March 29, 2021
Dear Mr. Cezanne,
Some months back, I received a kind invitation on your behalf: would I take a look at your Three Skulls (Trois Crânes)—the watercolor’d one—to note some thoughts and then, prospectively, to further shape my “seeing” for intended publication? My “yes” confirmed: it would be an honor and a privilege.
Accordingly, I have carried the “pictured” image and its given title—back-of-mind, front-of-mind—brave allies to my waking consciousness, yet rattled by the force of facts and of convergences that haunt us: pandemic illness, death, and other forms of loss—a year of seasons from that first, invited moment.
I’ve been fortunate to see Trois Crânes twice over and with expert guidance, in the calibrated light of the Art Institute’s conservation lab.
This study has now taken such an inward turn that I am moved to address my account to you directly: to send these few abbreviated notes and queries, as if reporting back—or forward, to the yet-unknown.
What follows is surely incomplete, as you well understand: how pictures wait, impatient for another view? But this I know and must confirm: your solemn trio illuminates a shared and challenged present-tense, yet also signals, prescient: that silent pact we each must make with our own life, that will have been.
Yours and truly,
JF / Chicago
from a viewing and a second look
Freed from its frame
a palpable weight.
I offer to assist:
we lift the work with cautious care
—Three Skulls now steadied—
inclining at the table-easel.
It seems a faint-tint wash prepared
the sheet from edge to edge
with fleeting graphite clues:
retains a luminescent glow—
proof enough to name the color:
Although unsettled, settled-in:
a furrowed-brow betrays the
centered elder—wisdom wedged
between the younger pair.
at left—advancing, fearless
! the carmine droplets
at right—accepting fate ?
or numb to it.
snugged-up—as if a selfie
wincing, over-run by angled light.
incisors sunken, caught
in scalloped-bone-edged mutterance
[ dismayed by absent tongues
and mandibles gone missing ]
in tablescape’d embrace:
a sympathetic garden.
Occurs to me
to test the title-words another way:
the three of skulls…
to face the image as if dealt—
or having drawn—the card, in turn.
Now, as noted in proximity:
see where the brush-point arcs those
lines shared by skull and air—
or air and wall —or skull when edged
with verdant tapestry.
Each searched-for, flourished mark:
an agitated wavering
deliberate or hesitant
disclosed by unforgiving paper.
Each absent place an eye should be
the spectrum of its circumstance:
thin’d red with blue
against a yellow’d pool
the other five make what they will
from annotated variants:
sparks or faded notes of green
indigos with cobalt-bits
blotched-pinks from red
ochre’d-mauves and violets.
Each absent nose inhales
Each brush-marked gap
invokes a dome we cannot see:
where thought and recollection
March 29, 2021
selected works by julia fish
Julia Fish’s essay on Cezanne’s Three Skulls first appeared in print in the catalogue for the exhibition Cezanne, along with essays by fellow artists Etel Adnan, Ellen Gallagher, and Kerry James Marshall, among others; art historical entries; and contributions from Art Institute conservators. Learn more about this publication.
Outside Voices articles feature creative thinkers and makers from Chicago’s rich cultural community engaging with artwork in the collection.