Paul Cezanne's 'Black Clock' and 'Railway Cutting' (2002)



 Note: Initially, an art lover responds emotionally to a painting...its color, subject, feeling, design. Gradually, inevitably, analysis begins. But the feeling for the painting's beauty and poetry never fades, grows meaning slowly emerges (web addresses for the two paintings may be found at the end of this essay).



 During a two-year period, 1869-1871, a youthful Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) painted "The Black Clock," a still-life, and "The Railway Cutting," a landscape. Despite the different genres, they clearly reveal in remarkably similar ways, the emotional, psychological and spiritual pressures and motivations so fundamental to Cezanne's genius.


 In terms of sheer artistic mastery and expressive force, the still-life is the greater painting, with massively interlocking, classical compositional forms, significant color, painterly thickness of paint paste, and strong contrasts of light and dark. The landscape is more thinly painted, more loosely-constructed, less condensed in form; a less massive, more open composition, as might be expected of a landscape.


 Both, however, are equally profound in expressive significance. The main compositional schemes of both paintings are the same, based on a contrast -- and conflict -- of objects on the left sides of the pictures with objects on the right. The two sides are separated by a central gulf that is particularly evident in the railway cutting, for which that painting is named.


 In the still-life, the two separated objects are a conch shell on the left and the black clock on the right; in the landscape, a house on the left, Mt. Ste. Victoire to the right (the first of many depictions of the mountain by Cezanne).


 The organic irregularity of the seashell's form, its light cream color, red, fleshy, mouth-like opening and troubled presence contrast strongly with the insistent, brooding, rectangular evenness of the black clock, and its round white face minus any hands. Similarly, in the landscape, the house on the left is, like the shell, a tan-cream color, with a light-red roof and hapless demeanor contrasting with the darker blue, brooding, irregular shape of the mountain on the right. Both the clock and mountain have a darkness of mood and color that threaten the shell and house.


 The organic forms of nature (shell and mountain) and geometric forms of man (clock and house) have been reversed in location in the two paintings, but the symbolic meaning of the objects remain in their left (shell/house), right (clock/mountain) orientation.


 The left side of the paintings represent a troubled, vulnerable aspect; the right side, a dominating, even over-bearing aspect. Another way of saying this, is that the objects on the left side of the pictures are in an emotionally subservient position to -- suffer because of -- the objects on the right side. In one sense, it is possible to say the left sides of the pictures are feminine, based on the nature of the forms (the female shell, the house equating with hearth and home); the right side masculine (the power and physical presence of the clock and mountain). More about this later.


 The shell is anguished in its spiky, curving shape and rough paint application, as well as its placement against a nearly pitch-black background...the only area of background blackness in the painting. The red "lips," leading into the interior of the conch, gape in suffering reaction to the implacable clock.


 The stolid, self-contained clock, deeply resonant in its blackness, is the dominant element in the composition despite its lack of bright color. The clock represents a dark, controlling presence in Cezanne's mind, governing behind the scenes of the other, lighter objects before it on the chest or table top. The shell, a white cup, a lemon, a white cloth, a small curving, light object (perhaps a woven knick-knack box or oval cap) and somewhat darker, slender vase, form a foreground "family group" separated from the dark clock, though connected with it by compositional overlapping and the related lightness of the circular white clock face. Each item is as irreversibly, inevitably locked by Cezanne into every other object and the composition as a whole, as every rock has its position in a mountain range, every star in the sky.


 In the landscape, the small house to the left is the vulnerable equivalent of the sea shell. With two dark dots of windows (eyes) above a dark dot of a door (mouth), it's end wall is like a face, as startled by its confrontation with the mountain on the right as the shell is depressed by the clock in the still-life. The house occupies its own little tawny hill on the left, while the blue mountain seems to be part of, though obviously behind, a similarly colored hill on the right. Separating the two key elements in this psychic drama, is the dark railway cutting that literally bifurcates, with a dark wound, the tan hill, severing and separating the house on the left from the mountain on the right, creating for each their own world.


 There are only two things that join the house and mountain, aside from their being significant compositional elements in the same painting. One is the psychic energy, the intense feeling that resonates between them, as the mountain seems nearly to "look" at the house with a scowl of harsh threat, from which the house recoils in woe.


 The second link is the tiny, rectangular, white gatehouse midway between them at the bottom of the hills, silhouetted against the red-blackness of the railway cutting. Strikingly, this tiny outbuilding with its triangular roof, is the equivalent of the white cup in the still-life painting, and, despite their small size, both are the ultimate "heroes," focal points, psychologically and compositionally speaking, of "The Railway Cutting" and "The Black Clock."


 Interestingly, the gatehouse in the landscape, in its overlapping relationship with the curving, dark railway cutting, is similar to the cup's overlapping of the shell, with its curving, overall shape and "mouth" so very much like the curving shape of the cutting.


 In the most important expressive, symbolic aspect of both paintings, the white gatehouse and white cup seem mediating elements between opposing forces, or tiny offspring of those forces that will one day grow into the majestic artistic and personal synthesis that is the achievement of Cezanne's genius as a mature artist. In essence, these two small, white objects are early symbolic personifications of the Cezanne to be, once the conflicting forces within him are more resolved into a dynamic, if troubling, whole, rather than antagonistic opposites.


 For, Cezanne will gradually meld, if never entirely reconcile, the conflicting aspects within himself, utilizing the violence and emotional force manifested in early work like "The Murder" and "The Rape" to animate and fire, instill a burning poetry and significance in all the works of his later, and in some respects, more classically-oriented vision.


 The house and shell, then, may be seen as emotional, even feminine, aspects of Cezanne's character, and might also symbolically represent his mother; while the mountain/clock are darker, intruding elements that threaten to dominate, like his father, Cezanne's more vulnerable humanity and personal needs.


 Cezanne's mother was more supportive of the artist as a person and an artist. His father, much less so, wanting his son to be a lawyer. In fact, Cezanne was so intimidated by his father that he was later afraid to let him know he had married Hortense Fiquet. Cezanne's father, however, at his death provided an inheritance that supported Cezanne for the rest of his life, allowing him to paint without the financial distress that so afflicted the lives of his contemporaries, Van Gogh and small thing, in terms of assistance and ultimate paternal benevolence.


 The house -- the archetypal place of shelter, comfort and family domesticity -- could easily represent, in part, Cezanne's mother, with the threatening Mt. Ste. Victoire, the father. In the still-life, the female vulva-like forms of the shell, could be the mother; the dark reserve of the clock, the father. The two paintings, in this sense, may represent Cezanne's struggle for survival, caught, like the white cup and white gatehouse, between the two conflicting parental positions.


 But, in the final analysis, all of the painted objects essentially represent forces of light and darkness, conflict and attempted resolution, within Cezanne that have been created and shaped by his experiences of life, within the family and without, as well as by his genes and the genius that was God's gift to a young Provencal boy who would grow to be one of the world's great artists.


 A further note about "The Black Clock." The lemon, central in the composition, pairs in a way, with the cup, as the key elements in the "birth" of the new Cezanne. And, in their pairing, they represent a microcosm of the essential duality of the painting as a whole. The lemon, its axis angled sadly downward toward the cup, seems, despite its rich yellow, despondent compared to the dignified, almost sprightly, uprightness of the cup.


 From behind them sturdily rises a tall, slender, crystalline vase that triumphantly opens at the top like the petals of an unfolding flower, as if supporting the development of the newly emergent Cezanne. Its stem-like, vertical shaft also serves as a line of separation, a divider "protecting" the shell from the clock. This buffering function of the vase is reinforced by what seem the scalloping, light-violet and golden bars of a vertical mirror frame behind the shell and clock.


 Significantly, these half-dozen vertical elements of the mirror and the vase emerge not only from the area of the cup and lemon, but the end of the shell, overlapped by the cup. Thus, the shell, cup and lemon form a certain unity with the vase and mirror frame...a zone of human feeling and aspiration beyond the moment's pain (caused by the clock).


 The cup itself, as a form, is quite stable, dignified and thickly, convincingly painted with great presence and self-possession (as is the gatehouse in "The Railway Cutting") compared to the "suffering" of the shell (and the house).


 As the cup and lemon, aided by the vase and mirror that seem to rise from them, suggest and point to the future development and salvation of Cezanne, so the white gatehouse indicates a way out of the spiritual and emotional darkness of the railway cutting to an open, unclouded blue sky that fills nearly half of the picture space. A leafless tree atop the hill, and directly above the gatehouse, seems its extension, reaching for the freedom and fulfillment of the sky.


 We witness in these two paintings -- as in all Paul Cezanne's work -- an artist of stature baring his soul, using the material of reality (selected and arranged by his thoughts and feelings) to come to grips with the conditions and challenges of his life and what it means to be an artist.


 Needless to say, Cezanne was probably not fully aware -- if at all -- of what he was expressing. He simply responded, in works of high aesthetic and expressive achievement, to profound, unspoken emotional pressures and spiritual needs. This is what artists do. Great artists do it brilliantly.


 Revealingly, the fold of white cloth in front of the black clock partially hides the lemon and the knick-knack container. This tiny "mountain" of light cloth (more a slumping mound) seems another blocking device created by the artist (along with the vase and mirror frame) to isolate the clock in its own dark pictorial zone, keeping it from further threatening the shell and its offspring, the white cup.


 However, this upper fold of cloth seems thoroughly cowed by its placement at the foot of the clock (and is a form exuding its own kind of suffering, similar to the conch shell on the left). It assumes nearly the form of a supine, cowering "creature" trying to disappear, melt into the surface of the chest. A knob of this fold of cloth linked with and just to the right of the lemon, has the same shape and downcast longitudinal axis as the lemon (a somewhat clumsy, strangely placed, blotted black shadow in this fabric knob suggests almost the "eye" of the cowering white "creature" in the cloth).


 It "wants" to emotionally support the lemon and white cup, but is too close to the black clock's dangerous sphere of influence to provide anything more than a passive blocking function.


 Compositionally speaking, this bunched cloth breaks up the even, horizontal edge of the chest on which all of the objects rest, creating an irregularity of form similar to that of the shell, but it is farther to the right in the picture, further encroaching on the area of dominance by the clock.


 Interestingly, this fold of fabric is just the top portion of a large white cloth, occupying perhaps one-third of the picture space and draping to the bottom of the painting, which supports, both compositionally and metaphorically -- in its whiteness -- the most positive, glowing elements (shell, cup, lemon, vase) of the still-life, as well as the entire psychological/spiritual drama taking place atop the chest.


 One might think the evolution of the artist's soul, as difficult and troubled as it was, would be a symbolic, expressive emergence from darkness rather than from light. Indeed, that is the reality of Cezanne's journey. There is plenty of darkness in Cezanne's painting generally, as in his heart, but, the size and extent of the foundational white cloth is somewhat surprising (its lightness is "wounded," however, by two dark, vertical shafts of strongly contrasting black shadow. A smaller, angular shadow accent in the cloth under the cup also suggests a certain momentary destabilization of the cup's foundation, adding tension to its existence. There is, however, a horizontal wedge of grey-blue paint under the cup that supports and separates it from the potentially disruptive shadow).


 With the white cloth significantly larger than the black clock, it's as if the painter is tapping some rescuing zone of enduring psychic or spiritual light that underlies all creativity, all life and the world, beyond the darkness.



 Paul Cezanne's painting "The Black Clock" may be viewed at:


 "The Railway Cutting" may be seen at:




Copyright by Don Gray



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