A Sense of Place: Merleau-Ponty and Cézanne in Le Tholonet

William D. Adams

“Vision is the meeting, as at a crossroads, of all the aspects of Being.”

The French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty spent the summer of 1960 — his last — in the French village of Le Tholonet, about 10 kilometers east of Aix-en-Provence. Over the course of that summer, he wrote Eye and Mind, the dense and beautiful meditation on painting and vision. It was the final work published during his lifetime.

Le Tholonet is lost in time. Approaching from the west, the congested streets of Aix give way to a narrow two-lane road that hugs the bottom of the ridge along the southwestern flank of Mont Sainte-Victoire. Stone walls, secluded drives, and stately homes appear briefly through the cover of pines and hedges. If one stops in exactly the right place, Chateau Noir, where Paul Cézanne made extraordinary pictures in the final decade of his life, is partly visible high above the road.

Closer to the village center, fields brilliant with flowers emerge along the southern side of the road. To the north, the first steep incline of Mont Sainte-Victoire comes into view, with rocky faces and forms that Cézanne observed so closely in his late paintings.

At Le Tholonet’s center is the intersection of La Route de Cézanne and the Allée Louis Philibert. Built in 1470, the Chateau of Le Tholonet sits on the northern side, with ruins of the ancient dam and aqueduct that supplied water to the Roman military encampment at Aix behind and slightly above it. A few meters to the east is a shady park with a small stream, picnic tables, and a parking lot. On weekends the park is full of families on picnic and men playing pétanque. During the hot summer afternoons typical of this part of Provence, the village is breathlessly still, save for the roar of cicadas in the giant plane trees.

In the summer of 1960, Merleau-Ponty stayed at La Bertrane, a house belonging to the French painter Francis Tailleux. It sits on a small hill along the Allée Louis Philibert, within easy walking distance of the village center. A few hundred meters to the south, the AutoRoute — La Provenςale — interrupts briefly the serenity of the village. Several hundred yards further on is the Arc River, where Cézanne and Émile Zola fished and swam as boys. Many years later, near the end of his life, Cézanne traveled by carriage from Aix to the Arc to escape the summer heat and sketch the bathers who gathered there.

Apart from the AutoRoute, a relatively recent and jarring addition to the landscape, much of Le Tholonet looks today as it must have in 1960 when Merleau-Ponty arrived. And the place he knew was not vastly different from that which Cézanne studied so carefully, clambering up the edges of Mont Sainte-Victoire to paint the mountain and its fierce approaches, or exploring the woods and cliffs above Chateau Noir.

It makes perfect sense that Merleau-Ponty wrote Eye and Mind in Le Tholonet. The essay is a philosophical meditation on vision and painting. But it also is a meditation on place, in the deeply saturated sense that encompasses the landscape, its natural and human history, and the history of the painter who brought this part of Provence to universal visibility in his art. Le Tholonet is the terroir of Eye and Mind, the site and soil of this final, extraordinary expression of Merleau-Ponty’s thinking.

For Cézanne, there would have been no great painting, perhaps no painting at all, without the landscape of Provence. Cézanne has come to represent many things in art history — harbinger of modernism, proto-cubist, terminator of classical styles and preoccupations. But he was first and foremost a painter of several hundred hectares of rugged, sun-drenched earth in and around Aix. Le Tholonet was the physical and emotional epicenter of this terrain, the ultimate proving ground of Cézanne’s relentless quest to reveal the truth of landscape in paintings.

The gravitational pull of the village began early in Cézanne’s life. His letters from the late 1850s contain lyrical references to his hikes on Mont Sainte-Victoire and to fishing and swimming with his boyhood friends Baptistin Baille and Émile Zola — “Les Inseparables,” as they called themselves. In a letter to Zola in the spring of 1858, Cézanne summons these memories in verse:

“Farewell, my dear Émile

No, on the flowing stream

I no longer slip as gaily

as in times gone by

when with agile arms

like reptiles

we swam together

across the calm waters.

Farewell, fine days,

seasoned with wine!

Lucky fishing

For prodigious fish!”

“Do you remember the pine that stood on the bank of the Arc, lowering its head over the leafy chasm that opened at its feet? That pine that protected our bodies with its foliage from the heat of the sun? May the gods preserve it from the fatal blow of the woodcutters’ axe!”

Later in life, Zola offered his own recollection of these happy days:

“On holidays, on days when we could steal away from studying, we escaped on wild rambles across the countryside; we needed fresh air, full sun, lost paths at the bottom of gullies, which we claimed as conquerors. Oh! The endless strolls across the hills, the long rests in the green hideaways, close to a little stream, the walk back through the thick dust of the main tracks, which crunched under our feet like fresh snow…. In summer, all our meetings were on the river bank, for we had a passion for water; and we would spend all afternoon paddling about, living there, coming out only to lie naked on the fine sand, warmed by the sun.”

Cézanne’s early exploration of the areas in and around Le Tholonet shaped his eye, as art historians might say, or his sensations, as he would say, in ways that became enormously significant in his painting. It’s easy to see why. The landscape is extraordinarily powerful, a concentrated and arresting fusion of light and color and rugged limestone and sandstone forms. Cool winters and dry, broiling summers produce the crusty biome la garrigue that covers the exposed and southern facing slopes, a ravishing but fragile covering of kermes oak, lavender, thyme, cistus, and rosemary. In more favorable locations, Stone pines and Aleppo pines provide cover from the fierce sunlight. And there is the mountain itself, a massive limestone slab formed over millions of years, then thrust sharply upward on its southern axis by the collision of tectonic plates. It’s a natural setting seemingly designed to produce the most intense sensations of light and color, smell and touch; at once harsh and delicate, severe and soft.

Summer in the village makes one think often and longingly of water, scarce and highly prized at any time of year in Provence but especially so in July and August, when the temperatures soar. On such days, it’s not hard to imagine why the Arc and the small stream, La Cause, which flows through the center of Le Tholonet, beckoned Cézanne.

In the early 1890s, after years of moving back and forth between Provence and areas in and around Paris, Cézanne began spending more and more time in Aix and environs, rediscovering his most important and reliable sources of inspiration. Around the middle of that decade, he launched what his biographer Alex Danchev describes as “the greatest period of late painting since Rembrandt.” He spent much of that time painting in Le Tholonet.

The first object of his attention in this furious spurt of creativity was the ancient quarry at Bibémus, a kilometer or so northwest of the village center. Quarrying began there in Roman times and continued until 1885, roughly 10 years before Cézanne started painting at the site. The relative isolation and solitude of Bibémus were undoubtedly attractive to him, as were the stunning rock formations, products of ancient geological forces and more recent centuries of excavation and cutting. But it was especially the colors in the quarry — complicated shades of ochre in the rock and the greens of the quarry’s trees and shrubs — that prompted his most intense sensations. Beginning around 1895, Cezanne painted steadily at Bibémus, renting a small cabanon in the middle of the motif to store his paints and canvasses. Over the next few years, he produced a dozen or so exceptionally beautiful pictures of the quarry’s rocks and trees, each pushing further the limits of his interest and capacity in color and form. Within the large array of Cézanne’s great landscapes, the pictures from Bibémus are among the most beautiful and completely realized.

Cézanne turned next to the Chateau Noir. He probably knew the place from his childhood ramblings, but he would have encountered it almost daily coming and going from Aix and climbing to Bibémus. He made fewer paintings at the site, but they are compelling. The best and most recognizable were painted from the chateau’s eastern side, looking generally west toward the mountain and the Plateau du Cengle. He also painted along the steep slopes above the chateau, where rocky outcroppings are abundant. And, of course, the Stone and Aleppo pines are ever-present in the landscapes from this motif and time.

Looming over both the Chateau Noir and Bibémus is the emotional bullseye of Cézanne’s visual universe in Provence: Mont Sainte-Victoire. Cézanne knew the mountain intimately from his childhood ramblings with Zola and, much later, from his painting excursions. He also knew it in a different way through the work of his friend Antoine-Fortuné Marion, a naturalist born in Aix and an expert in the geomorphology of the mountain. Marion was among the first to document the history of Neolithic humans on Mont Saint-Victoire, inhabitants of the numerous caves in the mountain’s massive limestone core.

Cézanne painted the mountain from many vantage points across his life, including the very late and much-celebrated series produced on the hillside above Les Lauves, his studio on the northern outskirts of Aix. But the pictures he made in and above Le Tholonet are the most arresting. The mountain has a dominating, mesmerizing profile just above the village, and Cézanne studied and rendered its shapes and influence from several locations — along La Route de Cézanne, from Bibémus and the Chateau Noir, and from the scrappy ledges on the mountain’s southwestern flank — Les Infernets. Each view and rendering are different, but they share in common a certain reverence and intense personal feeling.

Cézanne’s late afternoon visits to the Arc, and the studio work that followed, account for some of his greatest late paintings. As the letters to Zola make clear, his preoccupation with bathers and bathing began early in his life. One of his most important early paintings, Bathers at Rest, was made in 1876 along the banks of the Arc, with Mont Sainte-Victoire prominently in the background. But the subject of bathers and bathing reached extraordinary pitch and power in several major canvases from the last decade of his life. The paintings have a whirling, dreamy, erotic lyricism, as well as lines and forms that strongly influenced the next generation of painters — especially Matisse, Braque, and Picasso. More than any other motif in this late period, the Arc demonstrates the nearly mythical powers and dimensions of place, connecting past to present and geography to emotion in revelatory ways. As he paints the bathers, Cézanne is pulling simultaneously from his reservoir of childhood memories of landscape and friendship and from his visits to the Arc in the torrid summers of the final decade of his life.

While Cézanne was producing the body of work focused on Le Tholonet, he also was beginning to write and speak more openly about what he was up to as a painter. In a letter to his friend Joachim Gasquet from Le Tholonet in 1897, he wrote: “Art is a harmony parallel to nature — what can those imbeciles be thinking who say that the artist always falls short of nature?” Cezanne had several subsequent conversations with Gasquet and with painters Émile Bernard and Maurice Denis about nature as the principal preoccupation of his art. “The real prodigious study to undertake is the diversity of the scene offered by nature,” he wrote to Bernard in 1903. And again, to the painter Charles Camoin in the same year: “Everything, art above all, is theory developed and applied through contact with nature.” In a 1906 letter to his son Paul, he wrote: “Only oil painting keeps me going. So I must realize after nature. Sketches, canvasses if I were to do any, would only be constructions after (nature), based on methods, and sensations, and developments suggested by the model. But I am always saying the same thing.”

In some ways, he was saying the same thing. But “nature” is a protean term for Cézanne, bearing multiple and subtly different shades of meaning. Sometimes he employs the term to distinguish his interests and method from the established conventions of painting that he encountered as a young man. From early on, Cézanne struggled to get away from the studio and its contrived subjects. Turning to nature, in this sense, meant being out in the world and engaged with the elements of earth, air, and water.

It’s clear from the late letters and recorded conversations that nature had additional, more complex meanings for Cézanne, as relevant to bowls of fruit and folded fabric as plein air motifs. The key to that broader meaning lay in what he called his “sensations,” his direct, unmediated experience of whatever piece of the world happened to be in front of him. In its broader meaning, nature signified this vast and largely taken-for-granted domain of everyday visual encounters with ordinary things — the landscape, the domestic artifacts table and chair, bowl and pitcher, flower vase and curtains, and the people who inhabit this mundane but endlessly various and interesting world. Cézanne sought to render these encounters as they were given to him, in the realm of his immediate experience, without adornment or preconceptions about what the world should look like in a painting.

For a brief period, Cézanne turned for this purpose to impressionism, in the mode of his mentor Camille Pissarro. But the “realization of nature” according to “sensations” ultimately led him to something more complex — transcending mere impressions of the visible world in order “to approach nature directly,” as he said to archaeologist Jules Borély in 1902. “Approaching nature directly” required a carefully studied yet naïve form of vision. “Oh, how I would like to be able to see like a newborn child,” he confided to Borély. “Today, our sight is overworked, abused by the memory of a thousand images. And the museums, the paintings in the museums! We no longer see nature. We just remember paintings. To see the work of God; that is what I try to do.”

For Cézanne, seeing the world in this way did not imply a divine point of view or the supposition of a truth lying outside experience. The only way to apprehend nature is through experience, through encounters with the visible world. But in rendering the world by way of sensations, the artist is not simply copying what he sees. “To paint from nature is not to copy it,” Cézanne said to Bernard during one of his visits to Aix; “it is to represent its sensations. Within the painter, there are two things: the eye and the brain. They must serve each other. The artist must work at developing them mutually; the eye for the vision of nature and the brain for the logic of organized sensations, which provides the means of expression.”

And so painting from nature is ultimately an exchange. Gasquet reports that Cézanne tapped his own forehead and said, “Nature is in here…. The landscape is reflected, becomes human, and becomes conscious in me. I objectify it, project it, fix it on my canvas.” The painter’s ambition is to “penetrate the scene that lies before him” by grasping the intertwining of nature and sensations, the exchange between the outside and what lies within.

Merleau-Ponty likely had several reasons for spending the summer of 1960 in Le Tholonet, but Cézanne’s history there must have been somewhere near the top of the list. In the opening section of his preface to Eye and Mind, Merleau-Ponty’s close friend and colleague Claude Lefort notes the salience of place. “Staying for two or three months in the countryside of Provence, in Le Tholonet, not far from Aix,” he writes, “…and tasting the pleasures of this place that seems made for habitation, but above all savoring each day the landscape that carries forever the imprint of the eye of Cézanne, Merleau-Ponty re-interrogates vision and at the same time painting.”

Lefort’s choice of words is apt. Le Tholonet remains an extraordinarily livable place more than 50 years after Merleau-Ponty’s visit. But more important to the sense of place is Lefort’s observation that the landscape “carries forever the imprint of the eye of Cézanne.” He does not say that Le Tholonet reminds one of Cézanne. He says it has been imprinted, marked, inscribed by Cézanne’s eye. The artist and his work are elemental to the meaning of Le Tholonet.

We can imagine Merleau-Ponty standing at the village center intersection. He could look east toward the café Relais de Cézanne, where the painter sometimes ate lunch or dinner after sessions at Bibémus. To the north is the ridge above the chateau leading to the quarry and Chateau Noir. Beyond that ridge, he would have sensed the heavy presence of the mountain, toward which all of these elements appear to lean. Walking southwest just beyond La Betrane, Merleau-Ponty would have entered the Arc-side hamlet of Palette. Cézanne’s personal history would have infused all of these sites, lending texture and connection.

These various and related senses of place “pile up” as one perceives Le Tholonet; they make it the place that it is. In this sense, place has density and thickness, laid down over time by both natural and cultural forces.

This kind of piling up is what Merleau-Ponty means when he writes about “cultural objects,” “institution,” and “sedimentation” and when he refers to our “primordial historicity” in the opening pages of Eye and Mind. The lived experience of place is not abstract, like a point on a map. Place is space that is both living and lived in, that is “haunted,” as he says, by others who have preceded us and are, all but corporeally, still here with us now.

Of course, Merleau-Ponty’s purpose in going to Le Tholonet was to write about place in a more fundamental sense — the foundational place, the primordial place, the ground and origin of every particular experience of place. He wanted to think and say more about how this primordial sense of place is established in embodiment. And he wanted to describe how painting helps us understand place, how it draws us into the visible world with a new understanding of what it means to see.

The idea that the body, and especially the body’s capacity for vision, lies at the heart of experience was not new to Merleau-Ponty’s writing in Le Tholonet. From beginning to end, embodiment is his core idea, the constant theme and connector of his thought. And yet, his thinking about the body in Eye and Mind is profoundly new, like a reworked painting.

It is new in part because of the urgency of the essay’s opening lines, where Merleau-Ponty worries about the effects of disembodied rationality, of thinking that is cut off from what we know through “our own situations” and the experience of place. More emphatically in Eye and Mind than perhaps anywhere else, Merleau-Ponty calls out the threat of “operational thinking”, which seeks to dissolve the richness of lived experience into “a few abstract indices.” “Scientific thinking,” he writes, “…must return to the ‘there is’ which underlies it; to the site, the soil of the sensible and opened world such as it is in our life and for our body.”

What is “there is”? What is this site, this soil, this bedrock of place? It is the body itself and its original, indissoluble, and active connection to the world, the body “intertwined” with things and with others, the body that uses its senses to be filled by the world. It is the body as “flesh”:

“Visible and mobile, my body is a thing among things; it is one of them. It is caught in the fabric of the world, and its cohesion is that of the thing. But because it moves itself and sees, it holds things in a circle around itself. Things are an annexation or prolongation of itself; they are encrusted in its flesh, they are a part of its full definition; the world is made of the very stuff of the body. These reversals, these antinomies, are different ways of saying that vision is caught or comes to be in things — in that place where something visible undertakes to see, becomes visible to itself and the sight of all things, in that place where there persists, like the original solution within a crystal, the undividedness of sensing and sensed.”

Bodily experience, especially vision, is deeply and inescapably enigmatic. The body is a thing, a piece of the world. And yet the body also senses and sees — it goes out among the things, “it moves itself and sees, it holds things in a circle around itself.” The sensing and seeing body is a marvelous contradiction, both a part of the world and the seeing of the world, in and among things yet able to see them, at once seer and seen (voyant-visible). In vision, body and world exist in continuous exchange, an endless “reversibility” or “overlapping.” “A human body is present when, between the seer and the visible, between touching and touched, between one eye and the other, between hand and hand a kind of crossover occurs, when the spark of the sensing and sensible is lit….”

Eye and Mind wades into this enigma of “crossover” and “reversibility” with philosophical confidence and lyricism unprecedented in Merleau-Ponty’s writing, and this, too, makes it feel new. But words — at least in Eye and Mind — are not sufficient. So philosophy turns to painting. Unlike the philosopher, the painter does not need words to grasp and express the body’s potent enigma. Wordlessly the painter demonstrates the meaning of reversibility. In the act of painting, the painter is reversibility. In his letters and conversations, Cézanne returned repeatedly to the importance of standing before nature and looking. What happens in this looking? The mountain is there, in the distance. Through focus and concentration, it fills the painter’s vision. There is a pause, a rumination. And then the hand moves and begins to paint. The mountain emerges from the movements of the hand and from the paint the hand places on the canvas. A new thing comes into the world. But it is not an ordinary thing. It is made to be seen, destined for the sight of others; it draws vision to it. By looking and moving, the painter creates “a ‘visible’ to the second power, a carnal essence or icon of the first.” Eye, mind, and world all at once: the “delirium of vision” made flesh.

“It is the mountain itself,” he remarks, “which from out there makes itself seen by the painter; it is the mountain itself that he interrogates with his gaze….What exactly does he ask of it? To unveil the means, visible and not otherwise, by which it makes itself mountain before our eyes. Light, lighting, shadows, reflections, color, all of these objects of his quest are not altogether real objects; like ghosts, they have only visual existence…. The painter’s gaze asks them what they do to suddenly cause something to be and to be this thing, what they do to compose this talisman of a world, to make us see the visible…. The interrogation of painting… looks toward this secret and feverish generation of things in our body.”

The interrogation of painting takes place without words, but painters have sometimes used words to describe the sensation of reversibility, overlapping, intertwining. Merleau-Ponty places Cézanne’s confession to Gasquet at the beginning of Eye and Mind as a clue to what is coming: “What I am trying to translate to you is more mysterious; it is entwined in the very roots of being, in the impalpable source of sensations.” Later, he deploys a more direct observation from Paul Klee: “In a forest, I have felt many times over that it was not I who looked at the forest. Some days I felt that the trees were looking at me, were speaking to me… I was there, listening…. I think the painter must be penetrated by the universe and not want to penetrate it…. I expect to be inwardly submerged, buried. Perhaps I paint to break out.” Penetrated and penetrating, created and creating, the painter’s craft is a constant coming and going, a restless transference, an endless mingling of the seer and the seen. Chiasm.

Eye and Mind also tacks back and forth between the revelations of philosophy and those of painting, between the painter’s “mute thinking” and the philosopher’s reflective eloquence. But within this movement, there is a shared starting point. Merleau-Ponty cites Valery’s observation that “(t)he painter takes his body with him.” So, too, does the philosopher. Cézanne’s body, the actual body with which he paints, is always situated in some place — in the quarry, at the chateau, on the ledges beneath the mountain, in the hills above Aix. So too, Merleau-Ponty’s thinking is not produced by a mind floating free. Thinking is embodied and occurs somewhere — at the desk, in the house, beside the pool, in the village, on the mountain. Thinking can transport itself from place to place, and it operates in the imaginary. But place and a sense of place are always there, grounding thinking and what is thought. He writes:

“When through the water’s thickness I see the tiled bottom of the pool, I do not see it despite the water and the reflections, I see it through them and because of them. If there were no distortions, no ripples of sunlight, if it were without that flesh that I saw the geometry of the tiles, then I would cease to see it as it is and where it is — that is to say beyond any identical, specific place. I cannot say that the water itself — the aqueous, syrupy, and shimmering element — is in space; all this is not somewhere else either, but it is not in the pool. It inhabits it, is materialized there, yet it is not contained there; and if I lift my eyes toward the screen of cypresses where the web of reflections plays, I must recognize that the water visits it as well, or at least sends out to it its active, living essence. This inner animation, this radiation of the visible, is what the painter seeks beneath the words depth, space, and color.”

The reference here to an actual place in the world that Merleau-Ponty was inhabiting — La Bertrane — is telling, as is the indirect reference to Cézanne and his late oil paintings and watercolors, in which the interplay of open spaces and planes of color is so pronounced. What Cézanne achieved in those works was precisely the “inner animation” and “radiation of the visible” that Merleau-Ponty sees in the pool at La Bertrane.

“The Portrait of Vallier, he notes, “sets white spaces between the colors which take on the function of giving shape to, and setting off, a being more general than yellow-being or green-being or blue-being. Similarly, in the watercolors of Cezanne’s last years, space… radiates around planes that cannot be assigned to any space at all; ‘a superimposing of transparent surfaces,’ ‘a flowing movement of planes of color which overlap, advance, and retreat.”

Merleau-Ponty invokes several painters in Eye and Mind in addition to Cézanne — Paul Klee, Alberto Giacometti, Vincent Van Gogh, and Max Ernst among others. But like a recurring theme that unifies a complex piece of music, Cézanne is the persistent thread, the painter whose work speaks most directly and eloquently to the meaning and truth of painting and vision.

And so the ontological place — the “intertwining”, “reversibility,” and the “flesh”, the fundamental experience of the world given to us in embodied vision — is not different from the places of our everyday lives. They are one place, rendered in oils and watercolors by Cézanne and in the language of philosophy by Merleau-Ponty. And they are lived by both in the place called Le Tholonet.

The Gallimard edition of Merleau-Ponty’s complete works includes a photograph of the philosopher taken on the summit of Mont Sainte-Victoire in the summer of 1960. He is looking south over the valley of the Arc toward the Massif de L’Étoile and the Pilon du Roi, motifs of Cézanne’s in the 1880s. He’s dressed for the summer inferno — shirtless, in shorts and espadrilles.

Thousands of visitors climb to the summit of Mont Sainte-Victoire each summer and linger where Merleau-Ponty did for that photograph. Some come strictly for the exercise or the view, but some make the climb as a gesture in Cézanne’s direction. Seven hundred meters below, buses from Aix roll into the Bibémus quarry, transporting tourists who want to see where the painter worked. They come in large numbers and from every part of the world. They come because they’ve been touched by Cézanne’s painting and by the story of his life. It’s both a moving tribute to someone largely misunderstood and rebuffed during his life and another demonstration of the meaning, depth, and allure of place.

The tourists, the hikers, the admirers of Cézanne are now a part of Le Tholonet and its meaning. For a smaller but equally devoted number, that meaning is deepened by their knowledge of the philosopher who stayed for a few months in the village, thinking and writing about painting and vision.

Merleau-Ponty — thinker of body, vision, and place — would certainly understand.

This essay first appeared in the journal Chiasmi International №21, 2019.

William Adams lives and writes in Portland, Maine. He served in the Obama administration as Chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities from 2014–2017.

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