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Mont Sainte-Victoire


When does the representation of a place become more important to the place's definition than the place itself?

The images that Cézanne made of Mont Sainte-Victoire have more to do with the meaning of the mountain than does the mountain. And with these images comes a range of moods -- about the South of France, about wine, about cypresses, about eating bread and olives, and about making art -- that becomes more about the region than the region itself.

And once the image becomes the most definitive source of meaning about the place, then what is the purpose of the place except to push back against or to verify the meaning of the image?

Going to Mont Sainte-Victoire, one could not have a relationship that is innocent of the paintings -- even if one had never seen the paintings. The region's prominence, its desirability as a cultural site and destination for tourists, has been facilitated (at least in part) by the existence of these images. So even if one had never seen the paintings, one is already part of the plot. One is already existing in a structure where images structure the value of experience.

But at what specific point is this relationship between the actual and the representational reached? How many images of a place need to exist before the representation surpasses the actuality? Maybe it's better to ask: how famous does a certain set of images need to be before the representation takes precedence?

The reason for asking these questions in the first place is to restore historical perspective to the notion that virtual life's chokehold on reality is a recent phenomenon -- one of social media and the internet. These kinds of reminders are -- themselves -- so common, that it feels preposterous in a certain way that we should have to keep reminding ourselves that these are ancient arguments.

It also distracts us from another important question about the genre of the representations. What does it meant that Cézanne is a modernist, depicting a pastoral scene? It's one thing to say that a place lives in the shadows of its representations. It's another more specific thing to say that the place is represented in a modernist pictorial language.

What will it mean when the dominant way that certain places are represented becomes Instagram? What does it mean for a place to be specifically "made for Instagram?" Because the real Mont Sainte-Victoire doesn't look that spectacular (I saw it and didn't even know it was Mont Sainte-Victoire until the driver of the car I was in told me). There actually aren't so many pictures of the mountain on Instagram. It will fall into visual memory. The only pictures from it are of people exercising or dressed for weddings. The mountain, the protagonist in Cézanne's work, the moody and brooding granite rock, is reduced to backdrop. The place suggested by Cézanne's paintings -- the one that we think of when we think of Mont Sainte-Victoire -- captures relatively little attention. It is obscure, a state park in a well-trafficked place in France. Something by the highway, that's all.