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by Walter Robinson
Je suis un primitif -- Paul Cézanne

The uncanny transformation of Paul Cézanne (1849-1906) from hayseed to metrosexual, so to speak, is aptly proven by "Cézanne in Provence" at the National Gallery of Art, Jan. 29-May 7, 2006. Mounted on the occasion of the centenary of the artist’s death, the show includes 86 paintings, 29 watercolors and two lithographs in eight jam-packed galleries. The overall impression is breathtaking -- Cézanne’s embrace of rusticity produced pictures that now seem unsurpassed classics of 20th-century modernism. 

Organized by NGA curator Philip Conisbee and Denis Coutagne, director of the Musée Granet in Aix-en-Provence, the survey features an impressive lineup of loans (including several from Russian museums), no doubt thanks to the prestige of the anniversary, and the show’s subsequent appearance in Cézanne’s hometown museum. The NGA, for its part, owns 22 paintings by the artist and 88 works on paper.

The show seems compact, with one sweet spot after another. One wall features four views of Mont Ste-Victoire side-by-side; another gallery presents a stunning portrait of Mme Cézanne flanked by two still-lifes, along with three portraits of workers from the family estate and a pair of small paintings of card players. The final two galleries come to a crescendo with a doorway, flanked by three small paintings of bathers and a pair of paintings of Cézanne’s son at the beach, that opens to a view of a wall containing the NGA’s own Large Bathers.

To a contemporary eye, little can be found of the artist’s famous struggle. During his 20s, throughout the 1860s, Cézanne bounced back and forth between Paris and his hometown, taking art courses and making clumsy, expressionistic figurative works that were rejected by the salon juries and widely derided by critics and the public. The show contains only two works that hint at Cézanne’s tumultuous early period, notably a small (ca. 6 x 7 in.) watercolor from 1870 titled The Murder. (This period was the subject of "Cezanne: The Early Years 1859-1872," an exhibition organized for the Royal Academy of Arts in London by Lawrence Gowing in 1988.)

Cézanne’s mature style developed only after 1872, when he painted side-by-side at Pontoise with Camille Pissarro (and Paul Gauguin, as it happened). By then Cézanne had found his common-law wife, Hortense Fiquet, and become a father of a son, also named Paul -- bizarrely, he hid them from his own overbearing father, Louis-Auguste Cézanne, who died in 1886.

For the next quarter-century, Cézanne embraced the part of recluse (despite regular visits to Paris and elsewhere, often with his family), developing his unique version of Impressionism. We note now, with some irony, that as he became primarily a landscape painter, he gained for himself the role of father of modernism. About the source of his epiphany, the exhibition necessarily remains mute. (In fairness, it can be noted that an exhibition that might have illuminated this central mystery, "Pioneering Modern Painting: Cezanne and Pissarro 1865-1885" at the Museum of Modern Art last summer, became instead a competition between the two artists to determine who was "better.")

Plenty of context is available at the NGA, to be sure. In the museum library is "A Scholar in Cézanne’s Provence: The John Rewald Collections," Jan. 29-May 7, 2006, the first public exhibition of art historical material assembled by Cézanne expert John Rewald (1912-95) and purchased by the gallery in 1986. Among the items are many photographs of the elderly artist, as well as photos of views that Cézanne painted. Several photos show the aged artist sitting in his studio, his three-piece suit covered with dabs and smears of paint -- foretelling the New York Times Sunday Magazine’s notorious cover image of a bare-footed Jean-Michel Basquiat in similar circumstances in 1985.

For computer jockeys, "Cézanne in Provence" has an extensive web feature that includes a survey of the motifs, a chronology, maps of Aix and the nearby sites of Cézanne’s painting practice (Bellevue, Les Lauves, Château Noir, Bibémus quarry and the family country estate, the Jas de Bouffan farm) along with an extensive selection of images from the show. These last include a "zoomify" feature that allows viewers to enlarge details of the paintings and black-and-white photographs.

The press event even included a special Provençal cooking demonstration presented by a trio of French chefs from Le Mas du Soleil in Salon-de-Provence and the Relais Ste. Victoire in Aix-en-Provence. I missed the Provençal mini-ratatouille topped with Daurade fillet with pesto sauce. But I can recommend the strawberries in the pan with flower honey from Provence -- rinse and quarter lengthwise the most fragrant strawberries you can find, simmer some honey in a pan with 10 Szechwan pepper corns, add the strawberries and turn a few times before serving with a scoop of lime sorbet, drizzled with olive oil and decorated with fresh mint leaves!

Also on hand for the press event was Philippe Cézanne, great-grandson of the artist. An expert and scholar of Post-Impressionism, Philippe was trailed around the exhibition by a camera crew, and photographed posing next to one of his great-grandfather’s self-portraits. He said that he has two sons, so the Cézanne name continues, for the time being.

Best of all is the context provided by the NGA itself in its neo-classical west wing, a complex of about 80 galleries that are pleasantly quiet on a weekday afternoon. Every picture seems larger than life, and most are out-and-out masterpieces. Organized by its own logic, the NGA collection provides a commentary on Cézanne that is pleasantly disjunctive. One hundred years before the Impressionist era, for instance, Edward Savage painted the impressively historical, nine-foot-wide The Washington Family (1789-96), the only group portrait painted from life of the first U.S. president, his wife Martha and their two children. There would be no politicians for our Paul, certainly not, only humble workers, the only people whom he dared ask to pose, or his long-suffering wife.

Nearby is another large picture, the oil sketch for John Constable’s The White Horse, the first of the "six-foot-wide" paintings that the artist -- overlooked like Cézanne during most of his career -- hoped would draw favorable attention from the Royal Academy. With its fresh colors and brushy surface -- the work was recently cleaned, and is to be included in the new exhibition, "Constable: The Great Landscapes," premiering at the Tate in June 2006 -- Constable’s oil sketch is far enough distant from the academy’s representational imperative to provide an echo to Cézanne’s Post-Impressionist landscapes in the galleries elsewhere in the building.

The world of the salon, which Cézanne and his peers both coveted and spurned, is invoked by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot’s seemingly vast (69 x 96 in.) Forest of Fontainebleu (1834), which also takes the measure of Arcadia as a theme in 19th-century French painting. Corot supported the Independents, while exhibiting in the Salons. As the NGA conveniently informs visitors, via plastic guides in the gallery, Corot inserted into his wild landscape a reclining figure of a woman with a book -- easily identifiable to French viewers of the time as Mary Magdalene by her long hair, revealing bodice and redeeming reading material -- in hopes of adding a bit of religious narrative, and thus gaining prestige in the official Salon hierarchy.

Downstairs, on the way to the NGA skating rink (a good place to get a late lunch), are a few small galleries currently containing a show of etchings from the NGA collection by Félix Buhot (1847-98), a printmaking innovator (he used coffee and tea to tone the paper, as Ed Ruscha would do a century later) whose investigations of Monmartre nightlife preceded those of Toulouse-Lautrec. One of the prints, titled The Place of the Martyrs and the Jailhouse Tavern (1885), is a lively view of a popular club dressed up as a jail, with guests "sentenced" to their tables and waiters garbed as prisoners or guards. This is the sort of "modern life" that provided subjects for Manet, Degas and so many of Cézanne’s peers -- the very urban future that our Provençal barbarian turned away from, with such strangely revolutionary effect.

WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.