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To 'paint' the air

By Mary S. Cowen / April 1, 1982



The snows of winter make me recall Paul Cezanne's late paintings of pine groves and the landscapes or still lifes with areas of unpainted canvas or paper in them. I look upon pine woods that demand to be painted, and always I come back to Cezanne. Not because I wish to, but because I can't help it.

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Cezanne is one of those painters whose works set up a resonance in me, his pictures appearing in my mind's eye as reference points when I need them. The way he conveyed the sensation one has in front of a certain kind of light and monumental shapes haunts me. How did he do it?

I have snowy ground; he did not. The snow must affect the way light bounces around in the trees as the sun spotlights first this trunk, then those branches, then that group of trees in the distance. The scene is like a stage set. One keeps watching the drama of light to see what will happen next, for it is never static. The moment of action one seizes to pin down instantly shifts. But that is the eternal problem of the landscape painter. The challenge I am talking about has more to do with - well, what?

It lies in those blank spaces in Cezanne's paintings. I find that as I try to render my sensation in front of the stage of nature, I am confounded time and again by the density of my product. I then try to eliminate confusing elements, prune down to the essentials. I simplify the lights and darks, but still the picture is too heavy, too dense. To cover every speck of paper is apparently a mistake, even though it seems to be the accepted method of working.

The scene is not like that. That is not what I am responding to as I look out. What I feel is not heavy, not thick, not dark. It is as light and lilting and rhythmic as a dance. And there is space, air, in which this movement takes place and which does not get onto the paper.

I get it in Cezanne's paintings. In discussions with other artists about his methods, I have heard one person suggest that Cezanne didn't finish some of his paintings because he couldn't. This artist thinks maybe Cezanne didn't know how to proceed any further and therefore left the blanks. That may be. My friends know far more about painting than I do. But I myself have never felt that the pictures were in any way incomplete. Rather the opposite.

For me the blank spaces have a positive function in the composition, balancing the densely painted areas, giving them room to breathe, allowing the beautifully modulated color and brushstrokes space in which to vibrate. Without this room, this ''empty'' medium, the painted areas would be too stuffy, too rich, too thick and dense. We would stifle. Or the painting would suffocate.

That is what happens in my efforts. The thing goes dead. The more I think about the visual impact of the patches of color in the midst of white canvas the more I think that is the way to handle the problem. Give the eye a rest, an interval in which to recover and get ready for the next move. But arrange these intervals properly so that the movement flows easily and is surrounded by adequate space. The paper does not have to be completely covered with my marks or even with thin washes of color. Those white areas are not empty, they are full of meaning.

The medium in which we live and move and breathe must be conveyed as well as the objects we encounter if there is to be a sense of life. Otherwise we might as well be pinning chloroformed butterflies to the wall. I think the Japanese and Chinese are quite right to leave vast areas of their picture unpainted, and I wonder if Cezanne ever studied their work.

Whether he did or not, he worked in a part of the world where brilliant light tends to cancel out part of the scene to the eye, so that it does not see everything at once, and certainly not in detail. Only in gentler light can one take in more. No doubt the snow in my part of the world helps to cancel out some of the scene even within the woods as it blankets the ground and reflects and refracts the sunlight. And I, who come from another land of blinding light, southern California, am moved to record this familiar sensation, though the New England light has more subtleties to enjoy and is therefore that much more difficult to render.

Unless I am walking on the frozen river or along the open fields in winter I am not blinded by the intense light of the sun on snow. Yet the sheer complexity of light in the woods forces me to the same conclusion: there must be rest for the eye and something on which it can focus. I must paint the air, as it were. I must find the important nodes and modulations of color and let the rest be taken up in the white spaces of the paper. Then perhaps I shall have expressed what it is that lifts my heart.