he left the Cézanne under a hedge and walked half a mile to the Bloomsbury Group's house. Speaking to the BBC in 1969, Duncan Grant took up the story: "When he arrived here he said 'if you'd like to go down to the road, there's a Cézanne just behind the gate'."
BBC News Magazine, 3 May 2014
EGYPTIAN GEESE AND THE DYNAMICS OF ART FORETOLD
For Julia Farrer
Two Egyptian geese flew off the north wall
of the mastabat chapel of Atet,
daughter-in-law of the Pharaoh Sneferu,
She who is known to the king,
wife of the Vizier Nefermaat,
eldest son of the Pharaoh,
alighting on the Lea Navigation
outside Crate Brewery & Pizzeria
where White Post Lane spans the water.
Walking on the Capital Ring,
we crossed Old Ford Locks
on the way to your studio.
This North-African February signalled
these Meidum geese to appear here,
Nile-transforming London’s dirty water
with bird-shapes of colour, rufous chests,
gradations of grey, and eyes, the eyes! –
brown makeup patch magnifies each eye.
Propped up on your studio window shelf:
a diptych, inter-thrusting forms of
flowing colour, kinesis painting,
held flight abstraction, swift wings
of restless force resting on the sill over-
looking the river where light ripples.
W.M. Flinders Petrie, Medum. London, David Nutt,1892. 24-25: The characters and figures of the whole of this tomb, and of Atet's are incised in the stone, and filled up with coloured pastes, level with the surface; except for a few figures down the edge of Nefermat's chamber entrance, which are in relief. This system of colouring was a special device of Nefermaat's own (...). He particularly states that "He made his mastaba in his unspoilable writing." (for this translation see Osing 1994: 282-283)
Copyright © Robert Vas Dias 2019
The most recent of Robert Vas Dias's 15 collections are Unstill / Inquieto, with Teresa Gonçalves Lobo (Lisbon & London, Permanent Press); Black Book: An Assemblage of the Fragmentary, with Julia Farrer (Shearsman); and Arrivals & Departures: Prose Poems (Shearsman). "Cézanne's Apples" is part of a book in preparation, Poetics of Still Life: A Collage. He has appeared previously in Molly Bloom 7 and 13 (tribute to Roy Fisher).