The Cézanne trail at Aix-en-Provence: a photo diary

I was lucky enough to spend some time in Aix-en-Provence this weekend, to enjoy the city and to explore the life and work of Paul Cézanne. I have loved the work of Cézanne for some time now, so to visit the major locations in his life was a real pleasure. We took the Cézanne Trail, visited his atelier (studio), journeyed over to Mont Sainte-Victoire and – although not directly related to Cézanne but which I’m including for completeness – we visited the village of Gordes, one of the most picturesque in all of France. This is a brief guide, with photos.

The Cézanne Trail
The ‘Cézanne Trail’ runs throughout the city, an imaginary path that links the thirty or so significant places in his life – where he was born, the café where he met with friends, the cemetery where he is buried, and so on. It is almost impossible to lose the trail, since it is marked with beautifully detailed golden discs around one metre apart, like that shown above. (Despite this, we still managed to lose it – but that is a different story.)

Cézanne, outside the office de tourisme.

The trail begins (at what is, incidentally, perhaps the most impressive tourist office I have seen in any French city), with a familiar image of Cézanne in bronze: an older man, in working clothes, with a backpack full of artists’ materials (later, we would see that very backpack and other materials in the atelier, or workshop, where he painted later in his life: more on that below).

Exploring in Aix-en-Provence.

The wonder of a trail like this is that you get to see a great deal of what is a very beautiful city whilst having a purpose – a trail that doesn’t (often) repeat itself. Some of the places on the trail are less interesting than others, either because they are less directly linked to Cézanne’s life, or because they have been renovated and their original interestingness lost. The trail conveniently stops half way at Les Deux Garçons, a café where Cézanne used to meet friends and where you can watch the world go by.

The light is incredible in Provence.

One of the most impressive locations is the cemetery where the famille Cézanne are buried, Le Cimetière Saint-Pierre. Impressive, but alas for us not illuminating: the map at the entrance which should contain a numbered guide to the plots was incomplete. What’s more, the office was closed and the cemetery too large to explore in the hope to find it. In short, we couldn’t find the grave but wandered through the smartly tendered grounds in any case. (Even an internet search could not reveal the precise location – all I know is that it is in allée 6 according to this blog post. Too late for me but perhaps not for you.)

Le Cimetière Saint-Pierre. Cézanne and family are buried here - somewhere.

Atelier Cézanne: the workshop
Although not strictly a part of the Cézanne trail, the atelier or workshop, is a short walk up a hill, in a pleasant garden scattered with tables and chairs (and ideal for shade when it’s hot). Although there is only one room and a sizeable garden, it is most definitely worth visiting in my view.

Atelier Cézanne, interior. Copyright Atelier Cézanne

To stand where Cézanne stood; to take in the unique arrangement of sunshine and light through the enormous window of his studio; to be surrounded by the everyday objects of his life – some of which were painted in his most celebrated still life work – is really quite special and one that stays with me as unforgettably moving.

Mont Sainte-Victoire
It’s impossible not to visit what might be considered Cézanne’s muse, the Mont Sainte-Victoire, which he painted several times. Impossible because it is so central to his life and painting that any visit is incomplete without it; impossible too because it is so near to Aix itself.

Mont Sainte-Victoire can be seen from Aix - if you get high enough

You can see the mountain from Aix, in fact and from this perspective it has its distinctive triangular shape: one side steep,  another running slowly in a straight line – the outline in total described as an enormous wave.

Mont Sainte-Victoire, Cézanne's 'muse'

Gordes, in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region
Described in my tourist guide as one of the most photographed places in all of France – quite a feat in a country already packed with beauty – is the hillside village of Gordes. It is built into rock and looms impressively above the road and the plains below.

The hillside village of Gordes in Provence, from below

Close by is the Sénanque Abbey. When visited at the right time, when the lavender fields that surround the ancient abbey are in full bloom, it must be quite amazing. We visited just out of season but it was nevertheless impressive. The road nearby climbs steeply to take us north, back to the Alps, back to home.

The village of Gordes, carved into the rock

What remains almost unbelievable about the trip to Provence is the immense change in landscape from the green mountainous area of where I live in the Alps, to the red earth and mistrals of Provence. Cézanne country is unforgettable.

Senanque Abbey, Gordes. The fields are full of lavender.

Details: if you want to take the Cézanne trail, you can pick up free map at the Office de Tourisme, in the heart of Aix-en-Provence, or download it here. The office provide information on the other places I’ve detailed above, too.

Toni Morrison on grief: “They say it’s about the living, it’s not, it’s about the dead”

There is a wonderfully insightful and comparatively candid interview by one of my favourite writers, Toni Morrison here. In it, she talks about the death of her son (my emphasis):

The book [Morrison’ new novel, Home] is dedicated to her son, Slade, who died 18 months ago and in the face of whose death she found herself wordless. She could not work. She could barely speak and didn’t want to hear comforting words from others.

“What do you say? There really are no words for that. There really aren’t. Somebody tries to say, ‘I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.’ People say that to me. There’s no language for it. Sorry doesn’t do it. I think you should just hug people and mop their floor or something.”

[…]”… people who were trying to soothe me, were trying to soothe me. I never heard anything about him. They say it’s about the living, it’s not, it’s about the dead.

She doesn’t want “closure”, she says. “It’s such an American thing. I want what I got.”

I made a similar point in a recent post, where I discussed feeling a loss for those who had yet to fulfil their potential, those who would never live their lives, and yet without knowing it. It’s comforting to hear a similar sentiment echoed and amplified in this interview, and expressed so well.

Hemingway’s ‘The Old Man and the Sea’: an animated version

This is wonderful. I’ve long been a fan of Ernest Hemingway and The Old Man and The Sea is one of my favourite of his works (you can find my discussion of Hemingway’s minimalist approach on this blog, here). This lovingly crafted 20 minute animation captures it beautifully.

Courtesy of the excellent OpenCulture website, where you can find another animated version.

Art and ‘strangeness’: the Isenheim altarpiece at the Unterlinden Museum

I went to Colmar looking for something else but found the Isenheim altarpiece.

Planning a visit to Colmar, a small town in France’s Alsace region a few miles outside the border with Germany, I came across a guide to the Unterlinden Museum where the altarpiece is on show. It jogged a memory: I remembered reading somewhere that the Isenheim altarpiece is widely regarded as one of the most important works of Western art.

The Isenheim altarpiece, in the Unterlinden Museum

The Isenheim altarpiece, in the Unterlinden Museum

Despite this, few appear to have heard of it and fewer have seen it. Colmar is not central to the conventional tourist trail, except perhaps during December, where it gives itself entirely to Christmas celebration. In a quiet corner away from the colourful markets, the processions and performances, is a beautiful museum, of which the altarpiece is the jewel in the crown.

The resurrection panel, perhaps the strangest of all

The resurrection panel, perhaps the strangest of all

The altarpiece, thought to be the work of Matthias Grünewald and painted between 1506 and 1515. It is tied to the history of the Antonite Monks and particularly to Saint Anthony’s Fire, now known as ergotism, an often fatal disease caused by poisoning. There are several accounts of the altarpiece, including elaborate praise from J.K. Huysman. The altarpiece was once a series of panels that were configured according to the Christian calendar. The following model shows how those panels were once assembled.

The altarpiece was a series of panels, now separated. This model shows how they were originally assembled

The altarpiece was a series of panels, now separated. This model shows how they were originally assembled

The paintings are some of the most striking I have ever seen. Upon entering the long room where the altarpiece is kept, one meets the remarkable ‘crucifixion’ first panel.

The crucifixion panel. This had special resonance for Antonite Monks and their followers

The crucifixion panel. This had special resonance for Antonite Monks and their followers

I was left with the feeling that the paintings were ‘strange’ and that I was witnessing something outside of my experience of art (such as it is). I meant this both as a way of describing the effect they had on me – the are awe-inspiring, as well as quite unsettling. But it also captures their provenance and their reputation: they appear to have been created outside of the normal limits of the human imagination, outside of arts history almost, especially the resurrection panel.

I thought, too,  how right Harold Bloom was when he said that the defining principle of the greatest works of art is that they could be considered ‘strange’. Bloom, writing about literature in his notorious Western Canon, had Dante and Shakespare in mind, but I think it equally appropriate for the Isenheim altarpiece:

One mark of an originality that can win canonical status for a literary work is a strangeness that we either never altogether assimilate, or that becomes such a given that we are blinded to its idiosyncrasies.

I will ‘never altogether assimilate’ the strangeness of effect, form and history that I found in the altarpiece.

Laurie Anderson’s ‘O Superman’, then and now

I visited the excellent exhibition of postmodernism (as opposed to a postmodernist exhibition, which could mean something entirely different) at the V&A recently. One of the most striking moments in a gallery full of amazing work was Laurie Anderson performing ‘O Superman’ on an enormous video wall.

I remembered this song from when I was younger (I was surprised to learn it reached number 2 in the UK pop charts in 1981) . It’s unforgettable; but I hadn’t really paid attention to its meaning. I had been mesmerised by the sound and Anderson’s voice. It seemed like a lullaby almost and entirely new to my ears. But something more sinister was being sung, something I was shocked to discover listening again 30 years later in the gallery. Here are the lyrics from the section of the song in the excerpt above:

So hold me, Mom, in your long arms. So hold me,
Mom, in your long arms.
In your automatic arms. Your electronic arms.
In your arms.
So hold me, Mom, in your long arms.
Your petrochemical arms. Your military arms.
In your arms. In your electronic arms.

The idea of ‘mom’ has become something chilling and sinister by the end of the song, a source of safety and security inverted to suggest instead the military power and industrial might of the unnatural and dangerous contemporary world (more specifically, it’s more likely to refer to a modern America, which is the title of the performance piece in which ‘O Superman’ originally appears). I wonder if, all those years ago, it left its mark on me somehow, alongside films like ‘When the Wind Blows’, the ‘disaster’ novels of JG Ballard, and my growing awareness of the world’s troubles? In any case, it’s an amazing song with disturbing lyrics, and which says something as powerful now as when it was first written – although little did I know it then.

Is photography art? All you ever needed to know is in this portrait

Identical twins - 1967 - Diane Arbus (Copyright Arbus Estate)

For some, photography isn’t quite art because it simply captures reality. There is no artifice in many shots, no craft: the world comes together in a moment of specific configuration, more or less outside of an artist’s intent, and a photographer simply points the camera and – click! Art is made. Or isn’t, since the artist has very little to do. There isn’t the sheer hard work that goes in to, say, a painting or a novel. We might feel – ‘I could have done that!’ And indeed we could, if all photography means is to point and click.

Diane Arbus‘ photo ‘Identical Twins‘ shows us in a very immediate way that photography can do more than that. On one level we have a photo of two very similar girls. However, despite their clear resemblance we quickly notice differences: one girl is frowning a little while the other smiles; one pair of eyes is hooded, the other clear and open; the hands are slightly different, the hair; and so on. And as we notice those differences, we interpret those them as significant and meaningful: we might say that one child is happy; one less prim and proper than the other; one more dominant, and so on. We might then go on to think about the nature of identity, of how uniqueness triumphs uniformity. We find meaning in gaps, the differences between the two girls.

This process of finding ‘meaning in the gaps’ also lends itself to discovering the ‘art’ in photography. In this way of thinking, the similarity is not between two subjects but between the photograph and the reality it represents. The gaps are those elements where the photographer has introduced an element of creativity, artifice, illusion, call it what you will. In the above example, there are many examples. First, the photographer has assembled the two girls in a certain pose, emphasising the same hairstyle, clothes and so on. This helps us in seeing the differences – and finding the meanings – between the two subjects. It’s clearly not just a slice of life, although it might include that.

But note the junction between wall and floor: it is at an angle, higher on the left compared to the right. This is deliberate. We might interpret this as saying: what seems a balanced portrait is actually askew; although seemingly identical, our immediate perceptions are upset by the uncertainty that their differences bring; that the photograph wants to destabilise our preconceptions about what it means to be the same and yet not the same; that ultimately what seems to be a simple capturing of reality is really the product of the artist-photographer intent.

Reading photographs like this is underpinned by two central ideas. The first is that there is no such as thing as an ‘innocent’ photograph, that is, one taken without any kind of artifice or creativity. Even when taking holidays snaps we don’t just point and click: we might frame the face so the top of the head of our subject is not cut off; we’re told to put the main subject to one side to promote a sense of harmony, create some interest. The second central idea, following from the first, is that even the smallest details are often there deliberately. In ‘Identical Twins’, the slant of the junction between the wall and floor is deliberately significant, as we’ve seen.

What we have in this photo is a metaphor for the relationship between art and reality. Where two very similar images (ideas, symbols, techniques) are placed in close proximity it is likely that we will find differences between them. It is in those differences that the meaning lie. ‘Identical Twins’ (it’s title at once both plainly descriptive but, as we’ve seen, highly charged with meaning) by Diane Arbus is one of those key photographs that tell us more about the relationship between photography and reality, and between photography and art.

If you find this image a little unsettling there are good reasons for it. Our minds are programmed to identify the human face. When we see slight discrepancies between the real and the near-real, as we might most often in Japanese ‘humanoid’ robots or ultra-realistic computer games, we enter the ‘uncanny valley’, that phase of interpretation where an image appears strange,   Here, the differences between two ‘identical’ twins remind us of that disjunct. It is also the starkness of the black and white; the unfussy background which focusses our attention; the confrontational quality implied by the pose and gaze direct to the viewer. The film director Stanley Kubrick would later use a similar image for the murdered twins in his ‘The Shining’.

Quick review: “Picasso, Matisse, Dubuffet, Bacon…” musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon

The musee is a beautiful place, too

The musée is a beautiful place, too

I went to the new art exhibition at Lyon’s Musée des beaux-arts last weekend, on its first day of opening (by chance rather than through planning). Called ‘Picasso, Matisse, Dubuffet, Bacon… Les modernes s’exposent au musée des Beaux-Arts’ it is a chronologically organised history of modern painting and art objects, arranged in two dozen or so rooms.

The gallery itself is a beautiful space, full of clean and well-organised rooms with the work displayed well. Its floors don’t creak. It has lots of benches for sitting on and pondering. It has a cafe. What’s more, it has its fair share of the old masters and some fascinating ancient work, too. I was in love with the world when I wandered around – the city, the new experiences, the atmosphere on the streets, the food – had me besotted. Coupled with the fact that I’m no professional art critic, this could be an exuberant review.

But it’s hardly an exuberant exhibition – and is all the better for it.

Rather, it’s actually quite conservative in my estimate. On the whole, it’s a history of painting arranged chronologically and thematically. Artistic periods are linked with the era in which they appeared, or to which they referred. So, we have the ‘return to order’ grouping following World War II. In this room, history represents upheaval, to which the artists reacted by returning to order. Five or six paintings (and sometimes other art objects) represent this deliberately simplified approach.

The overall effect is to create an excellent historical primer, in which it makes it simpler to contextualise artists and their relationship with their wider world, to create connections, begin to make sense of those many movements, artworks, periods. It is as good as any art historical book I’ve read, and you do feel a sense of development both artistically and historically as you walk round.

Art as a mirrored reflection of society and its history is of course a very simplistic relationship and it’s one that is interrogated as the exhibition moves towards its final stages. In the final works of post-modernism, those very notions of a stable art, history and what they mean in relation are discussed in the artworks and the commentary that accompanies them. If you’re in Lyon – and why wouldn’t you be? – I’d highly recommend it.