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Last chance to see largest Cézanne exhibition in over 25 years at Tate Modern

Paul Cezanne Bathers 1874-5. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Joan Whitney Payson, 1975

Cézanne’s paintings, beautiful and uplifting as they are to modern eyes, take us unawares. They might seem ordinary enough in many respects, especially at first glance, but an odd unsettling quality hangs over them. Not disharmony, no, they are too lovely for that, but it can seem like your mind is playing tricks on you.

“With an apple, I will astonish Paris,” Cézanne once claimed. And he did. He continues to astonish us, although we have become used to his apples, his lemons defying gravity, refusing to topple off the table despite their precarious positions. Yet his colours, his boldness, see it through.

This homage to Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) is the first opportunity in over 25 years for UK audiences to explore the breadth and radicalism of Cezanne’s career. Over 80 works selected from collections in Europe, Asia, North and South America, are arranged thematically in galleries to give us an overview of his iconic still life paintings, Provençale landscapes (of Mont Sainte-Victoire, above all, and coastal L'Estaque), family portraits and bather scenes, as well as a few surprises here and there.

The exhibition tells the story of a young ambitious painter from the southern city of Aix-en-Provence, determined to succeed as an artist in metropolitan Paris in the 1860s, yet constantly rejected by the art establishment. It reveals how he befriended Camille Pissarro and associated with the impressionists in the 1870s, but soon distanced himself from their circle and the Parisian art scene to forge his own path back in Provence. There, under native sunny skies and inspiring landscapes his singular, radical style continued to evolve.

Paul Cezanne Portrait of the Artist with Pink Background 1875. Paris, Musée d'Orsay, donation de M. Philippe Meyer, 2000. Photo (C) RMN-Grand Palais (musée d'Orsay) / Adrien Didierjean

A self-portrait in the opening gallery introduces Cézanne, aged 35. He depicts himself as a modern man, bearded, self-assured (or is he? I’m not so sure from that sceptical look), against a flamboyant swirling pink background. Next to this study (Tate’s label tells us he was his own favourite male sitter), the show takes us straight to Cézanne’s most celebrated subject: a still-life of apples.

The Basket of Apples, c.1893, with its lopsided bottle and apples spilling out from basket onto table – is the first of many delightful enigmas in this enjoyable show. The two red-orange apples balanced – or are they? - on the table edge seem at risk of falling, for by any reckoning they shouldn’t stay there. Yet, the wall text informs us, it is through such works that Cézanne investigated our relationship with the object world.

Uncertainty plays a key and exciting role in Cézanne’s paintings. And never more so than in Still Life With Apples, 1893-4, and Still Life With a Ginger Jar and Eggplants, also painted then, where everything seems wrong and yet at the same time right, and likewise, the spatially disorienting Still Life With Plaster Cupid (c1894).

At times a crumpled piece of drapery just about anchors the composition, but when you stop and think about it, it is staggering what he achieves, what he makes our minds accept in his still life paintings.

Claude Monet famously referred to him as the “greatest of us all”, and he remains a key figure in modern painting, granting license to generations of artists to break the rules.

Paul Cezanne The Basket of Apples, c. 1893. The Art Institute of Chicago, Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection

Moving on through the exhibition, past early paintings like the striking portrait made in his twenties of the formerly enslaved Scipio leaning, possibly exhausted, on a cotton bale – a work that was owned and treasured by Monet - past views of the small fishing village of L’Estaque with slanting red-roofed houses sandwiched between heat blurred foreground trees and the intense blue Mediterranean, we reach a room full of emblematic pictures of Mont Sainte-Victoire.

The limestone mountain that dominated the sky near his home in Aix-en-Provence fascinated him. He is said to have painted it over 60 times, methodically studying it from many angles to capture the fleeting effects of light and atmosphere. There are seven paintings here, nicely spaced in the gallery, from a view through bare branches of chestnut trees, to a scene from the forest floor, to those where the mountaintop appears majestic, mirage-like above the fields.

Among the surprises mentioned earlier, one is a Sickert-like murder scene in the second gallery (possibly Cézanne was responding to a spate of murder and violence reported in late 19th-century France, or possibly to his friend Emile Zola’s 1868 novel Thérèse Raquin). Another, at least to me, is the far more pleasant, a gorgeous Grand Bouquet of Flowers, 1892-5, judged as outstanding in its incompleteness. For the exhibition curators, the painting emphasises Cézanne’s own understanding of ‘completeness’ or ‘realisation’. Similarly, Renoir apparently claimed that Cézanne ‘cannot put two touches of colour on to a canvas, without its being already an achievement’.

That seems a good point to end: Cézanne’s achievements, beautifully shown in Tate’s splendid retrospective.

The exhibition is in its final month - on view until 12 March. I just caught it in time, and I’m very pleased I did.


The EY Exhibition: Cezanne

Tate Modern

Showing until: 12 March 2023

Extended hours

The exhibition will be open until 20.00 on the following dates:

18, 23 and 25 February 2023

2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 9, 10, 11 and 12 March 2023

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