LONDON — Cézanne at the Tate Modern is the most comprehensive show of works by the artist to be displayed in London within living memory. Its impressive range of loans suggests that the budget has not been unduly squeezed by the financially parlous circumstances of the present moment. Its documentation is broad and to the point — we see sketches by Clive Bell, which fed into that critic’s pioneering study of the artist. It enters territory that has been too little attended to in the past — the nature of Cézanne’s response to the political turbulence of his day, for example. It also shows us evidence of the humdrum, everyday facts of his art-making: his palette, for example (the one created especially in order to accommodate his thumb), and several of his heroically battered tins of paint, all ranged in a row.

Like David Hockney a little later, Cézanne felt that he had to rise to the challenge of one question above all things else: What exactly is it to be a modern artist? His response was multifold because he was insatiably curious, but his greatest achievement revolved around the status of a genre called still life painting, which Cézanne, at a stroke (or two or three), raised from “pretty despicable” to “very important indeed.” Cézanne gave nobility, authority, and an almost mystical presence to the humble fact of apples strewn across a tabletop. 

He mixed and matched his own colors with such subtlety and an almost preternatural verve that — as an awestruck young Austrian poet called Rainer Maria Rilke reported on one occasion — he managed to conjure into being no fewer than 16 different varieties of blue! The props were relatively few, and could be combined and re-combined almost ad infinitum. In the end, it all entirely depended upon the subtlety — or capacity for nuance — of the seeing eye, and his unstinting devotion to the task. 

One room is given over fully to the various paintings that emerged from the same few props — principally, apples jiggling around on a tabletop — and set in conjunction with an out-fling of fabric of a rather startling, yes, blue. What visual riches he conjured!

What was he not so good at? Depicting the human figure was not his greatest strength — how we wince to see him doing his best to get the oval of a human face right! — and no amount of canny critical persuasion from the pens of so many can convince us that his many, many paintings devoted to bathers are his greatest successes. And yet there is something exhilarating about this relative failure, this existence of solid proof that there was something the great Cézanne, regarded by so many, from Jasper Johns to Matisse to Picasso, as the painter’s painter, could not do all that well. The fact that for all his lifelong, monkish dedication to the cause of painting, he has his downside, too. 

This marvelous fact gives us all hope, irrespective of whether or not we happen to be lavish brush wielders ourselves.

Paul Cézanne, “The François Zola Dam (Mountains in Provence)” (1877–78) (Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum of Wales)
Paul Cézanne, “Bathers” (1874–75) (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Joan Whitney Payson, 1975)
Paul Cézanne, “Château Noir”(1900–1904) (National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer, 1958)
Paul Cézanne, “Portrait of the Artist’s Son” (1881–82) (Paris, Musée de l’Orangerie, Jean Walter and Paul Guillaume Collection)
Paul Cézanne, “The Basket of Apples” (c. 1893) (The Art Institute of Chicago, Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection)
Paul Cézanne, “Sous-Bois” (1894) (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Wallis Foundation Fund in memory of Hal B. Wallis)

Cézanne continues at Tate Modern (Bankside, London, England) through March 12. The exhibition was organized by Tate Modern and the Art Institute of Chicago and curated by Tate Modern curator Natalia Sidlina and assistant curator Michael Raymond and Art Institute of Chicago curators Gloria Groom and Caitlin Haskell.

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