Cezanne. The name invokes the very spirit of modern art. But what exactly is it about this infamously reclusive artist, dead for 90 years, that has the Tate's normally laconic director so animated? What makes Cezanne such a key figure? Why, in a year when he has had to focus his attention on the funding and publicity of the Tate's new Bankside gallery, has Serota spent so much time and energy on this one exhibition? Why, indeed should he himself have conceived and curated it?
Cezanne, whose last major retrospective was in 1936, is commonly perceived as the father of Modernism; the bridge between Monet's Impressionism and the Cubists; the instigator of a new way of seeing in which everything could be reduced to the cone and the circle.
He is also, importantly, the progenitor of an entire school of British artists stretching from Roger Fry's disciples of the early 1900s, through the Euston Road School to the mediocrities who every year adorn the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition with still-lifes of lemons. As Serota says: "Although it's the critics who describe Cezanne as the 'father of modern art', it is actually artists who have been responsible for that esteem. It's no coincidence that many of the works in this show were, and in some cases still are, owned by artists. Cezanne has been admired by artists for the exemplary way in which he constructed his compositions; he makes the subject work across the whole canvas - right up to the edges." Yet, if you expect the Cezanne on view at the Tate to be the analytical formalist beloved by Modernism, you are in for a disappointment. One of the chief reasons that this show drew more than 640,000 visitors during its run in Paris last autumn was its freshness.
"There is a sense in which Cezanne is, like Poussin, a peintre philosophe," says Serota. "But it is one of the revelations of this show that he's not in any sense the dry academic artist that some of his followers have been. It demonstrates the consistently high level of his work at all periods of his career and what an extraordinary rich and varied artist he was." It is likely that the Tate's show will have the same humanising effect upon Cezanne that the RA's blockbuster last year had on Poussin. Serota seems to hope so. "The subject matter is much more accessible for a late 20th-century audience. When people look at the late portraits, or some of the still-lifes or images of Mont Sainte-Victoire, they will realise that his passion remained undiminished."
It appears that we might have lost touch with the essence of Cezanne since Roger Fry christened him, in the early 1900s, "the first wild man of modern art". To recapture that elemental power is one of Serota's objectives.
"One of the things this exhibition will do," he says, "is show us that the turbulence and sometimes the fascination with erotic subjects apparent in the early years was not left behind. There is a tremendous sense of energy and in some cases a sexual frisson in the later work - even in some of the landscapes and still-lifes. It is only in looking at the works together that one is able to renew the sense that Fry had of Cezanne being in some way an untameable and, ultimately, unknowable artist." A salient example of the duality present in Cezanne's work can be found in the numerous views he painted of Mont Sainte-Victoire. From one reading, this series is one of the ultimate statements of Modernist formalism. "But," says Serota, "no one who sits in front of a mountain, and paints it again and again as Cezanne did with Mont Sainte-Victoire, is simply trying to get a likeness. They are, in a sense, trying to capture something of the eternal spirit of nature - the eternal spirit of being."
Mont Sainte-Victoire was not the only recurrent theme in Cezanne's work. While the show will be hung in a broadly chronological sense, emphasising the transitions of the 1870s and 1880s when, as Serota puts it, "the palette lightens - the sun comes out," within this there will be thematic groupings - the bathers, the first encounters with Mont Sainte-Victoire and another group of views of the mountain at the end of the show.
Particularly important for Serota will be the hanging together of the two versions of the Large Bathers, from the National Gallery and the Museum of Art in Philadelphia. "Even when I was at the Whitechapel," he says, "I always wanted to do a show devoted to Cezanne's Bathers.
"Then, when I knew I was coming to the Tate in 1988, I thought that I might try to do it here. Of course, we tried to get the 1989 Bathers show to come here from the Kunstmuseum in Basle, but it simply wasn't possible.
"When I first had the idea to organise a retrospective, it seemed to me that it was vital to hang the National Gallery's Bathers alongside the one from Philadelphia." Serota's vision and the respect he commands in the international art world, together with the National Gallery's generosity in lending its Bathers, eased his early negotiations with the show's co- curators in Philadelphia and France, and were crucial factors in bringing the exhibition to Britain. That it should be shown here was of fundamental importance.
"It is one of the responsibilities of the Tate to have shows like this. Bonnard will be another in 1998. Our own collections are not as strong as we would wish, particularly in this period. But one of the things we can do is to stage important exhibitions, at regular intervals, bringing together works that might never have been seen before in that context, and giving a British audience a chance to see the extraordinary artists who have shaped our thoughts about the way art has developed over the past half century."
Clearly he is not worried that that audience might respond at all unfavourably to Cezanne, who was ever the bete noire of the reactionaries. (Evelyn Waugh called him "a village idiot who had been given a box of paints to keep him quiet.") Might we see a repeat of the knee-jerk jibes levelled at the Tate's Picasso show in 1994?
"No. The mantle of the charlatan has been taken over by Picasso. It is significant that when we had the Picasso show in 1994, many of the things that were said about Picasso by those critics who still don't regard him as an important painter either mimicked or followed word-for- word what was said about Cezanne in the Twenties and Thirties." Certainly, 70 years on, any attempt to revive such views seems to have been confounded by unprecedented advance bookings - more than 30,000 at the time of writing (the highest pre-sales for any British exhibition, ever). What is certain is that the show will stir controversy over the nature and extent of Cezanne's greatness. Serota, however, has no doubts about his importance to art today.
"He is relevant even now, for contemporary artists. This show makes apparent why so many artists in the 20th century have drawn on him in so many different ways for inspiration. If I were mounting this exhibition after the year 2000, it would certainly be with the modern art at the new Bankside gallery. Cezanne has a continuing relevance. He is one of the great masters."
n 'Cezanne' opens at the Tate Gallery, London SW1 on Thursday and runs to 28 Apr. Information: 0171-887 8778. Booking (through First Call, fee charged): 0171-420 0000
How Cezanne compares to the blockbuster shows of the past
The blockbuster, the exhibition phenomenon of the late 20th century, began in Britain in 1972, when Tutankhamun fever swept the nation. The show, at the British Museum, drew 1,694,117, a figure never since equalled. The closest contender was the Royal Academy's exhibition of Chinese Art in 1974, with its 771,466. The RA has been a consistently high scorer. Its Monet extravaganza in 1990 drew 658,289.
It's quite a drop from that figure to the next highest of the past 20 years: the Renoir show at the Hayward Gallery in 1985, which attracted 364,430 visitors. The Tate Gallery just squeezes into the all-time top five with the 313,659 people who flocked to its 1976 Constable retrospective. It's likely that the Cezanne show will top this figure, although it's going to be a tight squeeze: a ceiling has already been set at 330,000 tickets, and they're selling at 2,000 a day.