Andrew Lambirth on the artist’s profound and far-reaching influence
For a certain generation of English artists, there have been enough Cézanne exhibitions to last more than one lifetime. These are the painters who had the gospel of Cézanne rammed down their gullets at art school, and who feel that the world has other things to offer. Roger Fry was the first great apostle of Cézanne in England, who at every opportunity lectured the unwary on the principles of ‘significant form’ and the consciousness-changing gifts of the master. Henry Tonks (who, as head of the Slade, resisted the siren call of modern art as forcefully as he could) caricatured him mercilessly in a 1922 painting called ‘The Unknown God’. Subtitled ‘Roger Fry Preaching the New Faith, Clive Bell Ringing the Bell’, it depicts the wild-eyed lecturer gesticulating madly while his accolyte chants ‘Cezannah, Cezannah’. Fry’s advocacy of Post-Impressionism went in and out of favour, but Cézanne’s theories became a mainstay of post-war art, and the central prop, for instance, of the Euston Road School. The influence was pervasive and it was against Cézanne’s distinctive palette of subtly modulated greens and blues that so many artists reaching maturity in the 1950s and 1960s rebelled.
But for those of us who haven’t suffered a surfeit of Cézanne’s ideas, watered-down and quite probably misrepresented by teachers good, bad and indifferent, any new show of his work is a revelation. I distinctly remember the shiver of excitement I felt in the wonderful Cézanne show at the Tate in 1996. It was quite simply a physical expression of an emotional and spiritual response to being in the presence of great art. I’ve enjoyed the Cézannes I’ve seen since — particularly the show at the National Gallery a couple of years ago. Now the Courtauld, continuing its recent series of excellent monographic exhibitions which have included Derain, Gabriele Munter and Sickert, focuses on its own collection of Cézannes (until 5 October).
The Courtauld has the finest holding of works by Paul Cézanne (1839–1906) in this country, and is currently showing the whole collection together for the first time. Samuel Courtauld bought his Cézannes between 1923 and 1929, which was perspicacious, as the artist was then still very much out of favour. The first work he bought was ‘Still Life with Plaster Cupid’ (c.1894), and he followed this up with purchases of more pictures he really loved, including watercolours such as the magnificent ’Apples, Bottles and Chairback’. In 1978, the Courtauld’s Cézanne holding was further augmented by the Princes Gate Bequest, from the collection of Count Antoine Seilern, which brought ‘Turning Road’ (c.1904), a large late landscape, radical in its approaching abstraction, to join the others. The pencil portrait of Hortense Fiquet (whom Cézanne married in 1886) and the two graphite and watercolour studies ‘Armchair‘ and ‘Statue under Trees’ were also part of the gift. Together with a couple of later acquisitions and a painting on long loan, this makes up the 20 glowing exhibits in this display.
In the middle of the exhibition room is a flat display case containing Cézanne’s nine letters to Emile Bernard, stressing the importance of study from nature. However architectural or abstract Cézanne became, he was always scrupulous in insisting on the centrality of working from the motif. His celebrated unwillingness or inability to paint from memory was perhaps in part due to his realisation that to make great paintings he had to subdue his romantic, almost baroque, imagination. And one way of doing this was by scrutinising and recording the visual facts of a subject. It was perhaps easier to do this at first with still-life, for the simple reason that the objects keep relatively still. As a consequence, landscape doesn’t really feature in the mature Cézanne’s work until the 1870s.
There is one painting in the Courtauld Collection from the 1870s, ‘The Etang des Soeurs, Osny, near Pontoise’ (c.1875). Here Cézanne has applied the paint with a palette knife (like Courbet) in great diagonals of light and blocks of foliage, setting up rhythmical sweeps of movement across the surface of the picture. It’s an example of Cézanne’s largeness of vision and ability to reduce the visible world to a series of interesting shapes and dynamic flat patterns. Also his ability to simplify — there is foliage but no individual leaves. I happened to be looking at this painting while talking to John Spurling (a regular contributor to these pages) and he pointed out that Bridget Riley must surely have looked at this picture. Her resolutely abstract paintings of slanting stripes and dancing rhythms have much in common with Cézanne’s dynamism. As a pivotal figure between the great tradition of Western painting and Modernism, Cézanne has exerted a more profound and far-reaching influence than those who were bored by bad teaching are sometimes prepared to accept.
‘The Etang’ is hanging next to ‘A Shed’ (c.1880), a beautiful graphite and watercolour drawing, the unique example of this subject in Cézanne’s work. Nearby is a pencil ‘Study of a Tree’ (c.1885–7) which seems to be vibrating in space, as the branches of a tree do in a breeze. We know about the broken touches of paint which indicate the vibration of light, but in this drawing Cézanne does it in pencil. Here too is ‘The Montagne Sainte-Victoire with Large Pine’ (c.1887), a fabulous large oil, with the watercolour of the mountain next to it. The watercolours, delicate and supremely elegant, are however very practical works, intended to record the junction of planes Cézanne considered so important. For it was by breaking up the planes of objects into smaller facets — a kind of prismatic effect — that he was able to render their solidity without the continuous moulding which would distract from the effect of his flat patterns. It was Cézanne’s genius not only to see in depth and pattern at the same time, but to work out a way of reconciling harmoniously these two very different ways of seeing.
One of the things about Cézanne that comes as a shock on each reacquaintance, is the intense sensuality of this artist rather than his much-vaunted passion for order. We have come to assume that Cézanne was actuated by a desire to reduce everything to geometry because of his famous quote about the cylinder, sphere and cone, which is so often used as a justification for cubism. But think of early Cézanne, those orgies based on Delacroix which are full of a violent and scarcely repressed sensuality. What happened to all that energy? It was channelled underground by Cézanne’s formidable willpower, but in later years, his romanticism returned. After a lifetime of turbulence, he had won through to the marvellous lucidity of ‘Turning Road’.
It’s always difficult to get the best wall-colour for an exhibition as varied yet as harmonious as this, and I’m not entirely convinced that the sludgy green here is the right one. It’s too dark to my eye. Yet some of the pictures look very good against it. Old favourites reappear: ‘The Card Players’, ‘Man with a Pipe’ (both of which feature père Alexandre, a gardener on Cézanne’s estate), and the tightly structured ‘Lac d’Annecy’ (1896), a masterpiece of warm and cool colour contrasts. One of the finest pictures here is the late and richly worked watercolour ‘Apples, Bottle and Chairback’ (c.1904–6), resplendent in luscious red-pinks offset with cobalt blue. A real beauty.
Nearby is another watercolour, a lovely bluey cupola-type stru
cture, which actually turns out to be ‘Statue under Trees’, resonant in purple, blue and green. In its spare marks on a largely empty sheet of paper, it neatly illustrates Cézanne’s devotion to architectural composition. The notion is of forms retaining their separate identities yet cohering — horizontals balanced against verticals in a way Poussin would have understood, and which reflects Cézanne’s other famous dictum, that he wanted to ‘re-do Poussin from nature’. For him, painting was not naturalism, but a harmony parallel with nature, a harmony he achieved through a lifetime’s struggle and at much personal cost.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated August 23, 2008