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PARIS — Starting in Paris at the Musée d’Orsay, independent curator and art historian John Elderfield (here assisted by curator Xavier Rey, director of the museums of Marseille) has curated the first (and a once-in-a-lifetime) traveling exhibition devoted entirely to Paul Cézanne’s portraits. Cézanne made almost 200 portraits during his career, regularly painting friends, strangers, and, more rarely, prominent figures in the art world. He did portraits (often in multiple versions of the same subject) of his mother, his father, his uncle, his sister, his son, his art dealer Ambroise Vollard, critic-novelist-playwright-friend Emile Zola (a relationship that has been cinematically dramatized), local peasants, himself, and Marie-Hortense Fiquet. Portraits by Cézanne includes about 60 psychologically loaded canvases from all periods of the artist’s career, as well as four drawings and two sketchbooks.
Standing within the first gallery, I ask myself: If Cézanne means an emphasis on pure intense perception and proper autonomy for art (painting-as-painting), then why drag the human face — with all its loaded humanist psychology — into the fray? Even though the show’s chronological organization illuminates Cézanne’s formal developments, it is difficult to discern in the initial portraits the ferment of modernity that Cézanne is known for. Aside from affording glimpses into the artist’s private life, some of these pieces are quite banal. Yet how can I not get caught up in the torment of emotional turmoil where plastic research and family frictions intermingle?
Cézanne was interested in simplifying naturally occurring forms to their geometric essentials: to treat natural objects as cylinder, sphere, or cone (an apple as a sphere, for example), which is curiously typical of early perceptual-cognitive robotics. Cézanne’s desire to capture the simple truth of human perception also led him to explore binocular vision, rendering in his later paintings slightly different simultaneous visual perceptions of the same phenomena, because our two eyes see things from slightly different perspectives. This shifting provides the viewer with an aesthetic experience of depth that is quite different from earlier ideals of single-point perspective. Cézanne depicts his models in a humble yet monumental style, and in the depiction of their faces, he applies prism-shaped color to some areas so as to bring out the reflections of light.
Of course, Cézanne, the precursor of Cubism, has long been associated with the genteel limestone landscape of Montagne Sainte-Victoire and the formal plastic research he performed on apples, which involved looking at them through simultaneous different perspectives. His use of tight planes of color applied with petite, delicately hacking brushstrokes — which build up geometrically formed images and corresponding flounced backgrounds (see, for example, “Boy in a Red Waistcoat,” 1890) — is what makes his Postimpressionist reputation admirably steadfast. Done in distinct but overlapping brushstrokes, sometimes reflecting slight shifts in the artist’s perspective, Cézanne’s formal experiments involve incorporating faces and bodies into geometric compositions that echo his backgrounds. Treating his whole surface as of equal interest, Cézanne’s skilled, hacking handling of figure and scenery blur the boundaries a bit between portraiture, landscape, and still life.
Often, the painted interiors that surround the sitter wave and waver a tad under the effects of what amounts to his hacked deconstruction of a traditional artistic perspective. There is no question that his lovely, shuffling paintings are hugely important: they influenced Cubism, to a lesser degree Fauvism, and, through phenomenological philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s 1945 essay “Cézanne’s Doubt” a good deal of post-minimal process art. Also important is Roy Ascott’s late-1950s analysis of Cézanne’s later paintings (my favorites, such as “Les Grandes Baigneuses,” 1905), which paved the way for the fluidity of digital, electronic, cybernetic, interactive, and telematic art of all kinds because Cézanne’s choppy, exploratory brushstrokes are highly characteristic of time spent in a world flooded with shifting data.
Although portraits account for fewer than 200 of the thousand or so canvases Cézanne produced over his lifetime, he began his artistic career by executing many portraits, including a lot of self-portraits and 27 portraits of his artist model (and later wife), Marie-Hortense Fiquet. These are some of his best works. In several self-portraits, the painter connects figures to their background in a tightly harmonious manner that suggests a flat unified field. On the other hand, I did not care for “Uncle Dominique” (1860), which looks as if Cézanne used a palette knife to apply gobs of paint to the canvas almost like cement. It made me feel like Cezanne, armed with a knife, was fighting with the surface of the canvas. But he painted a better, rather ironic, portrait of his father, with whom he maintained a conflicting relationship. Sitting in a high-backed chair, the very conservative Louis-Auguste Cézanne is depicted with a thick touch reading L’Evénement, a newspaper in which his friend Emile Zola had criticized academic painting. One can almost smell the bitterness of the painting, as Cézanne’s father had once forced him to study law rather than art. In defiance, Cézanne became a frequent visitor to museums, had several art teachers, and gained admittance into avant-garde Parisian circles in the late 1860s. Imbued with art and literature, teenaged Cézanne threw himself into painting and signed a first intimidating “Self-Portrait” (1864), where he looks like a menacing monster with bloodshot eyes and a tight-lipped and petrifying visage.
One of the highlights of the show is the bringing together of four versions of Madame Cézanne in a red dress. “Madame Cézanne in a Yellow Chair” (1890), very similar to the one from The Art Institute of Chicago, conveys a mixture of hard melancholy and resignation, particularly her cerise cheeks and forehead that evoke shame or a slap. Cezanne’s true aesthetic revolution may have been performed on bowls of forbidden fruit, but at least the part of the painting of Fiquet’s lower dress also takes on spectral features and geometric forms, to the point that Madame Cézanne becomes less subject than object. Psychic and physical instability is reflected in these nifty but nippy portraits by the apparent semi-floating/shifting of the model and her watery, bland look. (For more on Fiquet’s portraits, see Susan Sidlauskas’s 2009 book Cézanne’s Other: The Portraits of Hortense.) Through these faces and bodies and backgrounds, we can trace the changes that occurred through Cézanne’s experimentation with artistic styles and methods concerning shifting light, visual perception, and resemblance. The dissolution to a densely worked surface is almost complete with the late-paintings of Vallier, who helped Cézanne in his garden and studio at Les Lauves, Aix-en-Provence, which were made shortly before the artist’s death in 1906.
Cézanne’s portraits trace the rich and complex development of an artist who demonstrated unprecedented originality and independence in his late work. It’s clear why both Matisse and Picasso called Cézanne “the father of us all.”
Portraits by Cézanne is on view at Musée d’Orsay (1 Rue de la Légion d’Honneur, 7th arrondissement) through September 24. The exhibit will travel to the National Portrait Gallery in London from October 26 through February 11, 2018, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington from March 25 through July 1, 2018.