Why Sixteen?But then—as a a chronic art history pedant—I toss a rather literal-minded question of my own back at her. Why sixteen shades of blue? Why not, say, sixteen hundred? Or infinite shades of blue? When he described Cézanne’s palette, Emile Bernard mentioned just three basic blues: cobalt, ultramarine, and Prussian. All of the other blues in Cézanne’s oil paintings derive from these. So where does Amos’s number come from? The singer explained her lyric in a conversation with The Irish Times. She describes looking at Cézanne’s The Black Clock:
Rhythms and music started happening in my head,” she nods. “Then I began reading that Rilke would say that he [Cézanne] would paint in at least 16 shades of blue at times” (my italics).In a song about time and aging, Amos's allusions to The Black Clock--a clock without hands--are especially apt and layered: "If the clocks are black / absorbing everything but / a remembering / how we made it that / clocks are black." But to return from black to blue: What is this Rilke reference Amos mentions in her interview?
The Rilke ConnectionIn 1907, the year after Cézanne’s death, Rilke had been in Paris, where he saw the Cézannes included in the Salon d’Automne. He described his responses to these in a famous series of letters to his wife, Clara, and after Rilke’s death these letters were collected in his Briefe über Cézanne (1952). I’d read the English translation of this book, so assumed that this is where I’d previously come across the vaguely familiar sounding phrase “sixteen shades of blue.” I’d been meaning to reread Rilke’s thoughts on the artist and now had an excuse to do so. There are, it turns out, plenty of mentions of blue in Rilke’s letters, but nowhere does he explicitly link the colour to the number sixteen. In her interview, Amos's language implies that she had been somebody writing about Rilke, rather than Rilke himself ("I began reading that Rilke would say...."). And, sure enough, a little googling took me to Alex Danchev’s recent biography of Cézanne. “According to Rilke,” Danchev writes, “Cézanne used at least sixteen shades of blue” (364). He lists them:
Some of them are familiar (sky blue, sea blue, blue-green), but for the most part these were no ordinary blues. Among his blues: a barely blue, a waxy blue, a listening blue, a blue dove-gray, a wet dark blue, a juicy blue, a light cloudy blue, a thunderstorm blue, a bourgeois cotton blue, a densely quilted blue, an ancient Egyptian shadow-blue, a self-contained blue, and a completely supportless blue.This is beautiful, heady stuff. Many of these phrases refer either to Cézanne’s art in general or to specific paintings. Thus Rilke uses “thunderstorm blue” in his description of The Black Clock: “Its inward carmine bulging out into brightness provokes the wall behind it to a kind of thunderstorm blue, which is then repeated, more deeply and spaciously, by the adjoining gold-framed mantelpiece mirror” (88). But there’s a problem with Danchev’s list: though all Rilke’s blues appear in his Briefe über Cézanne, not all of them refer to Cézanne’s paintings. His “completely supportless blue,” “barely blue,” “blue dove-gray,” and “Egyptian shadow-blue” can all be found in descriptions of Paris; and while his “waxy blue” refers to “Pompeiian wall paintings,” his “wet dark” and “self-contained” blues describe not Cézanne’s colour but Van Gogh’s. Upon closer inspection, Danchev’s sixteen items should be just nine or so. He, along with other writers, has perhaps taken his theme from Heinrich Wiegand Petzet, whose foreword to Briefe über Cézanne compiles all these references to blue in a paragraph. Petzet sees them as evidence of the poet’s “tenacious struggle for the utmost precision” (xix-xx). They are not, surely, just different shades of blue (as though each refers to a specific pigment or mixture of pigments) so much as different and imaginative ways of describing the experience of the colour (or colours) in artworks and elsewhere.