We don’t hear quite as much about Paul Cézanne these days as we once did. Yes, the great French Post-Impressionist is still a mega-name. But the once automatic assumption that Cézanne was the most incisive and influential figure in that great Impressionist and Post-Impressionist generation that turned art around in the last years of the 19th century – an artist who exerted a hold over the development of modern art beyond even that of Monet or van Gogh – has rather been lost sight of.
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Still, the prospect of seeing 50 of Cézanne’s portraits (over a quarter of the total) in one place – in what is, unbelievably, the first exhibition of such works since 1907 – must get the neck hairs prickling of anyone even slightly interested in art. Cézanne is perhaps most famous for his paintings of the craggy mass of Mont St Victoire near his home in Provence, works that have become synonymous with the obsessive pursuit of the essence of a single subject. His portraits, if slightly less well known, are no less single-minded, focusing unsparingly on a small number of sitters: his wife, whom he painted 29 times, various relatives, friends and servants and, not least, himself.
The son of a banker, Cézanne trained initially as a lawyer, before becoming a pupil of the great Impressionist Camille Pissarro, though a substantial inheritance allowed him to go his own way, indifferent to external opinion, from relatively early in his career. His early paintings tend to be seen as a gauche prelude to his mature style, as Cézanne lards on his pigments with a palette knife, with a heavy emphasis on black, in a style he called “couillarde” (literally, “ballsy”). If a portrait of his friend Antony Valbrègue, 1866, looks at a glance like a slightly cranky, amateurish response to the elder statesman of Impressionism Edouard Manet, a series of portraits of his uncle Dominique, all painted 1866-67 feel extraordinarily modern in the way they appear to consciously develop as a single work.
In a second portrait of Valbrègue (1869-70), we see Cézanne’s signature approach to painting evolving, in which he set out to make of Impressionism “something more solid and durable”. The typical Impressionist “patches” of colour are here used to denote not the effects of light, but the accents of form around the sitter’s cheeks and forehead – an approach to painting that’s become so pervasive it’s difficult to image how radical it must have seemed at the time. Far from appearing rigid and mechanical as it might sound, Cézanne’s slippery application of the lustrous blacks, greys and flesh-tones keeps the surface fluid and vital.
In a self-portrait of 1875, the highlights around Cézanne’s burning eyes, his unkempt hair and thick beard feel alive with a furious energy, while the positioning of the figure on the canvas gives it a heroic force worthy of the Old Masters. At this point, Cézanne still clung to the traditional notion of the portrait as an amalgam of physical appearance and inner personality. It was when he abandoned the latter interest, looking at the human face and body as a purely physical, monumental structure that his art – and indeed the exhibition – begins to take off to another level.
The impact of three large portraits of Cézanne’s wife Hortense in a red dress, all painted in close succession around 1888-90, is quite stunning. The rendering of the dress on the central painting is clearly unfinished – Cézanne, apparently, felt he had said what he wanted and simply stopped painting – but the form of the figure is so palpably present it’s as if the folds of Hortense’s garments are being carved out of the picture space before our eyes. Yet having succeeded in his aim of giving Impressionism a greater solidity, he then set about breaking down the traditional distinction between subject and background, so that the figure in the painting and the surrounding curtains and picture frames all seem to sit equally close to the surface of the painting interacting in a way that looks directly forward to the breakthroughs of Cubism and Futurism, 20 years later.
Cézanne refines Hortense’s long, oval-shaped head into an ever more simplified sculptural form, strongly bringing to mind Picasso’s cubist portraits, which are generally seen as inspired by African sculpture, though the influence was clearly much closer to home. If these portrayals are hardly “attractive” in the conventional sense, and Cézanne has been accused of “cruelty” in his painting of his wife, with whom he had a difficult relationship, he would no doubt have painted her in exactly the same way had the pair been in the first flush of romance, such was his obsession with pure form and shape.
In contrast, two rather quiet and patient studies, again of Madame Cézanne, this time in blue, remind us of Cézanne’s role, not only as the starting point for the most radical artistic developments of the 20th century, but as the progenitor of whole schools of dogged observational painting, typified by the nit-picking, quasi-mathematical realism of British painters such as William Coldstream and Euan Uglow.
But this is a show that must be seen not only for the way it highlights Cézanne’s colossal influence, but for the sheer power of the paintings. If Cézanne claimed to paint bodies, rather than souls, the soul would, he conceded “shine and blaze through… if the body is well painted”. The people here are brought before us with immense force: the blue-bodiced figure in Woman with a Cafetiere has the sense of scale and presence of a mountain, while psychology seems to reassert itself in the anxious sideways glance of A Man with Crossed Arms.
Exhibitions of French painting often disappoint because our institutions don’t seem to have the clout to get the really critical works – last year’s Picasso Portraits, also at the NPG, was a case in point. However, this show, which originated at the Musée d’Orsay and will be moving on to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, has enough stone masterpieces to tell a really powerful story about Cézanne’s portrait-painting. Not only does it put Cézanne back in historical pride of place as the father of modern art, it gives us the most dynamic, penetrating and plain brilliant painting we’ll see this year – which still looks not just fresh, but radical nearly a century and a half after it was created. Show of the year? I do believe so.