Cézanne’s Doubt

Cézanne's painting Mont Sainte Victoire

He comes here daily,
endlessly repeats the same motif,
his whole existence focused
on the mountain, on the struggle
to relate the scene before him
to the one appearing on his canvas,
stays until the light fades,
packs his things and,
unappeased, tramps home,
begins again tomorrow.

Cézanne’s agony, the doubt
he feels about the value of his work,
stems just from this: he starts
not with a given image, ready-made,
but seeks instead to make anew
each time the sense we have
of looking at and living in the world –
and thus creating it.


After Gabriel Josipovici,
Whatever Happened to Modernism? Chapter 8: “A Universe for the First Time Bereft of All Signposts.”

Writer and book blogger Victoria Best recently conducted a long and wonderful interview with the novelist and critic Gabriel Josipovici that makes you want to rush off and read/re-read his books – I did, and found the cadences of his critical writing so lovely they were almost a poem.

8 Comments



  1. Thanks for this, Jean, a kind of review-as-poem. I like it a lot. Cezanne was such an interesting character, very different from the other painters of that period whose viewpoints he really didn’t share. It was only his “petite sensation” that he sought to express and elaborate and I think that his doubts were well founded: it was such a difficult task, requiring direct observation of the “motif” but not ‘interpreting’ it, as other artists were doing – not impressionistically/expressionistically/abstractly/academically etc. That some see him as the father of Cubism is just one possible development of his search but I feel he was going somewhere else.

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  2. Thanks, Natalie – approval from an artist of a poem about a painting or an artist means a lot! I loved Josipovici’s chapter about Cezanne and writers on Cezanne, and that although he’s a scholar of literature he constantly references visual artists and musicians also. Now want to read Merleau-Ponty’s1945 essay “Le doute de Cezanne”, which he quotes from – do you know it?

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    1. Haven’t read that essay but I have loved what I’ve read (in translation) by Merleau-Ponty. An unusually humble-seeming Western philosopher.

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    2. No, I haven’t read it but I have an excellent essay on Cezanne by Lawrence Gowring “The Logic of Organized Sensations”, which I pulled out to re-read after I saw your poem. I’ve also ordered Josipovici’s “Contre-Jour”, thanks to you.

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  3. You encourage me, Dave! I’ve never read Merleau-Ponty – only know him as a character in Simone de Beauvoir’s memoirs.

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  4. Jean, I loved this, and it reminded me to return to Cezanne, whose work I also love and who’s influenced me so much. I’d like to read Josipovici and will take your recommendation seriously! But what I really liked was the last part of the poem, about what Cezanne was trying to do. I think that’s true, and also that when an artist succeeds in showing us this struggle, he’s revealing to us our own act of seeing. I’ll never forget a large Cezanne retrospective I saw at the Museum of Modern Art in the 70s – what it felt like to walk into those rooms full of bowls of fruit or mountains – the repetition which suddenly wasn’t senseless at all, the struggle for beauty and form, and what it opened up for me.

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  5. Thanks, Beth. I love Cezanne for many of the same reasons as you.

    These nice comments make me want to make it very clear how much of this poem is Josipovici’s. Each stanza condenses one paragraph – half the words are his his cadences, expressions, and the whole thrust of his meaning – not that far from a ‘found poem’.

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