“With an apple I will astonish Paris” – Paul Cezanne
A hundred years ago the Tate rejected an offer of a painting by Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) on the grounds that it was “too modern”. Fast forward a century, and here is an opportunity to explore the breadth of Cezanne’s career at Tate Modern in what is billed as a “once-in-a-generation exhibition”. A massive eleven-room show displays oils, water colours and drawings (including 20 works never see in the UK before) by Cezanne. His importance as a figure in modern painting is now undisputed. He has gone down in the history books as an artist who paved the way and gave permission to generations of artists who followed to break the rules.
The exhibition begins with the artist himself, an early self-portrait (1875), juxtaposed against a much later still life, The Basket of Apples (1893), his most famous portrait of apples. Thereafter, the first half of the exhibition is chronological and looks at Cezanne's time in Paris. From Room 6 (the room of bathers), the rooms are curated in thematic groupings which explore the key subjects associated with Cezanne's later career. This slightly odd-sounding curation of two halves, successfully allows the curators to tell a story that gives social context and history while also exploring Cezanne’s technique and novel use of materials.
Early on we learn how critical his relationships with Pissarro and Zola (both politically outspoken) were for the young artist from Aix-en-Provence who made his way to Paris. More surprising (at least for those of us who equate Cezanne with timeless landscapes and still lives) is his own engagement with social issues and political turbulence of the time. Take Scipio (1866-8) as one example (one of the many paintings bought be Claude Monet a leader of the impressionist movement). Here the sitter is thought to be a formerly enslaved person from the States and it is believed that Cezanne and his friends were aware of this and involved in slavery debates.
Cezanne never stopped experimenting and we think the show will be especially interesting for children who are artists themselves. He elevated the status of the still life, sometimes quite subversively. Look, for example, at Still Life with Plaster Cupid (1894) lent by the The Courtauld Gallery. In this painting there’s an apple which refuses to roll down a slope and what is a study of fruit and veg in an artist’s studio is turned into an optical puzzle where you see a fragment at at time rather than the whole room. Room 6 dedicated to Cezanne’s bathers is full of extraordinary paintings. These paintings were composed by taking a very modern approach in that Cezanne appropriated other imagery rather than sketching from life models.
There is lots of focus on his technique, from “ballsy” thick paint to lighter-coloured paint and watercolour. For the first time in the UK, a selection of Cezanne’s original painting materials (his palette and watercolour tins) are on display. Do take your turn to leaf through the scanned sketch book (Room 5) which is yet another way to see Cezanne’s ideas evolving. The sketch book also contains some touching drawings by his young son Paul who he clearly let draw in it. The portraits of his family and touches like this make this show feel very personal.
The last room focuses on the last six years of Cezanne's life. Diagnosed with diabetes, what is striking is that he is pushing incredible creativity against mortality. Still experimenting, he explores the same subjects again and again using different media. Interestingly, it is the first time in his life (in his last four years) that he has a professional studio to work in. It was in this studio that many younger artists visited him which is why we know so much about these years at the beginning of the new century.
Anyone who visits this exhibition (and anyone interested in Art should) will agree that Cezanne was a radical revolutionary of his day. What is also writ large is the influence he had on a whole generation of artists who came after him. Younger artists owned his pictures and openly painted in homage to him. Matisse based works on Cezanne’s bather compositions and learnt about colour from his still lives, while Cezanne’s landscapes in L’Estaque are a precursor to the Cubist canvases of Picasso and Braques. The tender, rather melancholic portrait of the artist’s son (1881-2) so obviously prefigures Picasso’s blue period that it makes complete sense that Picasso referred to Cezanne as “the father of us all”.
It turns out Cezanne didn’t just astonish Paris with his apple, he astonished the whole world.
PS The spelling of Cezanne without the acute accent that one often sees on the first 'e' is deliberate on our part, as its omission is deliberate on the explanatory labels at the Tate exhibition. Look closely at his signature on his paintings and you will spot that he never signed his name with the accent included!
The EY Exhibition Cezanne
Until 12 March 2023
Tickets Adults £22, Child £5
Anya Waddington, 5 October 2022