Two Wives, Half Transformed
Each of them – Monet, Cezanne – used his wife as model for a painting that seems transformation rather than portrait: Madame Cezanne is more than half mountain, Madame Monet, monster samurai.
i. Madame Cezanne in a Red Armchair
I want to make of Impressionism an art solid as that of the museums. Cezanne
Madame Cezanne’s face is a dead zone: gray
patches mottle it, blotching ruddy skin; stolid,
stony, expressionless, she looks as if she has
been sitting for this painting for years, and
she has: between views of Mont Sainte-Victoire
and bowls of fruit, Cezanne’s returned over
and over to her form. Presence now become
absence, she’s lost in her skirt’s abundance
gone mountain landscape, green and gray,
finally an abstraction of colour, light flashing
and glittering as it might upon the slopes
of Mont Sainte-Victoire, on trees, a range of
rocky outcroppings studded with mica, alight,
glinting, as nothing is in the painting’s upper
half, where a blood red armchair, walls
of mustard, dun jacket, the black notes of
Madame Cezanne’s hair and necklace absorb
all light, refuse to reflect it to the viewer.
In this his solid art, this woman he’s turned
into a mountain, a massive landscape shining
with light that where it touches her face,
her flesh, illuminates only form not feeling,
leaves the inner world as mysterious still
as any tree’s thought or stone’s imagining.
ii. La Japonaise (Camille Monet in Japanese Costume)
“To emphasize her Western identity,” the Museum notes tell us, Monet had his wife Camille wear a blonde wig for this life-size portrait.
Behind her, what should be wall is undefined space –
a screen, perhaps, of sea-blue brocade – ; against it
an array of floating fans seem casually strewn,
some with painted scenes we can construe, others
a blur of atmospheric color, line. Camille’s blonde
head is archly tilted, as is the fan she’s holding:
this one patterned in the colors of Japan’s flag.
To the waist, her red brocade robe is delicately
adorned with embroideries of flowers, leaves,
winged forms suggesting birds, butterflies:
ethereal forms. But at her waist, and as if from
it, the figure of a grotesque samurai emerges:
so three-dimensional it seems not the robe’s
fabric but a living creature superimposed on
Camille’s costume – surely the arm that holds
his dagger’s hilt is not an image on the falling
folds of robe. The comic menace of his gaze
upwards echoes Camille’s glance, down-tilted,
while the contorted muscles of his arm are dark
mirror of the white flesh of her fan-holding
hand. Below, the robe’s train widens to a swirl
of brilliant color, serpentine curve, ambiguous
rippling waters beneath it, that dark exotic sea
giving birth to the portrait’s strange dichotomy.
Monet was mocking the current Parisian fad
for all things Japanese, we’re told. The underside
of jest is warning: be careful what you play with.
Sandra Kohler is a poet and teacher. Her third collection of poems, Improbable Music, (Word Press) appeared in May, 2011. Earlier collections are The Country of Women (Calyx, 1995) and The Ceremonies of Longing, winner of the 2002 Associated Writing Programs Award Series in Poetry (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2003). Her poems have appeared in journals, including The New Republic, The Beloit Poetry Journal, Prairie Schooner, and many others over the past 40 years.
The Ekphrastic Review
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