Gardanne

Paul Cézanne, Gardanne (vue horizontale), 1885.

IT’S SUNDAY AND I’M HEADING TO THE MARKET IN GARDANNE. It’s a cold, gray, wet morning — brumeux. I arrive at about 8:00, just as the market is beginning to open, and park the car at the head of Boulevard Carnot, directly across the street from the massive Alteo aluminum factory. I’m struck by the extraordinary colors of the factory’s buildings, deep oranges and reds and ochres, caused, I presume, by the bauxite processed in the aluminum-making process. Even on this Sunday, the factory is noisy and clearly in motion, emitting a steady hum and the sound of stones tumbling in a giant mixer.

I turn right on the Blvd Carnot and head toward the Cours Fourbin and the market. The Cours is lined with three and four-story 17th and 18th-century buildings, with commercial properties at street level and apartments above. Large plane trees provide greenery and cover. The street is a busy, lively, commercial zone, filling now with people. Cafes, bars, hair salons, boulangeries, patisseries, épiceries, boucheries, opticiens, clothing stores, banks, tabacs, real estate offices. Healthy and vibrant, but so different from the chic commercial spaces of nearby Aix. Scrappy and a bit rough, a working-class city through and through.

The market is coming to life. The Cours Fourbin permits four full aisles of vendors, extending hundreds of yards down the street. There is an impressive variety of clothing, belts, shoes, tableware, and cookware. Fresh food of every sort, and prepared food as well. I stop to watch a couple making couscous, and the aroma from the bubbling pot of lamb and vegetables suddenly makes me hungry. At the very end of the market, I find a used bookseller. His stock includes a box of Sartre’s novels, a box of works by Zola, and boxes of 19th and 20th-century French literature. I buy a volume of Zola’s letters and Pagnol’s Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources. We talk for a bit about books and markets. He laments the changes caused by the explosion of digital commerce, especially for booksellers in markets like Gardanne’s.

The apartment that Cézanne and his partner, Hortense, rented in 1885–86 is squarely in the middle of the Cours, on the east side of the street. On the first floor above the entrance is a sign with a brief notice of the family’s stay. Reproductions of portraits of Madame Cézanne, their son, Paul, and a self-portrait of the artist are mounted on the small balcony of the apartment. There is also a reproduction of an interior that was painted in Gardanne. Below the apartment is an abandoned butcher’s shop and the “Coiffure by Fred mixte” hair salon. On the street, people go about their market business, indifferent to the site and to the painter’s legacy in the city.

Two doors down from the apartment is the local headquarters of the French Communist Party. On its information board, I learn that Gardanne’s mayor, Roger Mei, a communist, has been in office since 1977. Considering Gardanne’s working-class identity and history, I guess it’s not so surprising that the communists have been in charge for that long. Elsewhere in France, the Communist Party has been in retreat for decades. But here in Gardanne, it has prevailed. The mayor’s open office hours are posted on the door. Perhaps I will go.

I make my way up and down the rest of the market’s aisles and then return to the couscous vendors. I order the lamb and vegetables and ask if I can eat on site. After a moment of surprised reflection, the couple agrees and finds me a folding chair and a place to sit near the kitchen. The broth is hot and heavily spiced with harissa, and it warms me. Occasionally, the woman looks over at me with a huge smile. I learn that the couple lives in Marseille and comes to the market every Sunday. Passers-by stop to comment admiringly on my meal. “Ça réchauffe!”, one of them offers. I suggest to the couple that they bring more tables and chairs and open a restaurant next to the kitchen. They laugh.

After couscous, I go to the Bar Select, one of several on the Cours. It’s packed. I stand at the crowded counter and order espresso. Groups of middle-aged men stand nearby drinking shots of espresso and pastis. Through the pieces of dense conversation, I hear strong accents. Not Provençale, with its heavy endings. Something else. Gardanne is a city of immigrants, brought in by the coal mines and aluminum factory. Italian, mostly, but also Polish, Tchec, Armenian, North African.

The bar, the camaraderie, the market, the shops, the street scene — all convey a strong sense of community in Gardanne. Was it so in 1885, I wonder, before the industrialization that followed Cézanne’s visit?

After the bar, I walk to the top of the old city, and then north toward the Castrum on Chemin des Trois Moulins. There is a lovely, small park at the very top of the hill, from which one can see the entire city. It is strangely quiet and empty on this Sunday. On the way down, looking south toward Marseille, I am struck by how close and prominent are La Chaine de L’Etoile and the Pilon du Roi, motifs of Cézanne’s in this period. From here, he must have looked at them many times, an integral part of his everyday visual and painterly universe in Gardanne.

I pause at the Place Cézanne and the spire of the old church which forms the epicenter of his most famous images of the city. The view of the aluminum factory is overwhelming from this vantage point, a vast field of rust-red and orange steel in every possible form: smoking and steaming towers and stacks; arching conveyors; massive pipes and tanks; enormous stairways connecting the various planes and levels. The factory has a terrible, poisonous beauty, conveyed in a riot of colors and tangled forms and weird expressions of depth. The colors remind me of those in the Bibémus quarry in Le Tholonet. Some part of Cézanne would have been horrified by Alteo, but I am certain that he would have wanted to paint it, too.

I make my way back down to the Cours Fourbin and head toward the Colline des Frères, where Cézanne made his most famous images of the town. On the way, I pass along the western flank of the aluminum factory. I’m struck by the colors on the smooth surfaces of two rows of giant storage tanks — amazing ochres, reds, oranges, tans, and browns and patches of very dark gray, washed with a white stain. It looks as if Alteo’s management had hired Mark Rothko to decorate the factory's exterior surfaces.

I pass by the Office de Tourisme, a pleasant, brightly lit space with shelves and walls adorned with locally made products. Two young women — interns perhaps — staff the reception desk. I explain that I am a writer looking for material on the history of Gardanne and the visits of Paul Cézanne. One of the young women alerts the office manager, who is ready and eager to help. After learning about my interests, she gives me two pamphlets produced by the city: “2000 ans de Gardanne,” and “Gardanne: le seul village peint par Cézanne,” which documents his stay and painting in 1885–86. She tells me that I can find further information on the city’s history at the Médiatèque de Gardanne, the public library. I ask about tours of the aluminum factory and the coal mines. She notes that tours of the factory occur once each month and that the next would take place in December. She also tells me that tours of the mines will be scheduled during the high tourist season. I thank her and her young colleagues and collect more pamphlets as I leave.

On the way to the Mediatique, I pass by the Maison du Peuple, the city’s community center and performance venue. It’s a solid, contemporary building, currently featuring the center’s programming for children. I walk on toward the Médiatèque, partly for future reference, partly to see more of the city. It’s closed this Sunday morning, but I note that its formal name is Médiatèque Nelson Mandela. Not surprising, perhaps, in a city that has had a communist mayor for 40 years.

I climb the Colline des Frères and follow the well-marked path to the site of Cézanne’s most famous images of Gardanne. It’s my first visit in four years. Little has changed, including the dilapidated state of the various markers and the representations of the paintings that Cézanne made here. They are barely legible now, victims of the harsh weather, inattention, and graffiti artists. I sit on one of the two benches, surrounded by litter, looking straight across at the steeple of the old church that forms the center of Cézanne’s paintings.

On this morning, and I expect on most mornings, at least at this time of year, the site is completely empty and eerily quiet. I hear the hum of traffic on the street below, the grinding and tumbling sounds of the aluminum factory nearby, and the chatter of birds, but still the space is surprisingly serene. The visual spectacle is striking — the brick red roofs of the old city, wonderful forms of every kind and size. Like the aluminum factory, a remarkable diversity of shapes, which now includes the enormous towers and stacks of the Gardanne electric generation plant, just outside right of Cézanne’s central axis of vision. In the old village, beneath the spire of the church, I can see that the streets are turning gradually left as they climb the hill, presenting the houses at slightly different angles as they march up the street, from straight on to radically oblique. Beyond the church steeple, I can see the old windmills along the street that climbs the Castrum. A bit further on, I see the myriad shapes of the power plant, then, still further out, the steep slopes of the Plateau du Cengle, with its deep red sandstone and clay strata, so oddly like the color of the aluminum factory’s towers and the dust that covers Gardanne. Beyond the Cengle is the massive vertical face of Mont Sainte-Victoire, a shade of the coolest gray today in the pallid October light.

I understand now why the site was a perfect motif for Cézanne, with its complex geometry, the red tile roofs, the green background of the oaks and Pins d ’Alep covering the hillside of the Castrum. There is something timeless about it, too. When I squint, the distinctly contemporary forms of the power plant and the buildings outside the old city merge with the rest. All I can see now are the angular forms and the remarkable colors — the red of the buildings and the yellow-ochre-brown of the changing leaves. And the depth of the spectacle, too, the dramatic layering of the near and the far, within the field of the painting, but beyond it too, all the way to the walls of Mont Sainte-Victoire.

Paul Cézanne, Gardanne (vue verticale), 1885

I suddenly realize that I am hungry again — it’s been four hours since the couscous. I walk back down the hillside to the Rue des Angles and then to the Blvd Carnot, where I run into a long line of customers coming out of a boulangerie. Thinking it a good bet, I get in line. When my turn arrives, I order a ham and cheese sandwich — “le rustique” — with an Orangina (it’s that or Coke), and un éclair au chocolat, all for only € 6.50. The sandwich is the size of a small bus, with freshly baked bread, camembert, and jambon sec. I decide to head back to the motif and eat while sitting on the bench and looking again at the old church.

Sensation was a big word for Cézanne, and for Merleau-Ponty, too. My sensations right now are visual, of course; the colors, even on this gray day; the wild array of forms and shapes in front of me; the experience of depth, so dramatic from this place and perspective. But even as the visual dimension takes the front seat, as it were, I know that my visual sensations are tangled up with what I am hearing and encountering through the openness of my body to the press of the sensible world. I close my eyes and concentrate on the sounds. As I listen, I understand that the soundscape is more complex than I was previously aware. Below me, the cars, trucks, and buses come and go along the Avenue des Angles. Some of their sounds are smooth and steady, others rough and uneven. Through the din, or on top of it, I can hear trucks gearing up and down, or the sudden acceleration of a sports car, or a squeaking tire or fan belt. Dozens — no hundreds — of variations on a theme. Beyond the road I can make out, episodically, the sounds of the factory, chattering and rolling and heaving and groaning in the middle background. Somewhere nearby the staccato beat of a jackhammer adds another layer. At noon a brief blast from the factory horn, followed by the bells of the nearby church. A dog barks. In the near sonic foreground, birds, blasting through the pine trees or just hanging out nearby, singing. All these elements oscillate, rise, fall, merge and disjoin on the moist breeze.

I open my eyes. The visual spectacle is there, in all its startling angularity and color. I wonder what it would look like if I couldn’t hear anything. I put my hands over my ears and try to imagine seeing without hearing. But I can’t really eliminate the soundscape surrounding me. It remains, muted but present. I try to imagine a soundless world that I would also see, but the sounds I hear right now pull me back from this abstraction. The hearing and the seeing in this moment, in Cézanne’s motif in Gardanne, are indissolubly linked; a single, undivided sensorial whole. Entrelacé, as Merleau-Ponty would have it — interlaced.

And there is something else. I’m sitting quietly on the bench, trying to focus on my hearing and vision. But even in this stillness, I feel the hardness of the bench beneath my legs and bottom and against my lower back. My hands are quiet, but I can feel the cool, humid air moving across them and across my face. The chilly dampness on my skin confirms and elaborates the visual spectacle. But not as an afterthought or a second opinion. I know the autumn light, the turning color of the trees, and the gray November sky in the breeze that curls over my hands and my face, on my skin, at the very instant that I know it with my eyes. The spectacle is a whole-body experience — seen, heard, felt — happening all at once.

Merleau-Ponty once described painting as the interrogation of “the secret and feverish generation of things in our body.” I am slowly coming to understand what he meant.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Eye and Mind,” The Primacy of Perception (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964), p. 167.

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.