How Cézanne Saw a World in an Apple

Just as poet William Blake asks us “To see a world in a grain of sand” in his poem “Auguries of Innocence,” painter Paul Cézanne asks us to see the world in an apple in the many still lifes that span his long career. In The World Is an Apple: The Still Lifes of Paul Cézanne currently at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, PA, we’re invited to enter into the world of “the painter of apples” and come away with new eyes that see what Cézanne called the “ambient penetration” of all things, that living quality of even inanimate objects best captured in the still life, or as the French would say, “Nature morte,” literally and paradoxically “dead life.” Using one of the oldest of genres, Cézanne set the rules for the modern art that followed him while forging a naïve, simplistic persona the real philosopher in paint hid behind. After viewing The World Is an Apple, you’ll come away with a new appreciation not only of Cézanne the painter, but also of Cézanne the visionary who saw the whole world in even the simplest apple and wants you to, too.


Cézanne worked slowly. His deliberation during painting became legendary. Human subjects suffered long hours before his easel. The suffering of Madame Cézanne in portraits of her is almost laughably palpable. For practical reasons, inanimate objects—apples, pottery, skulls, mountains—provided much better subjects. As Dr. Benedict Leca, curator of the exhibition and Director of Curatorial Affairs at the Art Gallery of Hamilton, writes in the introduction to the show’s catalog, “Cézanne believed in the inner life of everyday objects ‘which disperse themselves naturally in and around each other through intimate reflections, just as us through our gazes and words.’” Things talk to each other, Cézanne believed, and he wanted to capture that conversation in his painting, especially in still lifes.

For example, in Still Life with Fruit and Glass of Wine (Nature morte avec fruits et verre de vin) (painted 1877-1879; shown above), the rounded lip of the glass as well as the bulbous shapes of the pottery in the rear “talk” to the plumpness of the fruit. Although the fruit glows brightly yellow and orange, the touches of green converse with the green touches of the otherwise white pitcher, bowl, and plate. Meanwhile the warmer colors of the fruit make them pop out of the picture as the cooler grays and browns of the table recede in the background, creating the illusion of movement. In a fascinating catalog discussion of the neurological, psychological, and even philosophical connections of Cézanne’s use of color, Paul Smith explains how this “modulation” of color “can (among other things) make the substantiality of objects visible.” Elsewhere, Leca calls Cézanne’s use of color a “sort of imagined transubstantiation” reflecting the artist’s “peculiar animist worldview in which people, the natural environment, and both living and inanimate things were seen by him as interconnected agents operating against the fabric of his life.” Like the Eucharistic transubstantiation of Cézanne’s Roman Catholicism in which bread and wine become body and blood, in Cézanne’s still lifes apples and vases become the people and places he loved. When Cézanne penciled a self-portrait beside an apple, you can see how he saw a similarity between even his own bulging, brainy forehead and the fruit.

As Adam and Eve discovered, the apple was the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Cézanne turned the apple and its central role in his still lifes into his own delivery system of knowledge, specifically that knowledge about himself and his goals he cultivated for public consumption. Leca stresses Cézanne’s self-fashioning via still life throughout his catalog essay. “Comprised of chosen objects of personal significance pre-arranged and in turn deliberately painted,” Leca explains, “still lifes provided [Cézanne] multiple stages through which to construct a constellation of meanings around himself.” Still lifes become collections of “artifacts of the self” for Cézanne, Leca argues, “that could image Cézanne’s remembered past and at the same time narrate the journey of his artistic self-discovery.” A devout student of art and the science of seeing, Cézanne nevertheless cast himself as a naïve artisan in rustic clothing who painted more by natural intuition than by hard-earned intellect. In her catalog essay, Nina Athanassoglou-Kallmeyer points out that all of Cézanne’s still life props “are products of the [artist’s native Aix-en-Provence] region’s artisanal making,” just as “the stark simplicity” of his studio embodied the “artist’s stalwart ethos” in contrast to the lavish studios of his more establishment artist contemporaries in Paris. Similarly, Richard Shiff muses on the moral world of these still lifes in which the subject and the artist’s purity stand out as even Cézanne’s signature marking style took on (perhaps unintentionally) “a moral dimension” in opposition to the authority of the old ways. Young guns such as artist Maurice Denis elevated Cézanne to hero status. Denis’ painting Homage to Cézanne tellingly focuses not on the hero himself but rather on one of his still lifes, the subject of passionate discussion among a flock of admiring artists.

This small exhibition also focuses tightly on the still lifes gathered from various museum collections and private hands. Although small, the show is quite powerful, with the enlightening wall text pointing out the interplay of colors and shapes so that you can crack Cézanne’s code for yourself. You’ll find yourself looking at the paintings, reading the text, looking again for the connections, and then looking even longer to make more connections between the contents of one work as well as between the different works. For example, I’ve seen Cézanne’s The Artist's Father, Reading “L'Événement” countless times, but I’ve never made note of the still life hanging over the artist’s father’s shoulder. Seeing in the show that very same still life, painted in 1866, at the very beginning of Cézanne’s career, I recognize Cézanne’s inclusion of it in the portrait to be just as challenging and self-proclaiming as the placing of the liberal “L'Événement” in his conservative father’s hands. I also spent a long time looking at Cézanne’s late Vase of Flowers, in which he paints a real vase of flowers on a flower-covered carpet before a mirror reflecting the real and fictional flowers—an overabundant flowering of effects leaving you mesmerized not just by the shapes but also by the almost bubbling surface of heavily applied paint threatening to froth out of the frame. After a pair of beautifully rendered skull still lifes in oil—in which the apples of life magically transform into symbols of death before your eyes—the show closes with a heartbreaking watercolor of a skull nestled in flowered drapery, a juxtaposition of ponderous death balanced against the lightness of vegetating life that shouldn’t make sense but in Cézanne’s world beautifully does.

I’ll confess to minor annoyance at having to leave the exhibition room to seek and find through the Barnes Foundation’s permanent collection—arranged in the idiosyncratic manner of its namesake founder—the  16 more Cézanne still lifes that are part of their 69 total works by the master. I quickly kicked myself after happily falling into the “trap” the Barnes had set, either intentionally or unintentionally. Looking at the Cézannes in situ, in their rightful place in the current of art history, it dawned upon me that not only is the world an apple, but the whole world of modern art is a Cézanne. Picasso and Matisse are both credited with calling Cézanne “the father of us all,” but you don’t get the full sense of that patriarchy until you see a Cézanne still life beside a Van Gogh landscape in which the earth crackles with the same undulating energy of a tablecloth in one of Cézanne still lifes. Looking at the luscious flesh of one of the Barnes many Renoir nudes, I imagined the apples finally rolling off Cézanne’s tables and springing into expansive female life. I only wish that The World Is an Apple: The Still Lifes of Paul Cézanne could take the Barnes’ collection along with it on the road to give more people the enlightening experience the Philadelphia combination provides.

“Why do we divide the world?” Cézanne once asked a friend. “There are days when the universe appears to me as one single flow, an aerial river of reflections; of reflections dancing around man’s ideas.” In a discussion with Dr. Leca, he stressed to me Cézanne’s modernity in his nonstop, restless, almost multitasking approach to capturing the truth of what’s before our eyes, however fleeting. After some reflection, I’d add that Cézanne’s strikingly modern also in the sense of his personal “internet” of existence—an almost manic hyperlinking of present and past, inert and active, alive and dead—in which no individual is ever truly alone. After looking at The World Is an Apple: The Still Lifes of Paul Cézanne, you’ll never look at an apple (or a still life, or a Cézanne) in the same way ever again.

[Image: Paul Cézanne, Still Life with Fruit and Glass of Wine (Nature morte avec fruits et verre de vin), 1877-1879, oil on canvas, 10 1/2 x 12 7/8 inches, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1950-134-32.]

[Many thanks to the Barnes Foundation for providing me with the image above from, a copy of the catalog to, and a press pass to view The World Is an Apple: The Still Lifes of Paul Cézanne, which runs through September 22, 2014.]

Trusting your instincts is lazy: Poker pro Liv Boeree on Big Think Edge

International poker champion Liv Boeree teaches decision-making for Big Think Edge.

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Five Hawks Down: watch the tragic migration of six Californian raptors

Tracking project establishes northern Argentina is wintering ground of Swainson's hawks

Image: @TrackingTalons / Ruland Kolen
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  • Watch these six dots move across the map and be moved yourself: this is a story about coming of age, discovery, hardship, death and survival.
  • Each dot is a tag attached to the talon of a Swainson's Hawk. We follow them on their very first migration, from northern California all the way down to Argentina.
  • After one year, only one is still alive.

Discovered: destination Argentina

Image: @TrackingTalons

Young Swainson's hawks were found to migrate to northern Argentina

The Buteo swainsoni is a slim, graceful hawk that nests from the Great Plains all the way to northern California.

It feeds mainly on insects, but will also prey on rodents, snakes and birds when raising their young. These learn to fly about 45 days after hatching but may remain with their parents until fall migration, building up flying skills and fat reserves.

A common sight in summer over the Prairies and the West, Swainson's hawks disappear every autumn. While it was assumed they migrated south, it was long unclear precisely where they went.

A group of researchers that has been studying raptors in northern California for over 40 years has now established exactly where young Swainson's hawks go in winter. The story of their odyssey, summarised in a 30-second clip (scroll down), is both amazing and shocking.

Harnessing the hawks

Image: @TrackingTalons, found here on imgur.

A Swainson's hawk, with tracking device.

The team harnessed six Swainson's hawks in July, as they were six weeks old and just learning to fly. The clip covers 14 months, until next August – so basically, the first year of flight.

Each harness contains a solar-powered tracker and weighs 20 grams, which represents just 3% of the bird's body weight. To minimise the burden, only females were harnessed: as with most raptors, Swainson's hawk females generally are bigger than males.

The first shock occurs just one month (or about 2.4 seconds) from the start of the clip: the first dot disappears. The first casualty. A fledgling no more than two months old, who never made it further than 20 miles from its nest.

By that time, the remaining five are well on their way, clustering around the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas. Swainson's hawks usually travel at around 40 mph (65 km/h) but can almost double that speed when they're stooping (i.e. dive down, especially when attacking prey).

'Migration unrest'

There's a strong genetic component to migration. As usual, the Germans have nice single word to summarise this complex concept: Zugunruhe ('tsook-n-roowa'), literally: 'migration unrest' (1). It denotes the seasonal urge of migratory animals – especially birds – to get on their way. Zugunruhe exhibits especially as restless behaviour around nightfall. The number of nights on which it occurs is apparently higher if the distance to be travelled is longer.

The birds may have the urge to go south, but genetics doesn't tell them the exact route. They have to find that out by trial and error. Hence the circling about by the specimens in this clip: they're getting a sense of where to find food and which direction to go. Their migratory paths will be refined by experience – if they're lucky enough to survive that long.

Each bird flies solo: their paths often strongly diverge, and if they seem to meet up occasionally, that's just an illusion: even when the dots are close together, they can still be dozens if not hundreds of miles apart.

Panama snack stop

Image: @TrackingTalons

The Central American isthmus is a major bird migration corridor

They generally follow the same route as it is the path of least resistance: follow mountain ranges, stay over land. Like most raptors, Swainson's hawks migration paths are land-based: not just so they can roost at night, but mainly to benefit from the thermals and updrafts to keep them aloft. That reduces the need to flap wings, and thus their energy spend – even though the trip will take longer that way.

As this clip demonstrates, the land-migration imperative means the Central American isthmus is a hotspot for bird migration. Indeed, Panama and Costa Rica are favourite destinations for bird watchers, when the season's right. A bit to the north, Veracruz in Mexico is another bird migration hotspot.

It's thought most hawks don't eat at all on migration. This clip shows an exception to that rule: on the way back, one bird takes an extended stopover of a couple of weeks in Panama, probably spending its time there foraging for food.

So, when they finally arrive in northern Argentina, after 6 to 8 weeks' migration, the hawks are pretty famished. Until a few decades ago, they fed on locusts. For their own reasons, local farmers have been getting rid of those. The hawks now concentrate on grasshoppers, and basically anything else that's edible.

For first-time visitors, finding what they need is not easy. Three of the five dots go dark. These birds probably died from starvation. But two birds thrive: they roam the region until winter rears its head in South America, and it's time to head back north again, where summer is getting under way.

Both dots make it back across the border, but unfortunately, right at the end of the clip, one of the surviving two birds expires.

Harsh, but not unusual

Image: @TrackingTalons, found here on imgur.

This old lady is 27 years old, but still nesting.

While a one-in-six survival rate may seem alarmingly harsh, it's not that unusual. First-year mortality for Swainson's Hawks is between 50% and 80%. Disease, starvation, predators and power lines – to name just a few common causes of death - take out a big number.

Only 10% to 15% of the young 'uns make it past their third or fourth year into adulthood, but from then on, annual survival rates are much better: around 90%. Adult Swainson's Hawks can expect to live into their low teens. There's one documented example of a female Swainson's Hawk in the wild who was at least 27 years old (and still nesting!)

The Californian population of Swainson's Hawks plummeted by about 90% at the end of last century but is now again increasing well. The monitoring project that produced this clip has been going for about four decades but is seeing its funding dry up. Check them out and consider supporting them (see details below).

Image: Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies

Migration trajectory of B95, the 'Moonbird'.

Not all migrating birds shun the ocean. Here's an incredible map of an incredible migration path that's even longer than that of the Swainson's hawks.

In February 1995, a red knot (Calidris canutus rufa) in Tierra del Fuego (southern Argentina) was banded with the tag B95. That particular bird, likely born in 1993, was recaptured at least three times and resighted as recently as May 2014, in the Canadian Arctic.

B95 is more commonly known as 'Moonbird', because the length of its annual migration (app. 20,000 miles; 32,000 km) combined with its extreme longevity (if still alive, it's 25-26 years old now) means its total lifetime flight exceeds the distance from the Earth to the Moon.

As many other shorebirds do, the red knot takes the Atlantic Flyway hugging the coastline and crossing to South America via the ocean.

B95 has become the poster bird of conservationists in both North and South America. A book titled Moonbird: A Year on the Wind with the Great Survivor B95 (2012) received numerous awards, B95 has a statue in Mispillion Harbor on Delaware Bay and the City of Rio Grande on Tierra del Fuego has proclaimed B95 its natural ambassador.

Perhaps one day the nameless Swainson's Hawks in this clip, fallen in service of their ancestral instincts – against the odds of human increasing interference – will receive a similar honour.

Migration clip found here at the DataIsBeautiful subreddit. Read through the comments to learn a lot more about Swainson's Hawks, and raptors in general.

Check out the California raptor tracking programme 'Tracking Talons' on Twitter at @TrackingTalons, on their Facebook page, and on their website.

Strange Maps #965

Got a strange map? Let me know at strangemaps@gmail.com.

(1) 'Zug' is a wonderfully polyvalent German word. It can mean: a train, a chess move, a characteristic, a stroke, a draft (of a plan), a gulp (of air), a drag (from a cigarette), a swig (from a bottle), and more.

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