PRINT May 1977



I should like to protest the new kind of “head-hunting” which some art historians have undertaken to detect so-called secondary images in Cézanne’s paintings. Of course, everybody is entitled to his own “discoveries.” While trying to see the self-portrait “discovered ” by Diane Lesko (“Cézanne’s ‘Bather’ and a Found Self-Portrait,” Artforum, Dec. 1976), I chanced upon a few discoveries of my own, among them a three-legged hangnail, a fur-collared flatiron, and a smiling pressure cooker. But I am withholding publication until I have more thoroughly investigated the new insights to be gained from these revelations.

What troubles me is that the various psychological conclusions drawn from such pictorial interpretations play havoc with documents and established facts. Ms. Lesko quotes Zola as saying of Cézanne in an early letter: “Paul may have the genius of a great painter: he will never have the genius to understand it [italics mine].” What Zola really wrote was: “Paul peut avoir le génie d’un grand peintre, it n’aura jamais le génie de le devenir,” which means, correctly translated, “. . . he will never have the genius to become one [italics mine].” To confuse the words devenir and deviner (or comprendre) is, to my eyes, a more serious offense than if I tried to argue that Ms. Lesko’s newly found bearded and bowler-hatted self-portrait is actually a likeness of Queen Victoria.

Ms. Lesko is on equally slippery ground when she discusses semantics and declares that in a poem of 1860 Cézanne “chose the word ‘droit’ . . . for its dual meaning in French: as reference to his study of law, which his father had been pushing upon him, and as symbol for the ‘right’ path, the long and difficult Herculean way. . . .” The problem here is that the painter by no means chose the word ‘droit’ when he wrote:

“Hélas, j’ai pris du Droit la route tortueuse.
—J’ai pris n’est pas le mot, de prendre on m’a forcé!”

Indeed, there is no other way he could possibly have designated his law studies, and the wording is so clear and unequivocal (at least to those familiar with French) that any allusion to the—unmentioned—“droit chemin,” the ‘right’ path, appears totally tirée par les cheveux.

Ms. Lesko asserts that “it is well known that Cézanne . . . saved all of Zola’s letters, which were filled with fond memories of their boyhood days. . . .” I do not believe this to be true. A quick check reveals that Cézanne saved one letter in 1858 (to eight of his preserved by Zola) and another in 1859 (to six by Zola); he saved fourteen letters in 1860, one the following year, and three in 1862. After that, nothing. If anything, this proves that their exchanges were much more frequent than the existing letters would indicate, in other words that some of the letters have survived, but that others have not and that, without any doubt, a good many letters of Zola to the painter were not saved.

For similar reasons it appears completely unwarranted to state, as Ms. Lesko does, that Cézanne’s letter to Chocquet of May 1886 “is the last example found of a written communication during the next two years.” What is a fact is merely that it is the last such communication which I was able to trace when I assembled the artist’s letters. In my foreword to the volume of his correspondence I took pains to point out that many of his associates or members of his family destroyed practically all his letters, among them his friend Guillaumin and his own mother, in whom Cézanne may very well have confided, especially since after the death of his father in October 1886, he was certain that her mail was no longer opened by her husband. Thus, the letters that have been preserved do not necessarily represent the total of those that were written. One should imagine that a careful scholar would allow for such an obvious fact.

Ms. Lesko is also wrong when she writes that in 1888, upon the artist’s return to Paris, the “thought of Claude Lantier must have retained a strong hold upon him, for he chose to live on the Ile St. Louis in the Quai d’Anjou, a new location for Cézanne and significantly the very spot Zola had selected as the residence of Claude Lantier.” The trouble is that this was not at all a new location, since Cézanne had lived there already in 1875, as immediate neighbor of Guillaumin and without the slightest thought of Lantier. Things may actually have been the other way round, with Zola selecting this place precisely because Cézanne had once lived there. (Cézanne’s addresses and dates are recorded in all reliable biographies, including those from which Ms. Lesko plucked much of her not very original material, simply adding her own misinterpretations to it.)

May 1, in passing, also object to a phrase whose deeper significance escapes me? Ms. Lesko refers to Hortense Fiquet as Cézanne’s “occasional mistress for 14 years.” I do not hold any brief for Hortense, nor do I wish to pretend that Cézanne never “sidestepped” his long relationship to her, which—including their marriage—lasted close to 40 years, but what does “occasional mistress” mean? Would Ms. Lesko suggest that we consider the spouses of all presidents, senators, and congressmen, whose extra-marital activities have recently been revealed, as “occasional wives?”

It is all very well to see things into Cézanne’s paintings; Sidney Geist has already favored us with a similar attempt, to prove that Cézanne adored his “occasional mistress” until his very death, though Ms. Lesko chose not even to mention the existence of his article. But what is the tangible result? Obviously, each of us has his or her own brand of imagination, sexual fantasies, and psychological hang-ups, yet to use them for new interpretations and to construct new “scholarly” approaches around them is possible (if at all) only when one is careful not to distort the facts that can easily be checked by conscientious writers.

John Rewald
New York

Diane Lesko replies:
What elicits Professor Rewald’s vitriolic hyperbole, I suspect, is his emotional response to data which “plays havoc,” not with documented and established facts, but rather with what we thought we had known about Cézanne’s painting. I sympathize with that attitude, if not with the vitriol, as my initial feeling was that the secondary self-portrait seemed so contrary to Cézanne’s practice it must have been added by another hand. In fact, Marius de Zayas, who was associated with Duchamp and Dada games, had once owned the painting, and my concern was that it might have been altered as a Dadaist joke (after all, the Dadaists’ attitude was shown in such works as Picabia’s 1920 Nature Morte, which contained a portrait of Cézanne et al. as a monkey)! In 1970 I examined the canvas under ultraviolet light and found the secondary image to be an integral part of the painting’s surface.

It should be noted that Sidney Geist and I, working at different times and without knowledge of each other’s investigations, independently came upon secondary images in Cézanne paintings. Mr. Geist wrote me that when he was working on his study of Cézanne’s Philadelphia Large Bathers, he was unaware of my 1971 talk at the Frick Collection The emergence of these studies, therefore, was not prompted by “head-hunting” or by any opportunistic game of follow-the-leader.

Professor Rewald’s acrimony over semantic nuances and technical errors cannot alter the substance of the article. The substitution of “deviner” for “devenir” is a translation error in the article, not in my original paper. In either case Zola’s statement continued to reflect his belief that Cézanne was a failure as an artist. Whether or not Cézanne “chose” the word “Droit” or was “forced” to use it, it was, after all, “la route tortueuse,” and the double significance, especially in its reference to Hercules, could not have been lost on Cézanne or Zola. The number of letters from Zola which Cézanne saved is not as significant as the fact that he admitted to rereading Zola’s correspondence and that he did indeed keep the important letter I quoted. Regarding Chocquet’s letter as the “last example found,” would Professor Rewald have been satisfied with ”last example traced”? My point was, and is, that Cézanne’s message and its significance for his emotional state was poignantly revealing.

Professor Rewald did point out a fact I overlooked: Cézanne had lived at Quai D’Anjou in 1875. Cézanne’s return thirteen years later, however, after Zola’s reference to it in L’Oeuvre, strengthens the case for the old address’s new importance to Cézanne. Finally, “occasional mistress” refers to the observation that Cézanne visited Hortense infrequently rather than to any “infidelity” to her on his part.

If judgment were suspended on the secondary image, I believe that the article would stand on its own as a study of a major painting which had not been fully investigated. Zola’s letter to Cézanne presents a remarkably cogent description of the bather, as well as an explanation of his curious surroundings. The letter, as it relates to this specific painting, casts new light on the importance of the bather motif for Cézanne.

Then what about the secondary image? I was originally counseled by some to disregard it and avoid possible controversy. If the image had been a face in a rock, a caricature, or a “three-legged hangnail,” I probably would have done so. But to ignore an obviously “bearded and bowler-hatted” self-portrait as secondary image simply because it does not fall within the boundaries of traditional “safe” inquiry would be as negligent to scholarship as would be any attempt to interpret art based only on one’s “own brand of imagination, sexual fantasies and psychological hang-ups.”

In your January issue Deborah Perlberg’s analysis of my piece Cycles in the Nassau County Museum’s show, “Sculpture Sited,” contains statements which are incompetent and incorrect. To begin with, she says “. . . the hay pieces previously done by Harriet Feigenbaum cite a specific influence—the Italian hay harvest process. . . . Feigenbaum stays so close to her source as only to imitate it. . . . Cycles consists of a central cross-shaped line-up of hay-drying racks adorned with bunches of the decaying grass surrounded by haphazard and rotting haystacks. The racks themselves are actually prototypes of their Siennese [sic] model.”

This would be news to the Sienese! Far from imitating any drying process, this hayrick (not rack) structure and method were entirely of my own devising. I invite Ms. Perlberg to try to find her prototype in Italy or anywhere else. Ms. Perlberg’s assumption is evidently based on a misreading of the museum’s brochure which states, “In the four corners of the field, she has arranged fifty bales of hay in pattern that vary in degree of formality, as would be done by Sienese farmers.” This refers to the bales, not the ricks.

Harriet Feigenbaum
New York