Essay

Only Collect

A poet walks through the Metropolitan Museum's Vollard exhibit, and thinks of Rilke, dogs looking in mirrors, and his Vuillard neurosis.

by W. S. Di Piero
Ambroise Vollard, Patron of the Avant Garde
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
September 14, 2006–January 7, 2007

Rilke: Pious Student of Rodin and Cezanne
In the fall of 1907, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke was living in Paris and reading proofs for New Poems [1907], a book that turned hard from his earlier style and owed much to what he’d learned working as Auguste Rodin’s secretary a few years earlier. The first part of his Rodin monograph appeared in 1903; in 1907 he was finishing the second. During those four years he’d worked to develop an equivalent in poetry to things he watched Rodin make. He was turning from the more effusive utterances of his earlier poems toward a poetry fresh (to use the kind of language he favored) with its own thing-ness. The poems in his Book of Images (1905) were like lines in a perspectival plan radiating from the vanishing point of pure subjectivity, but now he wanted a poem to be a freestanding solid, like a chunk of marble or bronze one could walk around. By 1907 his experience with Rodin was being influenced by other art experiences fraught with consequence.

The Salon d’Automne of 1907, an exhibition held in the Grand Palais (built on the Champs-Élysées for the 1900 World’s Fair), gave over two rooms to pictures by Cézanne, who had died the year before. Rilke reported his Salon visits and the effect Cézanne’s work was having on him in almost daily letters to his wife, Clara. He also reported his responses to a portfolio of van Gogh reproductions that reminded him, as he had begun to learn from Rodin, that anything might be a subject for art. Rilke revered van Gogh’s physical poverty, in part because his work transformed it into forceful beauty. “He’s in a bad way, night and day,” Rilke says in a letter, recalling van Gogh’s deprivations. ”But in his paintings poverty has already become rich.” From Rodin he’d learned to look at objects long and hard: Rodin, who always had something in progress waiting to be attacked, admonished Rilke to go find motifs (gazelle, panther, ancient piece of sculpture, flamenco dancer) and simply work, not wait for inspiration. Not only did Rilke admire van Gogh’s and Cézanne’s pictures, but he also hoped to emulate the unity of life and art he saw in their working process. He clung to van Gogh’s remark that instead of the saints of classical art he would make his saints a crude bed, or lamp, or postman or prostitute, just as Cézanne—so pathologically shy that he could barely tolerate being among others—would make his own saints out of old fruit, bedspreads, compotes, and dusty wine bottles.

The Basket of Apples.Paul Cézanne, The Basket of Apples. The Art Institute of Chicago, Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection (1926.252). Photo: Photograph The Art Institute of Chicago

Rilke was a pious student of his exemplars, and he saw Cézanne’s art as a devotional practice: “Only a saint could be as united with his God as Cézanne was with his work.” While the work is the expression of the artist, the artist in a sense is also a product or expression of the work. Spiritual aspiration is never far from Rilke’s consciousness. Cézanne is a prophet-artist of biblical stature: “Not since Moses has anyone seen a mountain so greatly.” And when he insists that Cézanne possesses “scales of an infinitely responsive consciousness,” he’s restating what he learned from Rodin, that every centimeter of a surface, whether of a statue, a painting, or a poem (which is to say, a poem’s syntactical facets), expresses some degree of response to the occasioning event or motif. The most decisive remark Rilke made about Cézanne, I think, and about a certain kind of art, is that in treating his subjects, Cézanne left the love out. The painting of sentiments, Rilke says, “is in no way better than the painting of things; painters of sentiments paint I love this here; instead of painting: here it is.” Cézanne wanted his pictures looked at not for the value he attached to his subject but for the singular unrepeatable reality that each comprised. Of a self-portrait in the Salon d’Automne, Rilke says that it’s as if a dog were looking into a mirror thinking, “There’s another dog.” There was nature, there was the motif, and there was the second, superior nature of the object: “picture-nature.” In these years Rilke crafted a verbal equivalent of what he believed Cézanne’s setups became: “how thinglike and real they become, how simply indestructible in their stubborn thereness.”

Vollard: The Secretive Collector
Thérèse BonneyThérèse Bonney, Vollard at 28, rue Martignac. Musée d'Orsay, Paris.
One of the odder frequenters of the Salon d’Automne was Ambroise Vollard, the dealer responsible for the first one-man exhibition of Cézanne’s work in 1895. The collector bought and hoarded hundreds of works by artists who were overlooked, ignored, or not yet famous—van Gogh, Vuillard, Bonnard, Gauguin, the young Fauves Matisse and Derain, Nabis such as Emile Bernard and Maurice Denis—not to mention a young prodigious Spaniard, recently arrived in Paris, who at age 19 was making pictures of such flashy formal invention that you could see him already carrying forward Cézanne’s innovations toward what would become Cubism. Pictures by all of these artists are included in the Metropolitan’s current exhibition, Cézanne to Picasso: Ambroise Vollard, Patron of the Avant-Garde. It’s a coat-rack show, a spindly notion—Vollard’s predilections and acquisitions—overloaded with fox stoles, moiré scarves, minks, ostrich boas, and Borsalinos. Many of the pictures can serve as meditative objects, much as Cézanne’s and van Gogh’s work did for Rilke. Of a Salon d’Automne portrait of Madame Cézanne in an armchair (a similar painting appears in the Met show), Rilke wrote: “It’s as if every place were aware of all other places.” That’s a fair description of “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” the poem that opens the second volume, New Poems [1908]: The Other Part. Every “place” in that poem “gazes” upon every other, as the statue’s missing head seems to look down upon its light-shedding form, its genitals, its broken continuities. The recognition of such totality forces the injunction of the poem’s last line: ”You must change your life.”

Vollard included 150 Cézannes in the 1895 show. He also sat for a portrait. (Several portraits that artists made of him appear in the exhibition.) He described in a reminiscence, with an exaggeration that came naturally to him, sitting for more than a hundred hours—the artist told him “to sit like an apple”—until Cézanne announced, with just the sort of biblical stubbornness Rilke admired, “I am not dissatisfied with the shirt front.” A large, dour, mildly narcoleptic man who would nod off even during arguments he enjoyed provoking, Vollard was notoriously secretive and evasive. He revealed little of himself; concealed handwritten sales records, stock books, and nearly indecipherable notebooks; and was so impulsively savvy that he sometimes carted away nearly all the studio contents of an artist who interested him. His showroom must have looked like a garage sale, with dozens of paintings turned to the wall or piled high on the floor or scattered about in open crates. He was distracted like a fox, though—insiders knew he kept a hoard of superior pictures in the back of his shop and wouldn’t allow buyers to see them until their value shot up.

Walking the Exhibition: Cezanne's Sweep, Van Gogh's Saints, and Degas!
Boy in a Red WaistcoatPaul Cézanne, Boy in a Red Waistcoat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, in Honor of the 50th Anniversary of the National Gallery of Art (1995.47.5). Photo: Image Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
The largest room in Cézanne to Picasso is filled with Cézannes, and it opens up the expanse of the painter’s career, from the early swimming color he learned from Tintoretto and Veronese and turned into knobby musculatures caught up in quivery scenes of orgies, murder, and ravishment. (These excitements, in the pictures anyway, didn’t come easily to him: the subjects tend to be technically overstudied, unlike the cut-loose, fleshy riotousness of those Venetians.) We see him early on sweeping subjects into form in ways quite unlike the methodical building-up of color modulations of the later work. We see him later finding his way from the sumptuous constructed realities of the still lifes, bathers, cardplayers, and landscapes, to the late work where the pigment floats on the surface like an emanation and patches of unpainted canvas become part of the lyrical compositional rhythms. He went from a Caliban’s art to an Ariel’s. Cézanne’s pictures had for Rilke a deep-down freshness because of the labor that went into their making, because Cézanne’s “infinitely responsive consciousness . . . so incorruptibly reduced a reality to its color content that that reality resumed a new existence in a beyond of color, without any previous memories.”

Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?Paul Gauguin, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Tompkins Collection––Arthur Gordon Tompkins Fund (36.270). Photo: Photograph 2006 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

This kind of big-tent exhibition brings together pictures like Gauguin’s epic Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? from Boston, Bonnard’s The Terrasse Family from Chicago, Cézanne’s Bathers from St. Louis and The Smoker from St. Petersburg, not to mention a couple dozen works from private collections. Suggestions fly everywhere you turn. The sleeves of Cézanne’s Boy in a Red Waistcoat are constructed of planes and shards of color, and the pant folds are slippery louvers of grays, blues, and greens. The more the conventional figure breaks down, the more the subject makes sense in its own painterly terms, because its sense lies in the action of inquiry the picture itself records, softened shingled brushstrokes laid beside and across each other as a modeling of the artist’s form-finding desire. Not only does this picture speak to other Cézannes, it’s also one of the workshops out of which would issue the Cubism we see in Picasso’s own portrait of a granite-quarried, heavy-lidded Vollard. There are also suggestive moments when we recognize that while poets can’t use painting’s expressive means, there are yet instructive parallels. To see Cézanne swiftly articulating knuckles in The Card Players with one tightly oscillating brushstroke reminds a poet that the tighter the economy of syntax, the speedier its continuity.

Ambroise Vollard.Pablo Picasso, Ambroise Vollard. Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow. Photo: Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow 2006 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
When I was very young and saw a van Gogh drawing of a grieving man (face cupped in hands, upper body collapsed into the hands, as if the body’s self-possession were lost irremediably to the pain of experience), I took it as a model for descriptive writing: it wasn’t pushy pathos that mattered, it was formal clarity. Achieve the clarity and you achieve the feeling. van Gogh’s painting of old work shoes included in the exhibition look (like that grieving man) broken by the world’s indifferent use. They are van Gogh’s “saints,” an occasion to dilate spiritual energies through physical distress. (Their workaday vitality drains away in wilted shoestrings that worm weightlessly across the floor.) Van Gogh brought the same concentration to humble and exalted subjects alike. In Starry Night, he makes the cosmos a throbbing texture of currents that whip and scroll and trawl down through the firmament into and across water and land. He cast his net over as many orders of nature as he could, sometimes to unnerving results. A sunflower picture Vollard acquired isn’t one of van Gogh’s pictorial hosannas. The bloom, lying shriveled on its side, its pistils crabbed and puckered, looks more like a sea anemone whose teeth, if you spring the trap, won’t let you go. It’s nature’s glory as ailing predatory thing.

Vollard began showing Vuillard, Bonnard, and others who called themselves Nabis (Hebrew for “prophets”) in the late 1890s. I confess to a Vuillard neurosis. I love the flatly knitted surfaces of his domestic interiors, but their ambience is so airless and shut down by the censures of social and familial conventions, so compacted into self-satisfied edge-to-edge stuffiness, that I feel the casket lid closing over my head. How different was his friend Bonnard’s feeling for middle-class pastimes. A plumped bonhomie spreads throughout Bonnard’s outdoor family picture, The Terrasse Family (Afternoon of a Bourgeois Family), held together by a tub of a woman in the center who seems to be inflating as we watch. Bonnard’s colors have a lightning lightness—loose, ventilated, on the fly. He puts his outdoor scene, filled with slightly solemn adults and children, just this side of the sinned-in Garden. Bonnard could be a darker, more direly reflective painter, especially when the subject was sex, but in this enchanted picture, expansive sensation is all.

Ambroise Vollard with His Cat.Pierre Bonnard, Ambroise Vollard with His Cat. Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris. Photo: Petit Palais Photothèque des Musées de la Ville de Paris / Pierrain, 2006 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

The installation shows how the painterly imagination works. One wall displays several canvases by a 19-year-old Picasso. His figures were already bold and impudent, as was his painterly attack. Even then he was an unstoppable menace, colonizing subjects, forms, and materials to feed his voracious expressive appetites. His females look straight at each other, at themselves in mirrors, or out at us (the anxious peepers). In one small picture, a nude girl with cats sits on a bed, the feline shapes coiled into an unreleased spring of sexual potential. It’s carnal compulsion all wrapped up in the flash of the making of the thing, and it looks ahead to the feral energy of his later nudes. I can’t think of any instance when Rilke came anywhere near the boldness of regard for the nude that Picasso was already achieving in 1901, but the formal construction of his great poem “The Spanish Dancer” (from New Poems) has a similar circular energy. Like Picasso’s little picture, it wraps itself around itself as the dancer, whom Rilke compares to a struck match, masters the metaphor she has become and, after flaring and burning, finally stamps out the little conflagration of her dance beneath her feet.

Ambroise Vollard.Edgar Degas, Dancers at the Barre. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., acquired 1944.
Another wall, holding three big works by Degas, puts the imagination’s expansive coherence and continuity on promiscuous display. A woman in a boudoir pulls and brushes another’s long horsetail of hair. A nude steps into a tub. Ballerinas stretch at the barre. All three forms have a core horizontal—hair, tub, legs—that holds the picture together. Set side by side, the horizontal of one streams into the next, as does a dominant, granular burnt orange. The imagery is at once ethereal and corporeal, vapored and condensed, all the action—which is to say, all the feeling for presence—sustained by flagrant, decomposing, crusty, sandy continuities of color and texture. As the entire show reminds us, we have by now so internalized the formal discoveries that Vollard’s artists made, so controversial in their time, that it can be hard to really see them. What they do, if we’re open, is teach us to really look. What we think we already knew becomes something we’re just getting to know.

Cézanne to Picasso: Ambroise Vollard, Patron of the Avant-Garde is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City until January 7, 2007.
Originally Published: December 13, 2006

COMMENTS (1)

On May 3, 2009 at 8:35pm Curtis J. Neeley Jr. wrote:
Ethereal and corporal art? no wonder why I can't figure out why figurenude images are so compelling.

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 W. S. Di Piero

Biography

W.S. Di Piero was born in 1945 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and earned degrees from St. Joseph’s College and San Francisco State College. A poet, essayist, art critic, and translator, Di Piero has taught at institutions such as Northwestern University, Louisiana State University, and Stanford, where he is professor emeritus of English and on faculty in the prestigious Stegner Poetry Workshop. Elected to the American Academy of . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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