Issue 195 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 1996 Copyright © Socialist Review
Paul Cézanne began painting in the late 1850s. He had to struggle to be recognised as an artist. For him and his contemporaries, the place to exhibit was the Paris Salon. The Salon was the centre of French art, but was conservative and after the defeat of the 1848 revolution the Salon became even more reactionary. When it rejected most of Cézanne's work he then came into contact with other artists, such as Pissarro and Monet. Like them, he became very critical of the art establishment. He hated the government controlled exhibition system and the official styles.
He exhibited with the impressionists but was always on the fringes of this movement. Impressionism developed just after the Paris Commune of 1871. The attempt at the first workers' government was smashed and the ruling class became highly suspicious of anything new and radical. The Impressionist exhibitions of 1874 and 1877 received a lot of abuse, some of it stirred up by the government. Cézanne himself received his fair share of criticism but he was always uncomfortable with Impressionism and went his own way.
Cézanne was a very secret person, although he confided in his friend, the novelist Emile Zola, through letters. Much of what we can say about him is assumption. He relied on allowances from his father, of whom he was frightened. He kept his mistress--who later became his wife--and his child secret, in case he lost his allowance. He seemed not to talk or engage in politics. yet his paintings reflected the anxiety of France with its rapid industrialisation and social upheaval of the 1880s and 1890s.
As an artist, Cézanne fits more with the post-Impressionists such as Seurat, Bonnard, Gauguin and Van Gogh. These artists were not just interested in the new sciences in colour theory, but also in content and method. Their paintings reflected the material and psychological change that capitalism brought to French society. Cézanne also reflected this.
His move back to Provence, like Monet, meant retreating into 'pure painting'. For Cézanne this period was rewarding. The stories of him destroying canvasses in frustration are not unique in art and are probably overexaggerated. He set about creating a new language in painting through observation. This was nothing new--painters such as Constable, Turner and Monet did the same thing.
But Cézanne was to completely reconstruct the picture. Through constant looking, the image he created can change through the change in light or by just slightly moving from the original viewpoint. What you see and what you think you see can be totally different things. Cézanne went further, and saw shapes in the landscape divided into cubes and cylinders. His still life paintings were experiments in the harmony of shapes and objects. However, he was also capable of introducing antagonisms into paintings with a few paint marks and with gestures that could see beyond the conventional picture. His landscape painting showed that the harmony of nature was made up of antagonisms.
Although Cézanne is seen as the 'father of Modernism', he died before he was able to develop the style fully--a task which was left to Picasso and Braque, with the creation of Cubism and a completely new language in art.
The private art of Paul Cézanne--his apples and pears, family and friends, sexually ambiguous bathers, and above all that
mountain--is on show at the Tate Gallery for the first time in 60 years.
Cézanne stands strategically at the birth of Modernism and has revolutionised our way of seeing. Not for him a simple still life. His tabletops of wine bottles, gigantic apples and fat citrus fruits, made up of carefully placed strokes of colour, are viewed from several different planes and angles all at once, confusing and pleasing the eye at the same time. What we are witnessing is the birth of Cubism on a Provencal tablecloth.
Girlfriends and coffee pots come later, hot on the heels of the earlier, sombre and debatedly anti-women works. In A Modern Olympia he challenges and ridicules Manet's famous portrait of a prostitute and depicts the client in waiting. Another canvas, The Eternal Feminine, travels further. Here church and state are massed around a naked woman.
In middle age comes colour, his canvasses steeped in the solar light of the Mediterranean, his repetition of subjects stunning, with more than anything the exaggerated bulk of Mont St Victoire shimmering along the Provencal landscape--painted time and again and constantly questioning what both the eye and the mind can see. Then in later life come the great big blue pictures of bathers, a confirmation of his love of humanity in the face of death.
The Cézanne exhibition is at the Tate Gallery, London SW1