Wednesday, December 7, 2011

An interesting choice by Roy Lichtenstein ... appropriating Cézanne ... and Erle Loran

Erle Loran wrote Cézanne's Composition: Analysis of His Form, with Diagrams and Photographs and published it in 1943; the book was based on his travels in  the Aix-en-Provence countryside and his residency in Cézanne's former studio.  Loran explained Cézanne's paintings -- through the means suggested by his title -- and the book became familiar to generations of art students.  One of the paintings Loran discusses is the Barnes Foundation's "Portrait of Madame Cézanne" from 1885-7:

In his book, Loran says that the usual attempt to "capture" something of the character of the sitter is not the principle idea at work here: "There are qualities of dynamic tension in this portrait ... that cannot be explained on human or literary grounds.  Consequently, it seems advisable to study it with an eye to the axial tipping .... [which] creates a strong tension and pull" because the figure appears to be slanting left.  Loran goes on to say that the background pulls in the opposite, right-hand, direction,  and, moreover, that the split ground looks "as if these were actually two separate planes pulling apart" (pp. 84-5).  Here is Loran's diagram that helps us visualize what he means:

The upward "push" of C and E against the downward direction of D is classic Cézanne ... these are the multiple planes that so inspired Braque and Picasso.  The tilt of the body to the left, however, seems to me a bit of an exaggeration, as I think the patch of white at the top forces color against that possible movement and confines the figure.  And, if you go back to the original painting and place your fingers over the Madame Cézanne's head, you can see that her shoulders are perfectly level; her head tilts -- a bit. B seems an unnecessary line to me ...  there is nothing on that side but a patch of solid blue. The figure does lean, but of its own accord: A is enough to show that, I think.

So, whether we each agree with all the lines and letters, Loran has made a tangible critical point. Years passed, and Roy Lichtenstein looks at the diagram and paints it, calling it "Madame Cézanne," with no reference to Loran, in 1962:

Looks familiar, doesn't it?  Lichtenstein would say, by way of explaining his painting, that "the Cézanne is such a complex painting. Taking an outline and calling it Madame Cézanne is in itself humourous, particularly the idea of diagramming a Cézanne when Cézanne said '... the outline escaped me.'  It is such an oversimplification trying to explain a painting by  A,B,C and arrows and so forth" (an interview with John Coplans, quoted in Michael Lobel's Roy Lichtenstein and the Emergence of Pop Art, p. 151).  And Lichtenstein also said that his version was "about the wife as seen by Cézanne" (Lobel, p. 141).  The critic Arthur C. Danto wrote that Lichtenstein used "the diagrammatic idiom rhetorically .... whatever Roy Lichtenstein is doing, he is not diagramming" (in The Transformation of the Commonplace, p. 147).  But Loran charged Lichtenstein with plagiarism.

We have become, since the 1960's, rather used to appropriation. But this does seem out of character, even for Lichtenstein.  Why didn't he change anything? Anything ... at all? He is so skilled at transformation. Look at this "Still Life with Sliver Pitcher," from 1972:

The painting is a whole new way of seeing the still life. It's gorgeous; and it is totally Lichtenstein. Or this painting, after Cézanne, "Landscape with Figures":

These are Cézanne's rhythms, even some of his colors, but, again, Lichtenstein has taken the original "Bathers" out of the pastoral mode (that began somewhere around the seventeenth century) and placed the trees, the tree trunk and the body squarely into a twentieth-century comic-book fantasy. A gift ... why didn't he use it in the copy of the Loran?

I took the Loran original, copied into my "Brushes" program, and played with it just now.  Even this would have been, at least, an artistic commentary on the choices Cézanne, and Loran, had already made:


  1. Do you think the date 1962 is significant? Borges's "Pierre Menard" was first published in English in 1962.

  2. I did not know about "Pierre Moran." I have done a bit of reading about it since reading your comment, and your connection here certainly seems to place Borges and Cézanne along the same trajectory... a really interesting point! Thank you for enlightening me... I have been looking at your blog... the teaching/writing balance is so hard, yes? And it is no different for painters.... thanks again for your comment, and good luck with your summer work!