What’s wrong with Cezanne?

Posted by on Mar 11, 2020 in blog | No Comments
Cezanne, Mont-Sainte-Victoire

Sure, he was an obsessive, troubled, loner who died without the joy of knowing that he almost single-handedly altered the course of modern painting. C’est la guerre. But that’s not what I mean.

My good friend, Charles–historian, artist, teacher–recently sent me an observation by Cezanne that he thought might have some resonance with my Zen Buddhist orientation. Cezanne, Charles quotes, said, “The landscape thinks itself in me, and I am its consciousness.”

There’s something wrong with that….

Dodging (for now) the question of whether Zen Buddhism resonates with such a claim…what in the world is Cezanne saying? Well, who knows really? You could look at it this way: His observation is somewhat consonant with the thinking of evolutionary biologists. The peculiar character of human consciousness is evolutionarily indicated. That is, human consciousness is itself a product of purely natural processes and, to that extent, could be described as nature becoming conscious of itself. But if the landscape is thinking itself in us it’s not painting a very pretty picture! No. I don’t think that’s what Cezanne meant. There is the taint of a certain arrogance in his words. Here’s how Charles put it:

“Cezanne is treating landscape as an inert thing until he animates it;  I’m probably being unfair to Cezanne, but the proof lies in what he paints.  And the result does not offer ease of entrance or much that the viewer can bring away that re-connects to actual Nature.  Cezanne struggled and was filled with doubt, and I think he was too caught up in his own anxieties, frustrations, and conflicts to hear much of what Nature might have to offer.  His paintings are more about painting than about Nature and they encouraged other artists to move farther from Nature than closer.  What comes after Cezanne is more analytical and colder (Picasso, Braque) or more garish with color for its own sake (Matisse).  Cezanne did not bring new life to the landscape; he sounded the first peals of its impending death.” ‘Nuff said!

So, to come back to the question of whether Cezanne’s comment is in keeping with the Zen experience of nature…. The short answer is, I don’t think so. Zen roots us deeply in nature, that is true. And it is true that “the natural world” is not a realm apart from the human world. Zen does not experience nature as an object, an idea, or a thing to be exploited. But the notion that nature is somehow absorbed by the human mind like a stream flowing into its source doesn’t strike me as accurate either. Satori (enlightenment) does not dissolve oneself in a mystical union with nature. Think about Basho’s haiku:

When I look carefully / I see the nazuna blooming / By the hedge!

In this haiku, nature is neither object or subject. D.T. Suzuki describes it this way: Basho is walking along a country road when he notices a rather insignificant wild plant growing generally unnoticed by passers-by beneath a hedgerow. He is almost startled, overtaken by its unassuming presence. Suzuki observes, “This is a plain fact described with no poetic feeling expressed….[Basho] does not identify himself with either God or Nature…the flower is simply humanly echoed in Basho’s experience.”

Humanly echoed! In looking carefully, in seeing attentively, Basho’s words resonate with the flower’s presence. It is a record of a moment of seeing. The poet sees the flower seeing the poet seeing the flower. What’s going on here is reciprocal and non-dual. It is neither absorbing the flower into his mind nor claiming his awareness as that of the flower’s. To use terms in the way Cezanne did in speaking about the landscape: The flower is not seeing itself in Basho and Basho is not becoming the flower’s vision. They remain apart while being mutually interdependent, like a voice and its echo!

Pretty cool — if you can experience it that way. It takes practice.

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