In a letter to his son, written in 1906, Paul Cézanne confessed how difficult and unsatisfactory he found his life’s task: “The réalisation of my sensations is still very laboured. I can’t achieve the intensity that builds in my senses.” By sensations he meant not just feelings but the entirety of his perception, by réalisation he meant not just translating them coherently on to canvas but the sapping struggle it involved. For Cézanne, even just a month before his death, painting was hard.
For most of his contemporaries, so were the paintings themselves – too hard. As Cézanne’s biographer Alex Danchev put it: “The errors were easy to spot; the effects were difficult to fathom.” That is if they saw there was something to fathom in the first place. The writer Jules Renard expressed the general attitude pithily: “One would have to like a lot of rubbish to like this carpenter of colour.” Cézanne’s failures were striking: he never sold a single work outside his circle of friends until he was 35; his first one-man exhibition did not arrive until 1895 when he was 56; and only one of his paintings was ever exhibited at the Salon, the great annual showcase of French art, and that was slipped in by a painter supporter on the selection jury, Jean Baptiste-Antoine Guillemet, who claimed it was the work of one of his own pupils.
Nevertheless, Cézanne’s friends in the impressionist group – of which he was never a member – were in no doubt as to his merits. Pierre-Auguste Renoir thought that Cézanne couldn’t “put two stokes of colour on a canvas without it being already good”; while for Claude Monet he was “the greatest of us all”, and left him feeling “like a pygmy at the foot of a giant”. And they put their money where their admiration was: his great friend Camille Pissarro owned 21 of his paintings; Monet 14 – which his wife would tactfully cover up when his own painting wasn’t going well; while the younger Paul Gauguin had six and used to take one of them to a restaurant, where he would expound on it.
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Later painters were just as enraptured: for Pablo Picasso, Cézanne was “my one and only master. It was the same for all of us – he was like our father.” He owned a Cézanne and so did, among others, Henri Matisse (who turned to him when self-doubting: “‘If Cézanne is right, I am right’ because I knew that Cézanne made no mistake”), Henry Moore and Jasper Johns. His example gave Georges Braque “a taste for risk” and Fernand Léger confirmation that “truth and completeness” could be found in a painting.
And writers raved about him too: his childhood friend Emile Zola (so close that they were known as “The Inseparables”), Gustave Flaubert, Samuel Beckett, Franz Kafka, Ernest Hemingway, DH Lawrence (who called him “the sublime little grimalkin”), Seamus Heaney, Rainer Maria Rilke, even EE Cummings – all found something important and admirable in Cézanne’s pictures and in his determination.
A change in public attitudes towards Cézanne (1839-1906) took root at the first retrospective of his work, at the Grand Palais in Paris in 1907, and, bolstered by his distinguished admirers and acolytes, his pre-eminence has been an article of faith ever since. He is now such a dominant figure, lauded for the influence that can be felt in many strands of 20th-century art, that he demands reflexive obeisance.
Nevertheless, there is such a thing as the Cézanne conundrum, which was laid out in 1907 by the painter Maurice Denis, who noted that: “I have never heard an admirer of Cézanne give me a clear and precise reason for his admiration.” And even one particularly engaged follower, Roger Fry, was defeated: “In the last resort we cannot in the least explain why the smallest product of his hand arouses the impression of being a revelation of the highest importance, or what exactly it is that gives it its grave authority.” The painter can still be a strangely slippery figure, so the major exhibition of his work at Tate Modern, the first for 25 years, is both a wondrous collection of pictures and a chance to get closer to answering the question: what exactly is it about Cézanne?
Whatever it might be, it is not immediately apparent in his early works – from 1861, when he first travelled from his hometown of Aix-en-Provence to join Zola in Paris and become a painter, through to the early 1870s – which show why he was so often called a “barbarian”. In these, mostly figure paintings – portraits, nudes and modern allegories – Cézanne made a claim for his own individuality by refusing to pander to traditional conceptions of harmony, beauty and proportion. He was, perhaps, trying too hard to be radical and many of the paintings are dark in tone and some, such as The Murder (circa 1870), are dark in subject matter too. The noise, politics and fractious nature of the capital emerged in thick paint, sometimes laid on with a palette knife, and images that the exhibition politely labels as “raw” but are in reality crude.
The American critic James Huneker rationalised this uncomfortably brutal aesthetic as the result of Cézanne being an artist who “seizes and expresses actuality. This same actuality is always terrifyingly ugly (Imagine waking up at night and discovering one of his females on the pillow next to you!).” Cézanne, he said memorably, “could paint bad breath”. Unembellished reality and halitosis were not the way to win over the public, however, and the painter quickly returned to Aix and a post in his father’s bank.
Nevertheless, he was back in Paris the following year and commenced an annual migratory routine of splitting his time between the city and Provence. To be a painter, Cézanne believed, required “temperament” – or “temmpérammennte” as he pronounced it, hamming up his Provençal accent: “I paint as I see, as I feel… I dare.” He made little effort to improve his yokellish table manners, calm his temper or modify his language – any person or thing (he disliked dogs) that attracted his ire was a “bougre”, “bugger”, even though he was highly educated and could quote Horace by the chunk. And he was simultaneously self-confident (“All my compatriots are arseholes beside me”) and humble (he confessed to a friend that his “hair and beard are longer than talent”).
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Under the influence of Pissarro, Cézanne lightened his palette. In the fishing village of L’Estaque near Marseille – where he went in 1870 with his lover Hortense Fiquet to escape conscription during the Franco-Prussian War – and in Auvers-sur-Oise and Pontoise he turned his full attention to the landscape. Unlike his impressionist friends, he was not interested in capturing a transitory moment, but rather the structure and essential nature of things. “Time and reflection… modify, little by little, our vision,” he would claim, “and at last comprehension comes to us.”
Comprehension was a long time coming. Cézanne’s art can be characterised as investigation rather than depiction. There are seven of his views of L’Estaque in the exhibition and they vary widely in quality. In some the balance and disposition of rooftops, rocks, water and mountains is convincing, in others, the matt expanses of sea dull the picture.
Part of his response as to how best to transcribe his “petite sensation” in front of the motif – whether apples or a mountain – and enliven the picture surface was to develop what he called a “constructive stroke”, colour laid on in parallel dabs, as pixels or blocks, that gradually built into forms. He rarely blended paint but used a relatively modest selection of core colours – blues (Rilke said he had 16 at his disposal), greens, yellows and ochres – that he saw everywhere. This novel technique proved disconcerting: “M Cézanne appears to be nothing more than a kind of lunatic,” said one critic on seeing three of his pictures at the inaugural impressionist exhibition of 1874, describing him as “painting under the effects of delirium tremens”.
The method, however, allowed Cézanne to examine objects in space in a new way. A spectacular room of his still-lifes has him returning again and again to compositions showing apples, jugs and fabric on a tabletop. In them he ignored the rules of perspective and sought to find the secret of the way his props related to one another – their forms, the gaps in between them, the reaction of their colours, a sense of the air they displace. These are paintings about the very “thingness” of things.
So in his painstaking réalisation it didn’t matter that a pile of fruit could balance implausibly on the edge of a table, or that the table edge would suddenly stop when it should recede, or that a background tilts as if being seen from above while the foreground is simultaneously shown front on. Such strange warpings, so influential for the development of modernism, were the result of slow looking and recording the images received by each eye individually.
It was the Mont Sainte-Victoire near Aix that became the focus of his most concerted efforts to understand perception and reduce reality to underlying essentials. He treated it more than 80 times and it bred his famous aphorism, contained in a late letter to an admiring young artist, Émile Bernard, to “treat nature in terms of the cylinder, the sphere and the cone, everything put in perspective”. It was a way of moving painting close to geology and is exemplified by the marvellous view of the mountain painted between 1902 and 1906, now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which is simultaneously stately and alive with shimmering air.
The third motif he returned to again and again – and which also gets a room of its own – was bathers. In these pictures he sought obsessively to update a classical subject and free his figures from allegorical meaning while intensifying their monumentality. In the National Gallery’s Les Grandes Baigneuses (circa 1894 – 1905), for example – so clear an influence on Picasso’s epochal Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) – bodies, trees, sky and soil are made of the same stuff.
What is often ignored in the rush to anoint Cézanne with airy acclamations is the sheer strangeness of this picture, and of so many of his others. If he was willing to grapple with every difficulty and jettison conventional ideas of beauty in his pursuit of pictorial truths then he asks the same commitment from his audience.
“Cézanne” is at Tate Modern, London SE1, until 12 March 2023
This article appears in the 12 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Will Putin go Nuclear?