Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Tache And The Touche

“To record one’s thoughts every day is an excellent idea; nothing forms one’s style more effectively. And by that I mean not the habit of turning out fine phrases but of putting one’s thoughts into words. It even seems to me that we ought to be very lenient, to condone lack of correctness, provided that the feeling is real, and that the ideas are personal.”

Berthe Morisot advising her niece on the benefits of keeping a diary

Throughout their careers [Cézanne and Pissarro] , a principal tension characterized the novel conception these artists gave to their métier. The axis of this tension centered around the opposition between tache and touche. Both artists used these terms often, and for this reason they need clarification, especially since each term has been translated in a variety of ways, depending on the translator. Tache has been translated as stain, patch, and even stroke. To add to the confusion, touche has also been translated as stroke (as in brushstroke) and as touch. For the sake of clarity, I have chosen to translate tache to mean “patch” and touche to mean “touch.”

The term tache in everyday French refers to an area of color that is distinct from its support or background, for instance, a spot of color that is bleeding out on a surface, as in une tache de vin sur une serviette (a stain of wine on a napkin). The term touche (unlike tache) implies a certain action and control and suggests a small area of color applied by means of a device or a tool (a brush or a knife). Briefly stated, tache suggests a passive state while touche suggests an active one of control. Additionally, tache (especially in Cézanne’s and Pissaro’s vocabularies) refers to the presence of color that is there, beyond one’s will. A “patch” of color calls for an act of vision to observe it. A “touch” of color, on the other hand, refers to a willful action and an act of construction. One thus understands differently the passage quoted above: “Your eyes should see patches [taches]; your craft [métier] means nothing: impasto and a perfect pitch—this is the only goal you should strive for.”

The artists’ eyes have no control over the patches of color they see; their craft (i.e., the traditional technical skill learned at school) is unable to “transliterate” those patches. The artist needs a new language that will resort to impasto (the physical, creamy matter that comes out of the tubes of color) and a perfect pitch. This targeted act of control to pick up whatever amount of paint the artist needs out of his small mounds of color, laid on his palette, before transferring it on the canvas, is called a touch. At each instant, everything can go wrong: the touch (touche) is the act of objectivation of the patch (tache). Maurice Merleau-Ponty has best analyzed and expressed the nature of this paradoxical tension: “Quality, light, color, depth, which are out there before us [that is, patches] are so only because they awaken an echo in our body [that is, touches], because it makes them welcome.” From this inner stimulus—what Merleau-Ponty calls “this fleshy formula of their presence that things evoke in me”—comes the act of construction (building up the canvas “touch after touch”): “a trace, visible in its turn, where every other eye will rediscover the motives which support its inspection of the world.”

Both Pissarro and Cézanne established a system of research—striving to build up a harmonic network of chromatic relations that would allow them to catch what they found (patches) before their eyes. The difference between the two artists is that Cézanne brought his viewer more openly into the process of building up his surfaces. He announced on his canvas how he worked. Pissarro, while following the same premise, was probably more concerned to reach an effect of smooth unity than Cézanne was. If, to resume Merleau-Ponty’s language, a painting is “visible to the second power,” one could say that the difference between Cézanne and Pissarro is that the gap between “the visible” and “the visible to the second power” was more extreme in Cézanne’s work than in Pissarro’s. However, in the formula they both sought, the terms they chose to express, their research was identical.

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