PRINT November 1963


Erie Loran’s Cézanne’s Composition

Erle Loran, Cézanne’s Composition (Berkeley: University of California Press) Third Edition, 1963. 143 pages, illustrated.

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Looked up in perfect silence at the stars.

—Walt Whitman

SENSITIVE, OUR WALT. Where other people just leave, Walt rises and glides. Where other people just wander off, Walt wanders off “by myself.” Where other people simply look in silence at the stars, Walt looks “up” at them—in “perfect” silence. Where other people need “proofs, figures, columns, charts, diagrams,” all Walt needs is a little mystical night air—if it’s “moist” enough.

There is no point in explaining that astronomers, too, experience that same sensation of inexpressible beauty upon looking at the stars, though perhaps with less rising, gliding, wandering, etc. Nor is there any way of dealing with the snotty implication that no one—least of all an astronomer—can really appreciate the stars the way Walt can. Those “charts and diagrams” not only diminish the astronomer’s ability to really appreciate the heavens, but, somehow, actually threaten the pure quality of Walt’s love.

It is possible that after the publication of Walt’s poem all the Bennington girls tittered and realized that astronomy was “out” in the same way that “Cézanne’s Composition” is now “out” after Roy Lichtenstein rose from it and glided to the nearest museum where he gazed in most perfect silence at a Cézanne. Awed beyond all figures, beyond all words, he returned to his studio, set aside the easel on which he had been copying a panel from Dick Tracy, and made the famous copy of a diagram which did for Erle Loran what Walt Whitman did for the astronomers.

It is ironic, and not a little sickening, that the third edition of “Cézanne’s Composition” should be greeted, not with the praise that hailed the appearance of the first edition in 1943, but the massed choruses of yahoos, yuks and gooney-birds who have found at one glorious moment in history both a Leader—the eminent American artist, Roy Lichtenstein—and The Enemy—“Cézanne’s Composition.” Those innocent—though ugly—ingenious—though blatant—“charts and diagrams” which are essential to what Alfred Barr has called “by far the most thorough and intensive study of the formal aspects of Cézanne’s art,” seem now to be so many wicked Enemy spies in our psyche. Notions about a book become more and more warped as more and more people talk about it and fewer and fewer actually read it. The feeling in Lichtenstein’s Army seems to be that “Cézanne’s Composition”:

1. “Reduces Cézanne to a diagram.” By this is meant that Cézanne’s genius seems to be circumscribed by the book within a simple scheme of space organization.

2. “Has nothing to do with Cézanne.” By this is meant either a) that the ultimate nature of Cézanne’s genius lies elsewhere, in a more profound, less explainable region or b) the system of space composition the book purports to find in Cézanne is really imposed on the works rather than drawn from with in them.

3. Is evidence of “the audacity of the man. (Loran) to attempt to EXPLAIN a work of art by means of outlines, arrows, broken lines, and letters of the alphabet.” (See “Letters,” this issue.)

Very little of any of this is true.

What “Cézanne’s Composition” really teaches is a disciplined way of looking at a painting. Those who become conscious, simply by looking at the painting, of the way the small upward curve in the road of “The Jas de Bouffan” (marked “K” in the reproduction here) modifies the leftward tilt of the house, and suggests the space behind the house, may have less need of “Cézanne’s Composition” than the rest of us. The author expresses no intention to “explain a work of art” (heaven forbid!): “I know from experience that there is nothing more mysterious and intangible in human experience than the creative process.” He is aware that the book explores only a narrow aspect of art: “The intentional limitation of the work in hand should not be regarded as a denial or refutation of other approaches to art.” “. . . only a hopeless academician of the modern breed would suggest that the cold presence of these elements of composition alone make for artistic importance in the ultimate sense. Art is, fortunately, a little more mysterious than that.” There is no attempt to render pedestrian Cézanne’s genius or to rob it of its mystery: the aim is only “to present facts about space composition that have hitherto not been explained.” Loran insists only that in many of Cézanne’s later paintings a brilliant scheme of space organization can be observed, of which Cézanne was, in all probability, riot consciously aware, and which can be pointed out most easily by a system of diagrams along with photographs of the motifs from which the artist worked. The diagrams themselves (ugly as sin: one can only assume deliberately so in order to prevent that very association of the works with the diagrams) are no more destructive to the appreciation of the works of art than is the delineation of the rhyme-scheme to the appreciation of a Shakespearean sonnet. The explication of Cézanne’s space composition is clear and full of illuminating insights. The works are subjected to a respectful and rigorous examination whose approach owes much to the “close reading” techniques of the literary New Critics and the anti-speculative turn of mind of the Logical Positivists. The works emerge unsullied and enriched.

All great art is enduringly tough. It can be parodied, satirized, analyzed, talked and written about seemingly without end, and yet retain at its core a quality of mystery and uniqueness that cannot be approached with words, but that can be experienced emotionally. One does this toughness a disservice by pretending th at an analysis like Loran’s “has nothing to do with it.” It has everything to do with it; it is simply impossible to read this book without coming away with an enhanced appreciation of Cézanne, and, oddly enough, even with a sense of the author’s own appreciation of how much more is encompassed in Cézanne’s art than his genius for space composition.

Philip Leider