copyright © 2006
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
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."