Rilke, Cézanne and Myself: The Three-Way Conversation that Inspired My Novel
When I was in the middle of writing my novel, Shadow is a Colour, a book inspired by Cézanne’s work and life, I went to New York to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Cezanne rooms. Every day for a week, I sat in front of his still lifes, portraits, and landscapes, myself a raw canvas receiving and absorbing the colours and sensations of that immersion, recording as much as I could in the notebook on my lap. I wasn’t sure how any of this would manifest itself in my fiction, but was sure I had to do it.
I’d been here some years before, during the early stages of the novel when one of Cézanne’s early paintings, ‘The Murder’, in Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery, played a minor part in my gestating narrative. I was visiting New York for the first time with a man I was falling headlong for, and was sketching out love at the same time as sketching out my story. We went, one bright spring afternoon, to Central Park, and then to the Met, where we wandered through the nineteenth-century galleries until we came to a doorway through which I entered one of the two Cézanne rooms.
The first thing I faced – or experienced – was a large painting of a pot of pink flowers and a pile of scattered apples sitting on a tabletop covered with a crumpled white cloth, all set against a vivid, blue-green background. Typically for Cézanne, all of the objects on the canvas were shown from different angles and perspectives, creating a precariously dizzying sensation, at once unbalanced and unbalancing. I was suddenly deluged by waves of unexpected emotion, so overwhelmed I had to sit myself down on a bench in front of this painting, teary, and unable to speak.
I thought about that moment a lot as I worked on the novel, and realise that I was living then in an unprecedented and barely acknowledged state of heightened feeling. My mum had died the year before and this had precipitated some major changes in my life, including a permanent move to London. There, I had met and moved in with the man who’d brought me to New York and who I would spend over six years of my life with. It was after that relationship ended that I revisited the Cézanne rooms at the Met. The more I’d read about this painter, and the more I wrote, so he and his works began to take over the stories I wanted to tell.
All of this was brought back to me by the major exhibition of Cézanne’s portraits at London’s National Portrait Gallery. It includes one of the paintings I spent the week communing with at the Met, one that ended up in my novel almost as a character in its own right. It’s an image of Madame Cézanne in a red dress, sitting on a chair beside a fireplace. Her hands are resting on her lap and appear to be worrying at something – a closer look reveals some squiggled red flowers between her fingers. Is she pulling them apart? Her face is an oval mask that conveys an expression of weary stoicism. As in the still life, subject and objects are presented here from different angles, appearing in the same space, on the same plane, but from various, and looks as if she might topple to the floor any moment.
I became very interested in Cézanne’s wife – Hortense, I discovered her name was – and her relationship with her genius husband as if something unknown was being communicated to me by both artist and subject and wanted to explore that feeling. This was heightened by the contrast between this portrait of Hortense, and another one in the same room of the Met. Here, she sits amongst plants on an outdoor terrace, dressed in midnight blue, her face softer, more alive than a mask, her body relaxed and more human, less like a mountain. The greatest variable in the whole process of painting these portraits, I thought, is Cézanne himself. These are self-portraits as much as they are portraits of his wife.
The artist’s biography, it’s own still ‘life,’ is always a seductive entry point into their work and Cézanne was a notoriously ‘difficult’ person. The biographies and art history books were all useful, but none energised or inspired me as much as Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters on Cézanne. During my week in New York, I kept Rilke always beside me, acting as a guide to expressing in words what had been expressed in paint. In 1907, Rilke went every day to the Salon d’Automne, in Paris. A room had been dedicated to the paintings of Paul Cézanne who had died twelve months before and Cézanne’s public reputation, which had fluctuated during his lifetime between ridicule and incomprehension, was beginning to change and solidify into that of a formidable artist. So enraptured was Rilke that he wrote a series of mesmerising letters to his wife, Clara, herself an artist, attempting to articulate the questions they produced in him.
Whenever there was a dip in my thoughts, I could read through Rilke’s heartfelt responses to the paintings he saw and really feel we were engaged in three-way conversation, Rilke, Cézanne and myself, truly certain that the letters, and the paintings, were all addressed to me. In one of them, Rilke summarises the difficulties Cézanne had as an artist, the constant dissatisfaction and frustrations coupled to a life-long determination to keep searching for the best way to express himself. Rilke wants to tell Clara this because, ‘…it is related to so much about us and about ourselves in a hundred places.’ Rilke feels able to say something of their own artistic struggles because his consideration of Cézanne made this possible for him, as they made it possible for me to assess my own life and work.
While portraiture is probably the least well-known aspect of Cézanne’s output, he has as much to say about the human being as anything else in his grand experiments with colour and form and perception. This artist, who Picasso called ‘the father of us all,’ prompted me to consider how what we project onto a subject, a character, a canvas, is as significant as what is being portrayed to us. This element of Cézanne’s particular vision became the core of characterisation within the different narratives in Shadow is a Colour; multiple, subjective perspectives, different stories and points of view, that cohere into a whole, single narrative full of the light and shadow and colour and darkness we all contain. My hope always was that the novel would be as involving, as seriously playful, as questioning, and, more than anything, as sincere as him.
It was to try to answer the question why, of all the things I saw at the Met, I responded so strongly to ‘Still Life with Apples and a Pot of Primroses’, that I wrote Shadow is a Colour. I discovered, in the process of writing, that it’s not a question that has, or needs, an answer. Instead, the novel poses a series of questions in the way that Cézanne’s paintings also pose a series of questions. These form a meditation on the relationships between works of art and people, those that occur on a level not understood, or are difficult to articulate, but that act as profound, psychic messages across time and space. Attempting to do so is a way of talking about ourselves.
Cézanne also helped me to better understand that my emotional response to the still life in the Met, its unblocking of an emotional dam in me, is because it’s not the subject matter of the painting that matters as much as how it works as a painting, as an expression of something beyond its subject matter, something intangible and perhaps more direct; colour, light, shape and form, these are how we experience the world before we have language. Cézanne’s ability to communicate feeling through the transformation of objects into paint, like Rilke’s poetry, like my novel, as all a searching for the truest expression of that moment in a life, and even if you feel you never quite get there, the searching, the attempts at something, must continue. ‘Shadow is a colour, as light is’, Cézanne said, and this statement about his painting practice, seemed in my mind to relate to the inside of the man who said it, and to the inside of us all.
Shadow is a Colour by Michael Langan will be published in January 2019 by Aardvark Bureau.
Follow him on Twitter @mlanganwriter