Mediamatic Magazine vol 5#4 Paul Groot 1 Jan 1991

Cézanne's cataract

The navel of the earth, in classical antiquity situated in Delphi where it is still on view, was in this century transformed, in form and content, into a mountain in the South of France. Freud ans Bataille have tried to explain it, Cézanne pointed out the spot to us. Neither Etna nor Vesuvius, nor any of the volcanos in the Tropics, but a mountain massif in Provance. In the words of Perter Handke, a Kalkschollenauffaltung, from which we can conclude without having to translate this term that the navel of our planet must now be suffering from a cataract.


Cézanne's Cataract -

This century is a century of the eye. Our art is an art of the eye. Our planet as the floating eye, the Sainte-Victoire as a bulge, a stye in the eye at the same time representing the planet as an eye. Cézanne recorded his image of the eye, which has become our own image of the eye, in an endless series of drawings and paintings. That is to say, time and again he painted the mountain to visualise the secret of his own eye. The mountain, the surrounding scenery. But we are actually situated in Cézanne's eye.

The eye is examined day-in, day-out. The mountain represents the blind spot of our planet, at the same time the blind spot in Cézanne's eye. It is the domain of an uncertainty that can only be examined by the feel.

For this purpose, Cézanne developed a method that we are still trying to purloin from him. Rilke, Heidegger, Handke, Rémy Zaugg, Straub/Huillet, we have all come up with possible solutions for this enigma. Cézanne, El Greco and Van Gogh, with all of them we think of neurological disorders of a physical as well as a psychological nature. But why did Van Gogh cut off his ear? The previous century apparently still relied on the eye. Cézanne is our contemporary, even though he lived in the 19th Century. He knew that our perspective vision was a fallacy, that three-dimensional space did not exist.

He examined his own vision, and found the eye as an object of examination. Not until Bunuel had a donkeys eye cut into two with a razor blade in his Chien Andalou, did anyone apply Cézanne’s lessons to the full.

A pilgrimage to the Sainte-Victoire has lost all meaning. Heidegger, fascinated as he had become by the mountain that had meant so much to Cézanne, reminds us of a pathologist who scrutinises the laid-out body, as if there was still life in it. He takes off on a journey, visits the mountain and views the paintings to conclude that this is a matter of das Anwesenlassen selbst (leaving the presence to itself), no longer a representation of something else, but a presence of its own. Rilke had already pointed out that with Cézanne the tangible eludes us, transforms itself. Someone else writes about matters made present, but at the same time flowing back into absence.

Rémy Zaugg is the most extreme in his analysis. On brown wrapping paper, he lays out a scheme of the case, like an ophthalmologist. Perhaps this is the most feasible model: the various spots and colours in Cézanne's La maison de perdu are reproduced literally. Representation of itself and reproduction of something that it is not, one might phrase it. That, eventually, Zaugg tries to place it in another scheme seems a little too easy (in fact, Zaugg’sintention is to let Cézanne fade over into a schematic survey of Picassos Portrait of a painter in E Greco's style).

Cezanne's secret?

Fermez lesyeux, attenAez, ne pensez plus a rien. OuvrezJesN'est-ce pas? But how to visualise the area of the blind spot? Cézanne liked to speak of circles, globes and cones when he made himself an image of a first sketch of an, in his eyes, untrodden landscape. Prisms, I would like to add. In any case, these mathematical figures of Cézanne’s were not as colourless as he himself may have suggested. A distorted gaze, a tarnished face: a shadow area of the lens system of our eye. A dark spot where the continuous reflections of colours realised elsewhere are swaying up and down. One imagines Plato’s cave as a dark room with continuously swaying reflections, as one sometimes sees the last sunlight move on the ceiling of a canalside house. Cézanne knew that he was on the verge of finding an untrodden area; of recording invisible waves and coloursDeep in the eye he found ecstasy, as did Bataille later.

Pilgrimage to Egypt

The original plan was to be one step ahead of the absurdly expanded Cézanne criticism and the incredible hunger for interpretation which had developed in particular since Heidegger had followed Cézanne’s path up to the point where the Sainte-Victoire mountain came into sight; thus, according to himself, having found the route with which his own path as a thinker corresponded from beginning to end, in a way of its own. And since then Peter Handke in his Die Lehre der Sainte-Victoire has definitely closed the way to the Holy Mountain for any further visits. The mountain would have to be destroyed before it could be viewed again.

That is the reason why we are now here, in Cairo, with the sun rising quickly, in a car with the windows closed, sweating absurdly so that, on top of it all, our perspiration is condensing against those windows; we are trying to redeem the secret of the Sainte-Victoire from the pyramids.

How long has it been since I used Descartes’ wave- particle theory to prove that in Cezanne's paintings there is continuous motion? Descartes’ main inspiration dates back to the night when somewhere in Bavaria he held off the cold by literally crawling into a fire place.

Instead of that, and at the same time also to forget Heidegger and Handke and all those others, we are sitting behind dusty, misty windows, filming and making photos of the pyramids as if it concerned the Sainte-Victoire.

With the temperature ever rising. Cézanne occasionally looks round at Robert and Amaud on the backseat. Cameras are clicking, one camera is continuously zooming, almost inaudibly.

It is very hot already, and very dusty. The camels are standing there gathered as if on a ranch, it is too early yet for the tourists, although in the distance against the sunrise a quivering silhouette is drawing back the dawn step by step. We have chartered a taxi, a jalopy with, for each of its functions, at least one component part broken, worn down, discoloured or simply missing. Only the engine is holding out, and the driver still inspires us with confidence. He is a tawny-coloured man in his sixties, serenity personified, Garcia Marquez' twin brother, renamed Cézanne for the occasion.

The pyramids, three in a row and, depending on one's viewpoint, either 3 separate units or a kind of mastodon with three heads, catch the first light. We have enscon- sed ourselves in the car. The almost unbearable heat inside it, the sweat pricking in our eyes, the dirt caked onto the door windows and the breaking of the first sun beams, it is the mixture of which we have such great expectations.

Here, at sunrise, the blemished face of the Sainte-Victoire must be redeemed from the shadowy contours of the pyramids. Cézanne is imperturbable. If he is at all aware of something brewing, he does not show it. From time to time he takes a swig of water from the plastic bottle and savours it as if it were an exceptional wine. His presence raises the artistic tension in the hothouse. I never saw him even make a movement, if only an unconscious one, to open his window. He is smoking one cigarette after another, the smoke is swirling around wispily, clinging to the windows. Thus we are trying to visualise the circles and globes and cones in which Cézanne was so very interested; in order to use them to exploit our own blind spot. The site of the Sainte-Victoire itself was exhausted: indeed, many were the doctors who had already examined the mummy to analyse the disease. Here we were searching for the spiritual background, the shadowy spot in our brains where the coordinates of the abstract forms, the capillaries of the blind spot, are reflected. In a way, we have landed in the reality of Zaugg's paper world; but the desert is real here, and so are the pyramids. Zaugg recognises Cézanne as a conceptual artist only. We wish to usurp him as an artist, to bring him into our own brains. Zaugg writes on a layer of varnish, we are trying to steal Cézanne’s soul.

In his Journey across the Orient, Flaubert describes how in Egypt the tombs of the earliest civilisations were forced open; tomb desecrators who will travel under the curse of the dead.
In the blind spot of our thinking, we situate God. It is the burial chamber of our seeing, of our thinking, where the reflections and the repercussions of the uncomprehended world reveal themselves inexorably. There, beyond the grasp of our consciousness, a constandy changing mise-en-scene is taking place.

We are the desecrators of our own rationality. It is a spot to be frightened of.
Also a spot that we cannot enter with impunity. Cézanne himself uses the Sainte-Victoire as a metaphor. Rilke, Heidegger and Handke act as the desecrators of his secret.
Whatever our opinion of their interpretations, they did not succeed in maintaining their distance. They hug too closely to Cézanne; their perspective prevents them from seeing that Cézanne’s secret cannot be found on the mountain, nor in his statements, and not even in his work. His secret is the reflection of his work in our own subconscious, lying hidden in our eyes. Not the Freudian subconscious, nor a literary or philosophical subconscious, but one of a visual nature.

We are attempting to give an approximation of how this blind spot transmits its reflection within our brains. As a kind of phantom eye (compare it to the conceptual leg still left in the mind after the amputation of a real one), an eye that we then try to record by approximation on photo and film material. Memories, 'washed' through our brains, andoccasionally emerging. Time has done its work. What we remember eventually turns out to be little more than some blemished film material, the images of which we complement with other sensory experiences. Our memory as a film tape nearly decomposed into dust. This failing memory disintegrates and ousts the original image, but at the same time our senses are building a new representation of it.

As for the real Sainte- Victoire, we are looking for its phantom image in Egypt. The fanciful shapes and colours of a product of nature vis-a-vis the rectilinearity of arational creation. Yet, no direct dialogue between natural forms and human calculation. The pyramids should be hidden behind shrouds and clouds, resulting in an extremely minimal form: the experience of the semi-blind But the dirty windows, the heavy cigarette smoke, our steaming clothes and the not too sharply adjusted cameras were more critical than we were ourselves. The result was an almost magical intervention: overexposed photos, that is what it most resembled.

What finally remains is something I would call the result of an actio in distans: the peripheral events of the almost incredible session in the sweltering car. Images of the tourist industry coming alive, the last images of the disappearing pyramids, Cézanne asking politely if the windows might be opened now: at least, his window.

Handke's Sainte-Victoire is a mountain amidst the woods and therefore a reflection of the Salzburg and surroundings. Once I had a guide point out Handke's house from the highest point of this mountain. There below: ha he is not there now, he is spending some time in Paris. But how is that, is he not always there, below, even when he is in Paris or when he is climbing the Sainte-Victoire? Below is where his home is; he sees a mountain that Cézanne has never seen in that way, never could have seen.

Looking back, my own Sainte-Victoire, although in Egypt, turned out to be not much else than a Frisian farmhouse tarnished by time. One of those black silhouettes of a pyramid placed on a pedestal, emerging from the flat landscape.

translation Oliver/Wylie