On the trail of Cézanne: Modern art in the south of France

The scenery of Provence inspired the father of modern art. Now, 100 years after his death, visitors can at last see these landscapes from the artist's own vantage point. John Lichfield reports
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High on a sandstone ridge above the city of Aix-en-Provence, there is an ancient quarry, overgrown with twisted pine trees, wild rosemary and sage. Under the sharp Mediterranean sun, trees and rocks are jumbled together in bizarre shapes and startling, jarring colours. It was here that a cantankerous old man who abhorred everything in the modern world, from railways to light bulbs, accidentally "invented" modern art.

Towards the end of his largely frustrated life, the painter, Paul Cézanne, came here day after day. He would crawl on all fours through the undergrowth looking for new "motifs", or sources of inspiration. The score or more canvases and watercolours that he created here in the 1890s - quilts of orange rocks, green vegetation and blue sky, scarred by the branches of the trees - pointed the way for Picasso and for Mondrian, for Cubism and the "abstract" movement.

Cézanne's quarry - the Carrière de Bibémus - has been closed to all but intrepid art experts and young, local trespassers for more than 60 years. From this spring, it will open to the public. So will the painter's long-neglected family home in the valley below.

Paul Cézanne died 100 years ago this year. He succumbed to pneumonia, aged 66, a couple of days after he was caught in a rainstorm while he painted (yet again) the mountain which obsessed him, the Montagne Sainte-Victoire, not far from his beloved Bibémus quarry.

The celebrations planned for the centenary of his death will be among the biggest international art events of 2006. Until close to the end of his life, the painter was shunned as an artistic aberration and a social curmudgeon. He is now recognised as the most revolutionary of the Manet-Monet-Van Gogh generation of French, and French-based, artists who reinvented painting in the second half of the 19th century.

Even a century on, it is difficult to warm to Paul Cézanne the man. He dressed like a down-and-out banker, in funereal clothes splattered with paint. He hated to be touched. He was mean with money, cold to his wife, and passionate only about the Provençal landscape and his obsessive drive to discover a new "promised land" of painting.

Denis Coutagne, director of the Musée Granet in Aix and a world-renowned Cézanne scholar, says: "Truth to tell, he was a rather boring character... who lived out his years in a state of almost unrelenting cheerlessness".

There is, however, no doubting the influence of Paul Cézanne the artist. Pablo Picasso once said: "Cézanne was my sole and unique master... the father of all of us." A large exhibition of Cézanne's paintings in Provence - the first show to explore the painter's passion for his home region - begins this month at the National Gallery in Washington DC, which has 15 Cézannes. Much of the exhibition will then transfer to the Musée Granet in Aix-en-Provence from 9 June to 17 September. This will be by far the largest collection of Cézanne paintings to be shown in his home town - a town which mocked him in his lifetime and largely ignored him for 50 years after his death.

Because Cézanne's importance was first recognised abroad - first in Germany, then in the United States - France is relatively impoverished in his work to this day. A large proportion of the surviving 900 Cézanne paintings are abroad, especially those from his late, great period in Aix.

Two of the eight Cézannes owned by the White House will be allowed out for the American show, which runs from 29 January to 7 May, but will, unfortunately, not be permitted to cross the Atlantic.

Visitors to Aix's Musée Granet this summer will, nevertheless, have an extraordinary double opportunity, which may never arise again (certainly not for many years). They can see 116 of the greatest Cézanne paintings, gathered from museums and private collections all over the world, from Washington to Saint Petersburg, to Cleveland, to Philadelphia, to Zurich, to Rotterdam, to London, to Oslo.

Like salmon, the paintings will be returning to their birthplace - in many cases for the first time since they were sold by Cézanne's son, soon after his death. The visitors can then walk, or drive, a couple of miles from Aix and explore the sites where Cézanne painted. A series of "Cézanne circuits" or trails will open in April.

This not just a tourist wheeze (although huge numbers of visitors are expected, especially from Japan). It is an invitation to penetrate the mind of one of the greatest, and most enigmatic, of painters.

Cézanne would be horrified by what the modern world has done to parts of Provence, especially the concrete-infested coast. Fortunately, much of the core Cézanne country, surrounding Aix, is relatively unspoiled.

An excellent book has just been published in French, and will appear in English next month (Paul Cézanne , Les sites Provençeaux, Editions Crès, Marseilles, €32). It shows reproductions of Cézanne landscapes alongside photographs, taken from exactly the same vantage-points, sometimes after months of research. Two of the "pairs" of images are shown here.

The Bibémus quarry, closed to outsiders since the 1940s, is especially frozen in time. For the painter's centenary, the city of Aix, which now owns the quarry, has devised a safe, unobtrusive trail through the ancient stone-workings to allow visitors to follow in Cézanne's footsteps. From April, small groups will be ferried from the centre of the town two miles away.

On a bright day (avoid dull or rainy days), the quarry has the strange feeling of a living Cézanne canvas. Everything is still here: the rich, ochre shades of the rock, the bright blue skies, the spidery branches of the trees, the glimpses of the marble folds of the Montagne Sainte-Victoire. So is the small stone hut in which Cézanne stored his easels and canvases.

The Cézanne family home has been less fortunate. The Paris-Nice A8 motorway runs past the bottom of the garden. Another motorway runs close by. The fine three-storey manor house, the Jas de Bouffan, was in open country when Cézanne lived there. It is now edged on two sides by grim blocks of nicotine-coloured council flats. Within the grounds, however, the Jas de Bouffan has barely been touched. The tall avenues of plane trees, shown in many Cézanne canvases, are still there, except a century taller. The pond and the tumbledown conservatory where Cézanne painted his long-suffering model and wife, Hortense, are unchanged.

Until two years ago, the house was privately owned and occupied. It now belongs to the town of Aix. The interior, including the "grand salon", where Cézanne hung many of his early paintings, will be partially opened to the public, and there will be a multimedia show, projecting Cézanne paintings on to the walls. (What Cézanne, who regarded light bulbs as an abomination, would have made of multimedia shows is best left unexplored.)

Cézanne was born in Aix in 1839. His father was a hat-maker, who married his boss's daughter and went on to become a wealthy banker. Cézanne père was furious when Paul refused to go into the family business, but he reluctantly, and with some gaps after quarrels, bankrolled his son's artistic career. The old man's death, in 1886, left Cézanne an independently wealthy man for the last 20 years of his life.

Paul Cézanne spent 46 of his 66 years in Provence, and his art helped to create an international fascination for the region, long before Peter Mayle. Provence, and especially Aix, failed until 20 years ago to return the favour, virtually ignoring its artistic son.

All that has changed now, partly because of the tourist euros that the global interest in Cézanne can bring, partly because of the constant pressure from Denis Coutagne.

"Cézanne, more than any other great painter, apart from Constable, is associated with, and rooted in, a particular region or place," M. Coutagne said. "His art, especially in his later period, was driven by his passion for the natural landscape here. It is all the more surprising therefore that there has been no previous attempt to bring together a large exhibition of Cézanne's paint-ings inspired by or created in Provence."

Cézanne is generally lumped together with the other great painters of the Impressionist generation - Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir - but he was not truly an Impressionist, except for a brief period in his thirties. (There is also, from next month at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, an exhibition tracing Cézanne's relationship with the Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro in the 1870s.)

Cézanne, like Monet, is venerated in Japan. Otherwise, despite his pivotal importance, he remains less popular with the general public than some other painters of the period. Why?

Denis Coutagne, who has devoted much of his life to Cézanne, says: "Monet's paintings are so pretty that every child wants one on his wall. Van Gogh splashes great emotion on his canvasses. His life was tragic and fascinating. Renoir's nudes are so seductive that you want to touch them. On the other hand, no one in their right minds would want to touch a Cézanne nude. They are not meant to be touched but to be thought about. Cézanne is a painter's painter. He requires thought, as well as emotion."

According to M. Coutagne, it was Cézanne's dissatisfaction with Impressionism which explains one of the greatest of all artistic paradoxes. How did a man so reactionary that he hated lightbulbs open the door to modern art? "Cézanne did not regard himself as a revolutionary but as someone who was going to reinvent classicism," he explains. "The Impressionists wanted to burn down the Louvre. Not Cézanne. He wanted to rival the great figures of the past - Titian, [Jacques-Louis] David, Poussin.

"Cézanne thought that Impressionism was inadequate, ephemeral. He wanted something more solid, something that seized the ideal, the essence of things, in the way that classical painting had. That pushed him to try to paint the interior of his subjects, to express their permanence, not just a trick of the light. That, in turn, opened the way to Cubism and every other art movement of the 20th century.

"But Cézanne should not be seen as just a precursor, or a bridge to modern art. He was, I believe, greater than any of the painters that have followed. He remained, finally, a representational, not an abstract artist. That meant that he was in touch with the past, as well as the future."

Oddly, for such an important painter, Cézanne has lacked a proper shrine until now. There has been nowhere equivalent to Monet's home at Giverny, or the wonderful Van Gogh museum created at the inn where he died at Auvers-sur-Oise, west of Paris.

The small, makeshift studio of Cézanne's later years - the atelier des Lauves, on the outskirts of Aix - has survived, and is open to visitors all the year round. But M. Coutagne is not alone in believing that Cézanne - and Aix-en-Provence - need more than that. Partly through M. Coutagne's prompting, the city of Aix, and the wider Provence region, have finally realised what a treasure that they have in Paul Cézanne. The guided visits to the Bibémus quarry will be offered permanently, not just for the centenary year.

The Cézanne family home, on the edge of modern Aix, requires a huge amount of structural work. The plan, if the funds can be found, is to turn the Jas de Bouffan into a park, a visitor centre and a cultural institute for local people and visiting artists. That would give Cézanne a fitting shrine at last - even if it is a shrine with a motorway at the bottom of the garden.