Cezanne by numbers

The Tate's Cezanne retrospective is the show of the year. Tim Hilton takes you on a room-by-room tour
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I FIND that the Tate's huge Cezanne retrospective looks even better in London than it did in Paris (see review, IoS, 8 Oct 1995): the show is better hung and lit, the drawings and watercolours have a calmer presence, and Cezanne's colour now appears more varied and piquant than it did before. Furthermore, the artist's career seems less fragmented, as the wide and spacious gallery format allows each room to flow naturally into the next. The whole installation is a triumph for Ruth Rattenbury, the Tate's director of exhibitions; my comments follow the logic of her arrangement.


If we did not know the art of Cezanne's maturity, this gallery would give the impression of a painter of stern but turbulent character, an individual follower of Delacroix with a bent for violent and sexual subject matter. The palette is generally dark, the atmosphere forbidding. There is no attempt at finesse. Instead, Cezanne makes a virtue of unconventional or clumsy handling. Notice how many canvases are painted exclusively with a palette knife, as though the artist's ambition was both to deny and to reinvent the traditions of painterly touch.

Courbet is an influence, but the young Cezanne insisted on his own shocking individuality. Little wonder that he was so often rejected by the Salon. What would safe taste have made of such an uncouth picture as A Modern Olympia? Yet we also find a vein of pure and even tender emotion. See how finely balanced is Portrait of Achille Emperaire, a misshapen dwarf, a fellow Aixois and perhaps Cezanne's alter ego. Young Girl at the Piano is one of his few bourgeois subjects, a glimpse of a settled domestic life that Cezanne would never know. For he had already sensed the fate of another alter ego, the gigantic figure of Bather and Rocks (who surely is not exclusively masculine) in contention with the massive forces of nature.


In modern art there are often deep, and usually short-lived, partnerships between artists. The kindly, inspiring Camille Pissarro persuaded Cezanne of the virtues of the new Impressionist painting. In 1873 they regularly painted the landscape of the Ile de France, easels side by side. The House of the Hanged Man belongs to this period and was shown in the first Impressionist Exhibition the following year. Cezanne's handling, unlike that of many plein air Impressionists, does not seek to record the windier and changing aspects of nature: "I want to make of Impressionism something solid and lasting like the art of the museums." Cezanne was pleased with this picture, but View of Auvers-sur-Oise is superior in exploration of new techniques: compare its treatment of space with the slightly earlier Chestnut Trees at the Jas de Bouffan in Room One.

Now we are introduced to three major themes: still-life, self-portraits and bathers. The Compotier and Plate of Biscuits is the first of the symphonic still-lifes, in which tablecloths spill in Alpine folds while fruits and plates represent southern-European civilisation. The Apples of 1877-78 is more radical, an essay in pure, experimental painting. Pigment as such is more important than the objects that the pigment describes. The self- portraits deepen the mysteries of Cezanne's character. Was he wise, or did he extract wisdom from his obsessions? Looking at the Temptation of St Antony we ask why Cezanne never painted a female nude from life. Perhaps because he preferred sculpture to women, sculpture having been formed by art.


The drawings here seldom look easeful, so are obviously unlike works on paper by more assured masters. Cezanne used them to find new forms of beauty. But note the somewhat old-fashioned examination of Emperaire's features, so like a Delacroix, and the Medea, broadly copied from Delacroix's painting. Here the watercolour medium emphasises the surface of the sheet, while the white figure of the murderess becomes sculptural. Therefore we must think of paradoxical contrasts between roundness and flatness. Differences between two- and three-dimensional forms were always Cezanne's deep preoccupation. Hence the intellectual nature of his many drawings of sculpture. He used drawing to think - even when portraying his son, who was the delight of his life.


From about 1876 Cezanne regularly painted at sites in the Paris region, at the Jas de Bouffan (his father's house at Aix), and at L'Estaque, a small coastal town near Marseilles. In the early 1880s he made the first of his paintings of the Mont Saint-Victoire, perhaps the most familiar of all his motifs. There is no doubt that Cezanne had strong feelings about his Provencal homeland. He also had relentless aesthetic determination. Take The Pool at the Jas de Bouffan. All the facts of nature are made obedient to a pictorial vision. Cezanne recorded what he saw in front of him, but rightness on the canvas was paramount.

In order to satisfy his need for painterly structure Cezanne developed not just the architecture of his paintings but his famous "constructive brush stroke". Dabs and marks of paint, sometimes in parallel hatchings and sometimes leaning in unexpected ways, both record distant space and also insist on their tactile nature as movements of the brush on a flat surface. Consider the heated but luxuriant use of paint in The Bay of L'Estaque From the East, the repetitions of Rocks at L'Estaque, or the beautiful restraint of Turn in the Road, and it becomes clear that Cezanne's application was not merely "constructive" but immensely varied. He used the landscape genre as a vessel in which to pour all possible uses of the brush. All the pictures in this room are consummate.

ROOM FIVE: 1880s-1890s

Like some Old Master mythological scenes, Bather With Outstretched Arms and the Large Bather appear to belong to a realm beyond human contemplation. Nobody knows what they mean, but it is fair to speculate that Cezanne was thinking of his own adolescence, when he first sensed the power that he would bring to the world. Similar mystic paintings about adolescence come from the hands of Cezanne's "children", Matisse and Picasso.

In this room there is a Picassoesque portrait of a thoughtful youth, Cezanne's beloved son. We do not have much information about Cezanne's feelings towards his wife - we do know that her life was not an easy one - yet Cezanne returned to her features time and again. Madame Cezanne with Unbound Hair is a grave acknowledgement that Hortense's time on earth was ruled by her husband's meditations. Cezanne makes his art from her sadness.


Here's Paul Cezanne again, in the rather odd Boy Resting. As ever, it turns out that there is justice behind Cezanne's awkwardness. This is a room about the beauty of Provencal nature and the complete independence of the artist's approach. Now more at ease financially, Cezanne moved between the Jas de Bouffan, an apartment in Aix and two important bases in the countryside, a house at the quarry of Bibemus and a room in the Chateau Noir, in thickly wooded country outside Aix. These places are recorded in Mont Saint-Victoire Seen from Bibemus and the mysterious Chateau Noir. Some commentators find an even greater density in work of this period and a proud retreat from his times. Certainly he was most affected by the boulders and red rocks, the pine trees and hillsides of his lonely environment; but one painting, as beautifully pungent as any in his career, was done in Switzerland. This is the Lac d'Annecy, a marvellous examination not so much of the lake as of the nature of blue and green.


Cezanne was a painter who required the living presence of his subjects. Ambroise Vollard took some 150 sessions before Cezanne felt that the portrait was completed. In this room are more pictures of Mme Cezanne, of neighbours and of the gardener: Cezanne painted people who were around him. Socially, therefore, there is a similarity with the democratic portraiture of Van Gogh. Yet how dissimilar they were in attitude - Van Gogh all impetuosity, Cezanne meditative and more truly concerned with the mortal.


The second room of works on paper and the correct place to admire Cezanne's watercolours. He was one of the masters of the medium. Alas, his colours have often faded and his paper yellowed with age. Still, we can appreciate that Cezanne did not use watercolour simply as a preparation for a painting. They are works in their own right. See how he approaches each sheet with rare delicacy, even reverence. The landscape subjects are particularly lovely.


In 1901 Cezanne built another studio in the country, suitable for very large canvases. The view inspired the final sequence of paintings of Mont Saint-Victoire. Some of these are very difficult paintings. Look, for instance, at the Mont Saint-Victoire from the Pushkin Museum, and its jungle of marks in the central portion. How achieved are they? But one's reservations are swept away by the last and biggest painting in the exhibition, The Large Bathers. It is Cezanne's ultimate excursion into mythology. So meaningful for hundreds of artists to come, and yet we will never know its significance for Cezanne himself.

! Tate Gallery, SW1 (0171 887 8000), to 28 April; pounds 7, conc pounds 4.