All Hung Up on Cézanne

“Cézanne picked up a box in the hall [of his studio] and took me to his motif. It was two kilometers away with a view over a valley at the foot of Sainte-Victoire, the craggy mountain which he never ceased to paint[…]. He was filled with admiration for this mountain.”

Émile Bernard


Bathers at Rest, Paul Cézanne, 1876-77.

The Mont Sainte Victoire (located at Aix-en-Provence, the hometown of Cézanne) can be seen behind the monumental figures of this painting.


Allen Ginsberg first became engaged with the work of Paul Cézanne as an undergraduate at Columbia University. In an art history class taught by Meyer Schapiro, who published numerous books and essays on the artwork of Cézanne, Ginsberg was introduced to the work of the French post-impressionist. In his interview with the Paris Review, he claims that in 1949, during his last year at the University, he “got all hung up on Cézanne.” He recounts tales of smoking marijuana, going to the basement of the Museum of Modern Art, and staring at Cézanne’s watercolors—transfixed by the way Cézanne “built up space.”

This mode of “building up space” took Cézanne years to develop. After working extensively with the impressionist Camille Pissarro, Cézanne began attempting to capture the “unchanging element underneath” what he observed in the three dimensional world. Towards the end of his career, he often executed series of paintings of the same subject in order to focus on form. This is seen in the paintings of Mont Sainte Victoire, on which he worked on from 1900 until his death. In his interview, Ginsberg quotes the journals and letters of Cézanne, specifically a famous paragraph where Cézanne describes his theory of replicating the eternal element of what he saw: “There’s a long, long, long paragraph where he says, ‘By means of squares, cubes, triangles, I try to reconstitute the impression that I have from nature.’” Ginsberg says he was “mystified” by Cézanne’s mission to reconstitute what he saw through the use of shape, color and line. He goes onto profess that the last part of Howl is, in fact, an homage to Cézanne in that he attempted to adapt the artist’s mode of representation to the written word:

“I had the idea, perhaps overrefined, that by the unexplainable, unexplained nonperspective line, that is, juxtaposition of one word against another, a gap between the two words—like the space gap in the canvas—there’d be a gap between the two words that the mind would fill in with the sensation of existence.”

This juxtaposition is seen not only in Howl’s structure, but in the complex imagery that Ginsberg uses. For Ginsberg, Cézanne’s method of reconstituting space and experience through juxtaposed lines and colors, as seen in Mont Saint-Victoire, is inherently tied to the way he wrote Howl—by juxtaposing words, images and phrases to reconstitute the “sensation of the Eternal”— or the nature of existence.

In the first part of Howl, Ginsberg directly quotes a concept important to Cézanne’s thought process which is often included in his letters:

“who dreamt and made incarnate gaps in Time & Space through images juxtaposed, and trapped the archangel of the soul between 2 visual images and joined the elemental verbs and set the noun and dash of consciousness together jumping with sensation of Pater Omnipotens Aeterna Deus.”

Cézanne concept of “Pater Omnipotens Aeterna Deus” is directly translated as “omnipotent, eternal father of god” but more accurately speaks to what Ginsberg refers to as Cézanne’s immense achievement of “reconstituting the whole fucking universe in his canvases.” By attempting to represent the eternal and lasting form of an object, Cézanne attempted to capture the true nature of experience. In Howl, Ginsberg has a similar aim, which he attempts to achieve by joining “the elemental verbs and set[ing] the noun and dash of consciousness together” to construct an authentic account of human experience.

As Cézanne preoccupation with execution of form, space and shape heavily influenced Ginsberg, it also had much to do with the development of artistic modernism. Cézanne’s fixation with form influenced the development of Cubism and Fauvism. For this reason, Cézanne is often regarded as an important precursor for the evolution of modern painting. Just as Cézanne influence is present in Ginsberg’s Howl, it can also be seen in the work of the artists who made up New York’s Avant-garde during the 1950’s and ‘60’s.

Art, Stars and Stripes

Childe Hassam, The Fourth of July 


Henri Cartier Bresson, Independence Day on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, 1947

Robert Mapplethorpe, American Flag, 1977


Helmut Lang 1998 ad campaign


Jasper Johns


Andy Warhol


Litography by Robert Rauschenberg


Martin Luther King, Jr. photographed by Steve Schapiro


Pictures by Robert Frank


Still from Mr. Freedom (William Klein, 1969)


Photo by Gordon Parks


Poster designed by Seymour Chwast


Photo credit: Art Kane


Liu Bolin


America’s Declaration of Independence from Britain on the 4th July, 1776, resulted in the birth of a new national flag in 1777. The first Flag Act, passed by the Continental Congress, resolved that the flag of the United States be made of thirteen alternate red and white stripes and thirteen white stars on a blue field, in order to represent America’s thirteen states and the country’s democratic Government. The colours red, white, and blue, though clearly derived from British sources, are open to interpretation. George Washington declared: “We take the stars from heaven, the red from our mother country, separating it by white stripes, thus showing that we have separated from her, and the white stripes shall go down to posterity representing liberty.” A book published in 1777 by the House of Representatives stated that “the star is a symbol of the heavens and the divine goal to which man has aspired from time immemorial; the stripe is symbolic of the rays of light emanating from the sun.” Although the first Flag Act specifies no particular symbolism to the flag, white is a colour believed to signify purity and innocence; red, hardiness and valour; and blue, vigilance, perseverance, and justice. The first stirring of the flag’s power was documented at the battle of Fort McHenry in 1814. In a poem that would later become the American national anthem, about the banner that survived British bombardment, the poet Francis Scott Key wrote: “…broad stripes and bright stars, thro’ the perilous fight… Oh, say, does that Star-Spangled Banner yet wave… and the Star-Spangled Banner in triumph shall wave.”

Whip the Gift

“When God hands you a gift, he also hands you a whip; and the whip is intended for self-flagellation solely.”
Truman Capote


Pedro Almodóvar quoted Capote on a scene of his awarded movie All About My Mother (1999). Photo: Bruce Weber for Vogue Paris, December 2010


Marcello Mastroianni in  (Federico Fellini, 1963)


Erotica music video (Fabien Baron, 1992)


Human Nature music video (Jean-Baptiste Mondino, 1995)



Madonna in a Steve Klein’s photo-shoot for a W Magazine issue. June 2006


Model Gail Cook and Andy Warhol. Photo: Francesco Scavullo.


Halston and his collaborators. Photo: Jean-Paul Goude. Esquire magazine. August, 1975.


Woody Allen’s portrait by Steve Shapiro


Betty Page


Drew Barrymore and Ellen Page, who was the leading actress of Whip It (2009), directed by Barrymore