Friday, June 01, 2007

Card Players As An Occult Metaphor?

In 1859, Paul Cézanne wrote a letter from the small but ancient rural city of Aix in the south of France to his friend in Paris, Emile Zola. The unremarkable text of the letter simply is a request for Zola to correspond more frequently. However, at the top of the letter Cézanne has drawn a sketch or cartoon that is striking. He has titled the image, ‘Death Reigns In This Place.’

The image depicts a room with a small table. Two well-dressed men are sitting at the table, facing each other. Their hands are flat on the table and in the middle of the table, between the men, is a skull. There’s a painting on the back wall. There are three figures behind the table. The three figures appear to be children with blank faces and they appear to apparitions, because although we can see the table legs beneath the table and we can see the legs of the two gentlemen facing each other, the three children are drawn above the table but have no corresponding bodies or legs beneath the table. Off to one side of the image there is an open doorway with two men entering the room and pointing toward the table.

The exact iconography of the cartoon—the clothing, the gestures, the expressions—is probably lost on anyone except French historians. However two gentlemen sitting at a table with a skull is almost certainly a reference to something like a seance. The apparitions visible above the table but not below seem to confirm that reading. (Cézanne was not a master draftsman, but he was bluntly competent, not someone like Caravaggio who sometimes apparently simply forgot to draw legs under tables.)

Now, there is nothing in Cézanne’s mature work which directly deals with the occult. Cézanne often painted skulls, but they are typically interpreted as examples of the classic still life genre of Vanitas—life is passing, death is certain, think to the after-life.

But around 1890 Cézanne painted quite a few images of card players. This is twenty years after the sketch or cartoon on the letter to Zola, but there are remarkable similarities between some of the card player images and the sketch. Here is one of Cézanne’s paintings of card players:

Two gentlemen seated across from each other at a table. In the back are two children, one playing, one looking on. The child looking on has an oddly white face. There’s a painting on the back wall. To one side, a gentleman stands watcing.

This image raises some interesting questions. I don’t know the answers, but the questions are still interesting. Was Cézanne consciously recreating an occult, seance scene but substituting the more acceptable image of card playing in place of the skull? Card playing in the form of Tarot readings has always been linked to the occult. And, Manet aside, we know artists of that period and place were very conscious of some forms of propriety—Georges Seurat, for instance, painted over his one self-portrait rather than have his image linked to that of his mistress. If Cézanne wasn’t consciously creating an occult scene, why did so many elements of the seance image from twenty years earlier re-surface in a seemingly simply card player image?

Art historians have noticed the similarity between the sketch and the late paintings, some calling the sketch a ‘precursor’ to the card players. But I’ve never seen any writer explicitly discuss the content of the images.

Was Cézanne creating images with deeper meanings than surface structure obsessed interpretations of modern art historians give him credit for? Was Cézanne the man obsessed with occult issues? Why else would elements of the seance image remain in his mind for more than two decades?

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