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Things That Have Interested Me

Death Stares

James Fenton
copyright © 2006

Originally published in The Guardian
21 October 2006

A catalogue arrived for the National Gallery's small show, Cézanne in Britain, and I spent some time looking at the photograph of a strange painting called alternatively The Autopsy and Preparation for the Funeral. Cézanne probably painted it around 1869, in his rough and shocking early style, which, we learn, he referred to as couillard (ballsy). It shows a grey corpse, somewhat reminiscent of a dead Christ (though without visible wounds), a bald man with powerful forearms, his hands plunged somewhere out of sight (he could be wringing out a cloth into a bucket) and a woman in profile, looking on. In the foreground is a large shallow bowl.

According to Roger Fry the painting was intended for the hospital in Aix-en-Provence, which "refused with indignation a composition in which the surgeon's art is revealed as belonging to the nightmare visions of Edgar Allan Poe. Without losing all air of verisimilitude, these people look like diabolical maniacs engaged in eviscerating a corpse." I suppose Fry wrote this description from memory. It is true that at first sight, for a fraction of a second, you may think that the man is plunging his arms into the corpse's innards - and this gives the first frisson of horror. But then you see that you were mistaken. You begin to wonder what is going on, and why Cézanne should have wanted to depict a corpse-washing in this way. Is it a contemporary scene, or is it a modern take on a religious theme?

It reminded me of a painting by Courbet that I saw many years ago in a retrospective (it belongs to Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts), whose subject has also been disputed. It shows a domestic interior full of women. Two are changing the sheets on a bed, some appear to be praying or singing hymns from books, another is laying a table. In the foreground, at the centre of the composition, a somewhat lifeless figure is looking in a mirror while her feet are being washed, and one is asked by some authorities to believe that this shows the toilette of a woman who is about to be married.

The suspicion is, however, that the painting originally depicted a corpse-washing - that the woman in the centre was a naked corpse, and the preparations going on around her were for her funeral - and that it was doctored after Courbet's death. Certainly, Courbet once painted a "Toilette de la morte", which has otherwise been lost to view. The catalogue of the 1977 Grand Palais Courbet retrospective suggested that this was it.

Body-washing may seem a gruesome subject, but the act is one of the first marks of respect we pay to the dead, the first of the ceremonies of farewell. Thinking about Cézanne and Courbet further reminded me of a wonderful and mysterious poem by Rilke, called "Corpse-Washing" ("Leichen-Wäsche"), in which the body of an unknown person has appeared in a house and is being washed by the light of a kitchen lamp. Somebody distractedly leaves a vinegar-soaked sponge on the dead man's face, and it seems as if his hand signals to the whole house that he is no longer thirsty: that is, the dead stranger seems to be Christ, but a Christ as yet without a name - very like the Cézanne painting.

I looked up Rilke's poem, which comes in the second part of his New Poems, a volume dedicated to Rodin published in 1908. Then I wondered whether I had anything that would shed light on what attracted Rilke to this theme, but none of the notes seemed helpful, although I saw that around the same time Rilke had written an erotic "Pietà" and a poem about a morgue: corpses clearly interested him.

I turned to his letters, where I found that at the time he wrote "Corpse-Washing" Rilke had been thinking a lot about Cézanne. The artist died in 1906 and was given a retrospective at the Grand Palais in the following year, alongside a couple of commercial gallery shows. In October 1907 Rilke was in Paris, from where he wrote to his wife, Clara, a series of letters that amount to a little essay on Cézanne.

Whether Rilke ever saw the painting Preparation for the Funeral I do not know, but in one of his letters to Clara he reminds her of something he wrote earlier about Baudelaire's poem "A Carcass" ("Une Charogne"). This is a horrific description of a rotten corpse. It was published in 1857 in Les Fleurs du Mal.

Rilke says: "I could not help thinking that without this poem the whole development toward objective expression, which we now think we recognise in Cézanne, could not have started; it had to be there first in its inexorability. Artistic observation had first to have prevailed upon itself far enough to see even in the horrible and apparently merely repulsive that which is and which, with everything else that is, is valid. The creator is no more allowed to discriminate than he is to turn away from anything that exists: a single denial at any time will force him out of the state of grace, make him utterly sinful."

And he goes on to say how moved he was to read that Cézanne, in his last years, knew Baudelaire's "A Carcass" by heart, and would recite it word for word. He was not the only artist to know this poem by heart. It was apparently much recited in ateliers and brasseries, as a shocking, scandalous assault on bourgeois sensibility, and contributed to the legend of Baudelaire as the "Prince of Corpses".

Whether it was yet in the mind of the young Cézanne when he painted his brutal scene of body-washing is another matter. What you can surely say is that the unflinching spirit Rilke detected in Cézanne is present in this early work. Rilke was impressed that Cézanne, in old age, swore he would die painting, and he imagines that: "As in some old Dance of Death picture, Death reached from behind for his hand, painting the last stroke himself, trembling with pleasure; his shadow had been lying a while on the palette and he had had time to choose from the open round of colours the one that pleased him best; when its turn came, he would seize the brush and paint ... there it was: he took hold and made his stroke, the only one he knew how to make."

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