The Still Point

Paul Cezanne, Still Life with Compotier, 1883-7, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor
fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance
is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement
from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still
point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

 

This still life by Cezanne was the first painting I saw that made me realize that art is not merely a reproductive, or illustrative process, but an encounter that can touch on the sublime and the infinite. It elevated me to a place of profound stillness, that felt like timelessness. I felt lifted up and given a glimpse of a higher plane of reality, of being.
This painting hung in The Fogg Museum at Harvard and was an image taught in the introductory art history class I took first semester of my freshman year. I found myself visiting it often over the four years I studied there. I would stand, both mesmerized and transported. The apples were not just apples. There was a weight, a solidity to all the objects, indeed, a plasticity to the very space they inhabited, that felt at times overwhelming. The table, the jars, the fruit, the space itself, seemed as if they had always been there, and always would be there. They seemed to stand for every piece of fruit, every table, every jar, that ever existed. They seemed to contain the entire universe in them. No beginning. No end.
Was it the compressed compositional geometry, the forced perspective and abstracted spatial relationships, the tonal modeling and harmony…? It was certainly all these things, But also, it was something quite ineffable. There is a liminal feeling of being completely present. Somehow this quality transforms the specific into the universal, as it collapses past and future into an eternal present.
Cezanne transported me to a state outside myself, into a state of stillness
Not unlike meditation or prayer. Once again T.S. Eliot describes it better than I can
In Burnt Norton.

Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern.
Can words or music reach
The stillness, as a Chinese jar still,
Moves perpetually in its stillness….

Cezanne’s approach to “representation” brings up important questions
about what is ”realistic” and what is “abstract” in terms of painting.
I will talk in other posts about these concepts, and especially in relation to the way we actually see. Hyper-realism is a dramatic abstraction of “reality”
And the way we actually perceive the world. More later.

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13 Comments on "The Still Point"

  1. David,

    Cezanne’s paintings are indeed timeless. Amazing that he arrived at such a still point by his incessant looking. Each brushstroke by Cezanne seems to be a concrete record of his gaze.

  2. Irene Scalise says:

    Your description of how you felt looking at this particular painting has put into words exactly what my emotions are when I see a piece of art that touches my soul. Your words are beautiful and I understand completely how it makes you feel and why you had to keep going back to that particular piece. Art is meant to move us…make us feel things we didn’t know we could feel and you have descibed it perfectly.

  3. David, I enjoyed your beautifully written piece about Cezanne and your personal response to his art. I love the still life paintings by Cezanne. In fact he and Manet are probably my favorite artists. How lucky you were to be able to gaze at this work during your college years. I remember feeling transported when I first saw Manet’s “Bar at the Folies-Bergeres” at the Courtauld in London. Your blog is becoming a vibrant dialogue about the arts.

    • David Leeds says:

      Sunday, I especially appreciate your encouragement, coming from the seasoned veteran that you are. I know that Manet as well. I almost entered the Courtauld
      PHD program, but at the last minute went to UCLA graduate film school.

  4. kpeckleeds says:

    Beautiful post. Over the years, you’ve changed and enriched the way I look at and perceive art; in all it’s various forms. So proud, and thank you.

  5. Dear David,

    It was fun to know that Cezanne’s still life was the piece that made you ever so sensitive to the experience of looking at art. It was at an early age that I first felt moved in a way that no painted image had ever moved me, and it was a still life with fruit, Cezanne’s. As I was young I didn’t give its tug upon me any rationale. Now you have elucidated that feeling, (the understanding of which I would have been incapable of at the time), with your very pointed and knowing description of why it was so. In your analysis you remind us of the need for a painting to “speak” a formal truth and to be touched by an honest hand, for only in that way can a vision be truly a vision. That is gratifying.
    Thanks! Linda Sher Salzman

  6. jennifer Kaufman says:

    I just read your blog for the first time and it is wonderful! I never got the other ones or I would have told you before – - I love the poem in the beginning and the TS Elliot one at the end and your description of a still life is transporting, particularly for someone who is not visual, like me. I will consider a still life in a whole new light now that I read your anaylsis which is very much like that of a poem or any piece of literature. Look forward to your future posts. Best, Jennifer ( I sent it on to my mom who is also a writer and who will love it.)

  7. Trace Albrecht says:

    Not really fair that you should be tall, handsome, talented AND so articulate. Really cool blog

  8. Carol Winegred says:

    You are a beautiful writer, and so talented….So proud of you… Lots of love CC

  9. David,
    Hi there. How wonderful to discover that you are a gifted writer too! I am just crazy about your idea of a still point wihtout fixity. I think I would benefit from making it a daily habit to move into stillness. Most beautiful. Thank you, MaryBG

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Sculptor, painter, poet. Currently living in Los Angeles and Martha's Vineyard