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  • Writer's pictureDavid Brett

'Sensational' Cezanne scores a hit at the Tate

Tom Hanks, in the guise of Forrest Gump famously decreed that life was like a box of chocolates.

It has been the lot of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists since their radicalism shook the nineteenth century art establishment to become associated with that statement of the twee — chocolate boxy art. Pretty pictures of life in pretty colours.

All very acceptable, all very easy on the eye. Slap another Monet on that biscuit tin, a Renoir-themed pack of toiletries.

But this EY Exhibition deserves to be seen as quite a different confection altogether.

We are so familiar with the images of Cezanne's work, perhaps on merchandising or in magazines or books, that it comes as a surprise to discover that half of the 80-odd paintings in this Tate Modern show have not been viewed by a British audience in the flesh before — and that, indeed, this is the first such comprehensive appreciation of the artist in a generation.

The exhibition spans the full range of his output across 11 rooms of high-octane art; the first half depicting Cezanne within the context of his time — his life, relationships and creative circle — the second presenting groups of works that focus on an individual theme.

And here is where the viewer is treated to an exhilarating display of his repertoire, spanning portraiture, still lifes (yes, those apples!), studies of bathers, delicate watercolours and, of course, the landscape of Aix-en-Provence and more specifically Mont Sainte-Victoire.

It is a veritable greatest hits album from a Post-Impressionist rock star. And, like all such collections, not every track hits the spot, whereas the occasional favourite is missing.

Vantage point: Cezanne's favourite and most emblematic landscape subject Mont Sainte-Victoire

The first rooms see the formative stages of his career, as he seeks to discover his style — awkward nudes and a vase of flowers which it might be better to forgive and forget.

But, as with any 'Best Of' album, there is always the blockbuster hit and this show duly obliges, in room nine, in the form of Les Grandes Baigneuses, on loan from the National Gallery in London.

Monumental: Les Grandes Baigneuses is among the artist's few large-scale works since 1870

For all the favourites on the playlist, one of the successes of this Tate exhibition is the placing of Cezanne in a broader cultural context. His associations with Emile Zola and Camille Pissarro are reflected in his artistic development as he moves away from dark, gloopy compositions that reference classical traditions.

In turn we are led through rooms of his progression: family portraits, holidays spent painting the landscape in the southern coastal village of l'Estaque, still lifes as mentioned, that emblematic limestone mountain and the monumental bathers.

Ultimately, the last room marks a return to the southern French landscape of his home and a studio in Les Lauves, from which he painted innumerable portraits of his gardener; unpretentious, unposed and increasingly abstracted in the Mediterranean sunshine.

Pablo Picasso described him as the 'father of us all', and it's possible to note Cezanne's influence on a myriad of other artists — not just the cubists.

For instance, Madame Cezanne In A Yellow Chair 1888-90 appears to pave the way for the stylised forms of Amedeo Modigliani, while a muted-toned Parisien rooftop cityscape suggests a palette later to be seen in the works of LS Lowry.

Neutral tones: the palette of this Parisian cityscape is not unlike that later used by Lowry

Beyond the paintings, among the other interests on display are sketchbooks, letters and travelling sets of watercolour paints that look as if they had only just had a brush jabbed into them on a plein air jaunt — with washes of mixed colour still left in the tray.

Cezanne was wont to employ a limited palette and, as is noted, stretched the possibilities of mixing colours to their harmonious limit — including extracting 16 shades out of the primary blue. There is a portrait of Madame Cezanne in the show, one of my favourite pieces, in which I'm sure he used every one of the tints in his armoury.

Primary colours: Madame Cezanne In A Red Armchair. The painter's palette is said to have included 16 shades of blue

A prophetic quote from Cezanne, emblazoned on one of the walls here, states: 'With an apple, I will astonish Paris.'

True to his word, there are several astonishing still lifes, yep with apples, that for all their apparent classical arrangement are subversive and fresh even today.

New angle: Still Life With Fruit Dish (1879-80) is a complex presentation of perspectives

The painting Still Life With Fruit Dish is a confusion of different angles and perspectives which heralds the cubist movement and hints at abstraction in its design. The elipses of the fruit dish and glass are pulled into the background, divided from the foreground by a harsh parallel, in a manner that the eye would not normally see them.

Meanwhile, the fruit nearer the edge of the table are much bigger than those in the dish. So much so that they would have to be several feet away in the real world.

Not to mention that they would, by now, have rolled off the table given the flatness of the plane they rest on.

The eye is pulled around the painting expertly by clever use of line, form and value contrast (it's not for nothing that the tablecloth and fruit dish are both white, and draw the gaze from the bottom right to top left — helped by the signposts of the knife and the vertical shadow in the foreground).

In the introduction to this exhibition we are told that Cezanne linked the formal process of art-making he called 'realisation' to his personal experiences, or 'sensations'.

It is fair to suggest that 'sensational' is a term we might also ascribe to his art, and while there is a tendency to regard Cezanne as one of those popular stalwarts galleries like to display in order to draw in the crowds, you really might have to wait a long time to see such a collection again. If ever.

Cezanne The EY Exhibition at Tate Modern, London, until 12 March 2023

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