Over the past five years the Courtauld Gallery has given us some of the most refreshing small exhibitions in the country, all provided at no additional cost to the museum's general entry fee (£6).
It has done it again, this time in spades. The word is used advisedly, as the subject of the show is Cézanne's extraordinary series of paintings of five card players, of which the Courtauld has one as well as an example of the individual studies of peasants that he did alongside them.
To this the Courtauld Institute has added two more Card Players, from the Metropolitan Museum in New York (where the exhibition goes next) and from the Musée d'Orsay, plus some 20 drawings, watercolours and individual peasant portraits.
To say that the whole is stunning is an understatement. Around the walls of one room are a series of figurative pictures, most of them forceful, many of them masterpieces in their own right and all of them pursuing this single theme of an artist at the height of his powers and creative experimentation.
There have been other studies of a single painting and its preparatory studies but none quite as inspiring as this, nor any that have tackled in depth this extraordinary sequence in Cézanne's introverted work Although he painted endlessly the landscape of his native Provence and worked on the long series Bathers at the same time as Card Players, he never pursued these subjects with quite the same methodical concentration and preparation.
Why the fascination, the almost religious intensity with which he approached the subject? Early writers, took it as a sign of his feeling for his fellow man, and particularly the peasantry of his native land. Later commentators, more in awe of Cézanne's role as the radical precursor of modern art, tended to interpret them in modernist terms.
The Courtauld, along with the Metropolitan Museum, will have none of either theory. Cézanne, the show's curator Barnaby Wright points out, was the son of a banker (if one dares mention the fact these days). He wasn't trying to bridge the class divide so much as honour a tradition. His models were taken from workers on his own estate and paid for their attendance. The paintings were done, and sometimes deliberately set, in the studio rather than the tavern or cottage of tradition.
Scientific analysis has shown that Cézanne's progression to the final pictures was the more conventional one: he started with the small details and ended with the bigger ones.
The exhibition has neither of the two big final versions. The final picture of the three players remains in the Barnes Foundation, which is not allowed to lend under its statues, while the larger version of the two men playing cards is in a private collection that hasn't loaned it out for half-a-century.
No matter, there is more than enough here to satisfy any appetite and give a vibrant indication of what this most private and searching of artists was up to. That he wanted to honour his subjects is beyond doubt; although the drawings show a precise rendering of the subjects, the figures become more emblematic and monumental in the paintings.
In Card Players, Cézanne looks to a tradition of pictures of country folk that goes back to a Dutch and French artistic heritage. But, being Cézanne, he takes this form and keeps pushing its boundaries, partly through his daring brushwork and and partly through his use of space in the composition.
He wanted to capture the spirit of the land and its people, to take hold of tradition and make it look perpetual. So he invests in Card Players a sense not just of concentration but of timelessness. They are held in space not caught in motion. Like the Bathers, which Cézanne painted over a period of 30 years, the figures in Card Players, which he painted over just four years, don't converse with each other or their surroundings. They converse with past and future. And he adds to that monumentality through his use of short, rough brush strokes and colour of astonishing depth.
Step back from the pictures and you're surrounded not so much by lines of figures or even faces but by almost sculptural colour and composition.
Except that these are figures and draw you in as people at play. The two men looking at their hands in the Courtauld's painting, like the two similar figures in the Musée d'Orsay hanging alongside, and the larger group of three players and a standing observer in the the Metropolitan's canvas, stare downwards, rapt in their game. They are emblematic but they are also very real; Cézanne gives them a solidity of form by painting the outlines of their clothes and hats.
The revelation is the preparatory oils and watercolours of the individuals, painted separately in the studio before being assembled in the formal works. The watercolours, as you would expect from such a master are extraordinary, giving presence with outlined strokes and just a few daubs of paint. But so too are the drawings.
They were meant to establish the forms for the final paintings. But when you look at the studies in graphite, watercolour and then oil, of the moustachioed cards player, there is a solidity that isn't just abstract but personal. So too with the studies for a Man with a Pipe, an oil owned by the Courtauld. High hat mirroring the colour of the waistcoat below, the white of the clay pipe matching the shirt underneath, the man stares out at you with eyes that speak of a long past and a questioning present.
These are all painted in the browns, greys and greens of the earth. But in two pictures painted in relation to Card Players, Cézanne lightens his palette completely. One, entitled simply Peasant, shows a young man, head down, bowed even, eyes grim, white of shirt, light grey-green of jacket, a face unaged as yet by wind and weather. It may have been meant to represent a man of Provence, but it also projects a sense of youth and strength that sets it apart.
The Kimbell Art Museum's Man in a Blue Smock, meanwhile, is simply a masterpiece in its own right. It's sitter, a farm worker, is the model for the standing figure in the three-player paintings. But he is seated here, set against a screen with an 18th-century peasant scene that he had in his studio. The meaning is clear – the truth of Provençal tradition against the artifice of Rococo fancy. The power comes from the solidity of the figure and the burst of colour in his red kerchief, blue smoke and large hands.
The Provençal poets and revivalists took these paintings as a hymn to the locality and its people. Later artists, when they got to see them after Cézanne's death, seized on them as masterpieces of inventive and radical art. Picasso was not the only one to view them as "iconic" and rework the figure of a man with a pipe.
They were both right. Cézanne wanted to honour his place, on return from a largely unhappy tour of Europe. But he also wanted to create art in his own way. And as for us? I think we can just sit or stand in this single room and be entranced, needing nothing of the research into sequences or the explanation as to method and structure, but just being drawn into a great artist at work.
Cézanne's 'Card Players', Courtauld Gallery, London WC2 (020 7848 2526) to 16 JanuaryReuse content