Passion, sex and death

After all the hype, the Cezanne exhibition finally opened at the Tate Gallery this week. Ticket sales apart, it confounds our views about the artist, argues Iain Gale
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The Independent Culture
Pity poor Cezanne. He only wanted to be an artist. "I want to appeal to the public and have an exhibition," he wrote in 1866. A simple enough wish. But look at what he got. Ninety years after his death, this single-minded recluse is the subject of what is set to be one of the most popular show of paintings ever held in Britain. Universally acclaimed as the father of Modernism, he is held up as the root of every movement in the history of modern art. He is the ultimate painter's painter. Cezanne, as Picasso said, is "the father of us all". Certainly, the Tate's exhibition is a triumph, a success as much for the gallery as for its director, Nicholas Serota. But is it a success for Cezanne? Does the artist we know at the end of this odyssey live up to his reputation? Is Cezanne greater or less than the sum of his parts? The answer is no and yes.

It is easy, as it was for Roger Fry in 1910, when standing before a single Cezanne, to understand it in terms of form and "synthetic power". But when confronted by this masterly distillation of the artist's oeuvre, such judgements are confounded. The irony of this exhibition's success is its power to refute the British concept of Cezanne. We may not be able to quantify Cezanne's greatness, but we can finally declare with confidence that Fry got it wrong.

The Cezanne presented by Fry to the British public was the painter of Apples and Biscuits c1880, which he translated as an exercise in reduction. Bewitched by formal beauty, he missed the point. Cezanne's apples are charged with sexual meaning, and their potential decay resonates with echoes of mortality. Certainly, Cezanne invented a new way of seeing the world, but this show is not about landscapes and still-lifes. It is about passion, sex and death.

Cezanne's passionate involvement in his subject constantly outdoes his own draughtsmanship. Look at the disproportion of Bather and Rocks of 1867. Cezanne delights in the lumpenness of the human form, not least his own. In Cezanne's hands, everyone becomes either a Provencal peasant or a clandestine self-portrait. For Fry, the constantly repeated views of Mont Sainte Victoire were a dogged re-analysing of the appearance of nature. Seen en masse, however, these images suggest rather that Cezanne is intoning a visual litany, in the hope of invoking a presence to vouchsafe some hidden truth.

Ultimately, the Mont Sainte Victoire paintings do not belong among the landscapes. Away from the mountain, Cezanne uses landscape (as he does portraiture) as a means of escape; a release from the personal and metaphysical implications of the apples, skulls and bathers and the vastness of the escarpment.

Skull and Candlestick, painted in 1866, is a classic memento mori, and little more than an academic exercise. By 1898, however, in Pyramid of Skulls, death has become real - oppressive, inevitable and horrid. It is a tribute to the curators' understanding that this has been hung alongside a similar study of a skull in a room devoted to "late drawings and water-colours".

In 1906, close to death himself, Cezanne despaired: "Shall I ever arrive at the goal which has been so long pursued?" He answered the question himself soon afterward with The Large Bathers, from Philadelphia, here given a wall to itself. It was the only truly monumental work that Cezanne ever painted, and he got it right. It is also, perhaps, the one work here which is not a terrified venture into the unknown.

Cezanne was wracked with doubt, not least about his own ability. That queues to see his work should snake for half a mile would have astonished him. Most probably, he would have stayed at home.

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