IN 1861 Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) arrived in Paris from Provence, then an unfashionable backwater, as a provincial outsider.
Combative and curmudgeonly, he was as vociferous an opponent of aesthetic orthodoxy as he was of Louis Napoleon’s undemocratic, corrupt Second Empire.
His art was so radical that he was in his sixties before a handful of admirers hailed its importance. He’d invented a new visual language which laid the foundation of modern art.
Since the invention of photography in the 1840s, the dominant academic aesthetic — which called for idealised, but precise illusions of the visible world — had degenerated into cliched blandness as artists vied with the detailed accuracy of mechanical images.
But, like other avant-garde artists, Cezanne welcomed photography as a liberator from tedious, inane mimicry. Over more than two decades, he investigated the basic elements of painting - composition, line colour, shape,tone, perspective and “touch” (brushwork). And he deconstructed the academic practices which used these to produce three-dimensional illusions of the solid and spatial world on a flat surface.
Concentrating solely on Cezanne’s portraits and presenting them chronologically, the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition provides an immersive study of Cezanne’s dogged struggle towards this new, startling beauty.
In his earliest self-portrait, painted when he was in his mid-twenties, a pale-faced, moody, young man engages our gaze murderously. Black dominates, heightened with stark touches of red and white round the eyes and mouth. As with other early works, its emotional colour and wild brushwork was calculated to provoke, yet it anticipated Expressionism by half a century.
It was initially through portraiture that Cezanne harnessed his angry but chaotic opposition to academic dogma.
In several portraits of his Uncle Dominic, painted in the mid-1860s, he settled to delineating the contours of flesh over bone and to studying the angles of the head, despite laying paint thickly with a palette knife. These herald his later interest in the structure and pattern of forms.
Although the majority of his mature works were of landscapes and still lives, Cezanne returned periodically to portraiture throughout his life.
By the late 1870s, in paintings like Madame Cezanne in a Red Armchair, forms are modelled with thin paint and with small, carefully placed touches of juxtaposed subtle colour, while bolder, larger shapes are decorative as well as descriptive.
Refusing to work for sale or to commission, he portrayed himself, his family, friends and local peasants and workers in Aix. Unlike society portraits, his neither flattered nor glamourised his sitters — indeed, long sittings resulted in them appearing rather distant or aloof. No attributes signify their trade or profession, as was customary, Only their clothes indicate their social status.
Far from the distractions of the Parisian art world, mostly in Provence painting directly from life, Cezanne slowly arrived at paintings which equate the dynamic act of looking.
Honesty was crucial. He realised it was simplistic and dishonest to use tricks of the trade like painting an ellipse to represent the top of a circular form. Similarly, honesty led him to expose the materials and processes of painting, so that paint laid with a brush on a flat canvas exists in its own right, as well as creating equivalents of the subject.
He reached his mature style in the late1880s, with paintings which create an equivalent for the complexity of human vision. Our field of vision is altered as, with both eyes, we see with active, restless fluidity as we readjust our viewpoint to look up and down, over and around, rather than from a single, fixed viewpoint.
In Boy in Red Waistcoat of 1889-90, nothing is stable. Small facets of colour, often laid in the same direction, build forms but also act as shapes of their own which ripple across the surface, suggesting both solidity and space, and integrating the figure with its surroundings.
The relation of forms to each other and to the surrounding space are in doubt. Outlines are not fixed but broken, repeatedly redefined or hesitant as the edge between things shifts due to shifting viewpoints, readjusted to look over at the boy’s shoulder and across to his collar bone. Through this intense looking at his subjects over lengthy sessions, Cezanne began to realise that “the contour escapes me.”
He’d arrived at a visual language which admitted to doubt and the relational in human experience. The apparent awkwardness of his paintings belied a sophisticated, modern sensibility which outstripped academic art’s facile tricks. Numerous 20th-century artists acknowledged their debt to him and Picasso and Matisse both called him “the father of us all.”
Due to miserly state funding, like most major exhibitions, entry to this show is expensive. But it is curated with refreshingly unpretentious, expert scholarship providing a rare opportunity to see many of Cezanne’s greatest portraits gathered from museums worldwide.
Cezanne Portraits runs at the National Portrait Gallery in London until February 11, box office: npg.org.uk
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