January 9, 2015
“Whitman and Cézanne” by Marsden Hartley
By Marsden Hartley
It is interesting to observe that in two fields of expression, those of painting and poetry, the two most notable innovators, Whitman and Cézanne bear a definite relationship in point of similarity of ideals and in their attitudes toward esthetic principles. Both of these men were so true to their respective ideals that they are worth considering at the same time in connection with each other: Cézanne with his desire to join the best that existed in the impressionistic principle with the classical arts of other times, or as he called it, to create an art like the Louvre out of impressionism. We shall find him striving always toward actualities, toward the realization of beauty as it is seen to exist in the real, in the object itself, whether it be mountain or apple or human, the entire series of living things in relation to one another.
It is consistent that Cézanne, like all pioneers, was without prescribed means, that he had to spend his life inventing for himself those terms and methods which would best express his feelings about nature. It is natural that he admired the precision of Bouguereau, it is also quite natural that he should have worshipped in turn, Delacroix, Courbet, and without doubt, the mastery of Ingres, and it is indicative too that he felt the frank force of Manet. It was his special distinction to strive toward a simple presentation of simple things, to want to paint "that which existed between himself and the object," and to strive to solidify the impressionistic conception with a greater realization of form in space, the which they had so much ignored. That he achieved this in a satisfying manner may be observed in the best of his landscapes and still-lifes, and in some of the figure studies also. The endeavor to eliminate all aspects of extraneous conception by dismissing the quality of literature, of poetry and romance from painting, was the exact characteristic which made him what he is for us today, the pioneer in the field of modern art. It was significant enough when he once said to Renoir, that it took him twenty years to find out that painting was not sculpture. Those earlier and heavy impasto studies of his are the evidence of this worthy deduction. It was significant, too, when he said that Gaugin was but "a flea on his back," and that "he does nothing but paint Chinese images."
The phrase that brings these two strikingly original personages in art together is the one of Cézanne: "I remain the primitive of the way I have discovered"; and that of Whitman, which comes if I am not mistaken from Democratic Vistas, though it may be from elsewhere in Whitman's prose, running chiefly: "I only wish to indicate the way for the innumerable poets that are to come after me," etc., and "I warn you this is not a book, this is a man." These two geniuses are both of one piece as to their esthetic intention, despite the great gulf that lies between their concepts of, and their attitudes toward life. For the one, life was a something to stay close to always, for the other, it was something to be afraid of to an almost abnormal degree; Whitman and his door never closed, Cézanne and his door seldom or never opened, indeed, were heavily padlocked against the intrusion of the imaginary outsider. These are the geniuses who have done most for these two arts of the present time, it is Whitman and Cézanne who have clarified the sleeping eye and withheld it from being totally blinded, from the onslaughts of jaded tradition.
There were in Cézanne the requisite gifts for selection, and for discarding all useless encumbrances, there was in him the great desire for purification, or of seeing the superb fact in terms of itself, majestically; and if not always serenely, serenity was nevertheless his passionate longing. He saw what there was for him in those old and accepted masters who meant most to him, and he saw also what there was for him in that newest of old masters, which was also in its way the assumed discovery of our time, he saw the relativity of Greco's beautiful art to the art of his own making. He saw that here was a possible and applicable architectonic suited to the objects of his newly conceived principles, he felt in Greco the magnetic tendency of one thing toward another in nature, that trees and hills and valleys and people were not something sitting still for his special delectation, but that they were constantly aspiring to fruition, either physical, mental, or let us say, spiritual, even when the word is applied to the so-termed inanimate objects. He felt the "palpitancy," the breathing of all things, the urge outward of all life toward the light which helps it create and recreate itself. He felt this "movement" in and about things, and this it is that gives his pictures that sensitive life quality which lifts them beyond the aspect of picture-making or even mere representation. They are not cold studies of inanimate things, they are pulsing realizations of living substances striving toward each other, lending each other their individual activities until his canvases become, as one might name them, ensembles of animation, orchestrated life. We shall, I think, find this is what Greco did for Cézanne, and it is Cézanne who was among the first of moderns, if not the first, to appreciate that particular aspirational quality in the splendid pictures of Greco. They "move" toward their design, they were lifted by the quality of their organization into spaces in which they were free to carry on the fine illusion of life.
Whitman has certainly aspired equally, but being more things in one than Cézanne, his task has been in some ways greater, more difficult, and may we say for humanistic reasons, loftier. Whitman's inclusiveness was at one and the same time his virtue and his defect. For mystical reasons, it was imperative for him to include all things in himself, and so he set about enumerating all those elements which were in him, and of which he was so devoted and affectionate a part. That he could leave nothing out was, it may be said, his strongest esthetical defect, for it is by esthetical judgment that we choose and bring together those elements as we conceive it. It is the mark of good taste to reject that which is unessential, and the "tact of omission," well exemplified in Cézanne, has been found excellently axiomatic. So that it is the tendency in Whitman to catalogue in detail the entire obvious universe that makes many of his pages a strain on the mind as well as on the senses, and the eye especially. The absolute enforcement of this gift of omission in painting makes it easier for the artist, in that his mind is perforce engrossed with the idea of simplification, directness, and an easy relationship of the elements selected for presentation to each other.
It is the quality of "living-ness" in Cézanne that sends his art to the heights of universality, which is another way of naming the classical vision, or the masterly conception, and brings him together with Whitman as much of the same piece. You get all this in all the great masters of painting and literature, Goethe, Shakespeare, Rubens, and the Greeks. It is the reaching out and the very mastering of life which makes all art great, and all artists into geniuses. It is the specializing on ideas which shuts the stream of its flow. I have felt the same gift for life in a still-life or a landscape of Cézanne's that I have felt in any of Whitman's best pieces. The element in common with these two exceptional creators is liberation. They have done more, these modern pioneers, for the liberation of the artist, and for the "freeing" of painting and poetry than any other men of modern time. Through them, painting and poetry have become literally free, and through them it is that the young painters and poets have sought new fields for self deliverance. Discipleship does not hold out long with the truly understanding. Those who really know what originality is are not long the slave of the power of imitation: it is the gifted assimilator that suffers most under the spell of mastery. Legitimate influence is a quality which all earnest creators learn to handle at once. Both poetry and painting are, or so it seems to me, revealing well the gift of understanding, and as a result we have a better variety of painting and of poetry than at the first outbreak of this so called modern esthetic epidemic.
The real younger creators are learning the difference between surface and depth, between exterior semblances, and the underlying substances. Both Whitman and Cézanne stand together in the name of one common purpose, freedom from characteristics not one's own. They have taught the creators of this time to know what classicism really is, that it is the outline of all things that endure. They have both shown that it is not idiosyncrasy alone which creates originality, that idiosyncrasy is but the husk of personal penetration, that it is in no way the constituent essential for genius. For genius is nothing but the name for higher perception, the greater degree of understanding. Cézanne's fine landscapes and still-lifes, and Whitman's majestic line with its gripping imagery are one and the same thing, for it reaches the same height in the mind. They walk together out of a vivid past, these two geniuses, opening the corridors to a possibly vivid future for the artists of now, and to come. They are the gateway for our modern esthetic development, the prophets of the new time. They are most of all, the primitives of the way they have begun, they have voiced most of all the imperative need of essential personalism, of direct expression out of direct experience, with an eye to nothing but quality and proportion as conceived by them. Their dogmas were both simple in the extreme, and of immense worth to us in their respective spheres. We may think of them as the giants of the beginning of the twentieth century, with the same burning desire to enlarge the general scope of vision, and the finer capacity for individual experience.