Aug 21 2012
As a child I always loved the tales in which the characters escaped into paintings, portals to a new world. I have a vivid memory of the scene in the BBC’s production of C.S. Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader where two school children are sucked up from their humdrum school day into a framed piece of artwork to land in the middle of a strange world where the creatures are fantastical and the colors are new. Up until last month, I considered this phenomenon to only exist in the world of myth. That was before I traveled into one of Cezanne’s paintings.
My husband and I were visiting his cousin in the south of France, when our hosts decided to give us a tour of Aix en Provence, where they had previously lived for 20 years. We eagerly followed them through the narrow streets lined with walls the color of creamed corn with pigeon-blue shuttered windows. We watched the cobblestones for the markers that showed our path to be Cezanne’s. Eventually we ended up at an exhibition where we viewed some of Cezanne’s early works, the painter’s palette, along with a book of Emile Zola’s, inscribed to his childhood friend, Cezanne. All of these artifacts were thrilling, but the real treasure had greeted us along the horizon as we approached the town by highway, a presence I felt looming beyond the city streets: Mount St. Victoire, the subject of several of Cezanne’s most stunning landscapes.
On our way out of Aix en Provence, we drove la Route Cezanne, the route which Cezanne used to stroll, pausing to capture the fields, trees, and occasional houses on canvas. As we careened around the narrow roads, closer and closer to the base of Mt. St. Victoire, I rolled down the window and stared. Golden fields stretched before me, bordered by dark green Cypress trees. Occasionally a small cream stucco house would appear with a red-orange tiled roof. I recognized it all with something of the thrill of reunion and the sudden realization: We were inside one of Cezanne’s paintings. The colors were unmistakable: we had arrived, entered a world where life and art blurred into brilliant shades of color and sudden dashes of light.
I understood then, why Nichole Robertson in her new book, Paris in Color, decided to capture the city she loves in the brilliant shades distinct to that place. Robertson arranged her photos of the simple daily life of the city by color: pinks, whites, blues, greens; causing us to see Paris in a new light, through the lens of color. Virginie Raguenaud has also discovered the joy of traveling by color in her new guide to French and Spanish Catalonia, Colors of Catalonia. This book explores how the landscape and people of Catalonia shaped the artists who passed through that place, including Matisse, Picasso, Dali, and Chagall.
In his essay “My Monet Moment,” published in Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere, as well as anthologized in The Best American Travel Writing 2011, André Aciman writes about a pilgrimage he made to the site of a Monet painting he had previously only experienced in a wall calendar. “Stepping out of Monet’s tiny room,” Aciman writes of the experience, “I am convinced more than ever that I have found what I came looking for. Not just the house or the town or the shoreline but Monet’s eyes to the world, Monet’s hold on the world, Monet’s gift to the world.”
To encounter an original painting that you have only seen as a reproduction hanging in your dentist’s office or pixelated on the screen can be a breathtaking experience in itself; the texture of the brush strokes and vibrant colors make what was an interesting image into something new, on which you can reflect, something alive that begs for a more participatory interaction. To travel to the very landscapes out of which the artist’s inspiration sprung is a whole other experience, the kind of travel that allows you to walk the very lines between the painter’s brush and the canvas, between the real world and the re-created.